I’m recently back to Portland from a trip to Philadelphia, my old stomping grounds. These days, I almost feel like a food tourist when I go back to Philly, bouncing around town eating cheesesteaks, hoagies, and the best sandwich of them all, roast pork loaded with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe. Of all eating attractions in that fantastic food city, my hands-down favorite is the Italian Market on South 9th Street, a charming outdoor market that represents the best of Italian cuisine outside the boot and the ball.
I’ve got a palpable connection to that market. Some of my earliest memories involve shopping there with my grandfather on Christmas Eve, buying the frutti di mare that my grandmother would cook up for the Feast of the Seven Fishes that night. Fifty years before that, my grandfather would take the trolley down to the Market from his boyhood home at South 22nd and Snyder to do the grocery shopping with his mother. When I roam that old neighborhood, meandering about the century-old narrow streets and big, produce-laden sidewalks that delight both the urbanist and foodie in me, I’m filled with a sense of history, and humbled by my connection to it.
The magnificent vegetables, meat, and fish that line 9th Street obviously do not travel well, but fortunately the specialty shops sell many wares that do, like cured meats, aged cheeses, chocolates, and flours. So when I stepped into Di Bruno Brothers and was greeted with a seemingly endless parade of salami and cheese samples, I knew I was bound to leave the store a few dollars lighter. When we graduated to the samples of prosciutto, I knew it was bound to be a pretty big “few.” Indeed, my taste buds leaped off of my tongue in delight when the friendly fella behind the counter, no doubt pegging me as a “mark” by this point, sliced up a few samples of prosciutto rotundo dolce. At a mere 30 bucks a pound, it was a bargain as far as high-end prosciutto goes (seriously…my go-to ridonkadonk prosciutto from Tails and Trotters goes for $4.25 an ounce!), and as my friend behind the counter helpfully pointed out, half-pound vacuum-sealed packages of cured hams fit neatly into a backpack and fly well. Ah, if only they made a credit card that offered double points off purchases from Italian specialty shops…
To be clear, we’re talking about some Damn Fine Prosciutto here. This isn’t the stuff from the the supermarket deli case that you buy to wrap around some asparagus spears or whatever; this is some of the most intense, flavorful pig on the planet. With something this pristine, you want it to be the unambiguous star of whatever plate you’re putting it on, in a pure and raw form. That can be challenging with prosciutto, since the price point and its potency of the stuff combine to demand moderation. So in order to base a whole meal around prosciutto, you need to find complements that are sufficient in quantity to satisfy an appetite, yet of mild enough quality that they remain in the background while the ham shines.
In my view, gnocchi are the perfect answer to this quandry. Since gnocchi are equally happy in either a starring or supporting role, a well-considered preparation can do the heavy lifting calorie-wise while enhancing—and, crucially, never usurping—the feature flavor. We will dive into the zen of gnocchi in more detail in time; there’s some nuance to making them, but they’re generally much easier than pasta. Typically, gnocchi are made from a simple dough of potato, flour, and egg, but ’tis the season when Portland Farmers’ Market fills up with wintery delights like squash galore and sugar pie pumpkins, all of which have a great flavor profile to complement prosciutto.
Pumpkin gnocchi (for four):
- 250g prepared pumpkin (About 1/2 of a sugar pie pumpkin, or substitute canned).
- 250g potato (About 1 medium-ish baking potato)
- 125g flour (Or 1/4 the mass of potato plus pumpkin. All-purpose is fine, 00 flour is better)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 egg
If you’re using fresh pumpkin, you’ll need to prepare it in the usual way, cleaning, cutting, and roasting it at a low heat (about 350° degrees or so, depending upon how big you cut the pieces) until it’s fork-tender. You’ll also need to cook the potato, peel it, and mash it. Go ahead and cook it any way you like—baking is probably best, but microwaving or boiling are fine too. The only real detail here is to be sure you mash the potato and pumpkin pretty thoroughly, so it’s easy to work into a dough.
A quick aside on quantities here: When I rant about my aversion to rigidly adhering to recipes, gnocchi are exhibit A, B, and C. So if your potatoes aren’t the same size as my 250g dream spud, don’t sweat it. Use a bigger one, or a smaller one, or three itty bitties, or whatever you have hanging around. If your ratio of pumpkin to potato is way off from mine, don’t sweat that either. Hell, you don’t even need the egg if you don’t have one handy, and some purists even insist it’s improper to include it. Ingredient-wise, the only thing that requires any degree of precision is the ratio of flour to potato and/or pumpkin.
In fact, the whole trick with making gnocchi is how you handle the flour. When you’re making the dough, you want to work in just enough flour to bind it into a dough, and knead it just enough for it to come together into a homogeneous, workable ball. A good rule of thumb is to plan for about four parts potato/pumpkin to one part flour, as I’ve indicated above, but it can vary wildly. So start by adding about three-fourths of your measured flour, and give the dough a quick knead. Chances are it’ll still be a sludge ball, so work in more flour until it just comes together into a dough. With a potato-only gnocchi, the 4-1 ratio I suggest is usually plenty to form a dough, but pumpkin tends to be a bit wetter, so don’t be surprised if you need more a little more than I claim.
The dough is ready when it holds together well enough for you to roll it into coils. When you think it’s getting close, break off a small chunk and try to roll it out. If it’s not there yet, work in a tad more flour and repeat. Try not to add too much flour, and don’t over-knead, lest you end up with clunky, chewy gnocchi. It’s relatively easy to get the hang of; just keep in mind that your dough will still be pretty sticky in its ‘ready’ state, much more so than pasta dough.
Once you’ve got that ball of dough formed, it’s time to go crazy with the flour to keep that dough from sticking to everything. Through a big fistful onto your board, divide your dough into four pieces, and roll out each piece into a rope about the size of your thumb. Then line up the ropes against each other, sprinkling flour onto the ropes as needed to keep them from sticking to each other or to the board. Get another fistful of flour ready and set it off to the side. Then, using a board scraper of chef’s knife, cut the ropes into one-inch pieces, all four ropes at a time if you can manage, and roll each piece through the waiting pile of flour. Then, the fun part: gently roll each piece with your index finger to produce the classic gnocchi shape, with a convex side opposite a little index finger-shaped cave. You can use a gnocchi board or the ties of a fork to give the gnocchi rides if you want, but it’s by no means required.
One other key difference between gnocchi and pasta: You want to cook gnocchi in gently simmering water, NOT boiling water. Aside from that, it’s all the same—use plenty of water, and don’t skimp on the salt. The gnocchi are ready as soon as they float, so keep a close eye, and have a utensil at the ready to fish them out as they pop to the surface. EZPZ!
Gorgonzola Cream Sauce:
- ~2 tablespoons butter
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 1 wedge of nice Gorgonzola Dolce, about 3-4 ounces (~100g).
- 1/2 cup cream, more or less
This sauce or something like it winds up on my dinner table quite a lot, because it’s one of those things that’s intensely flavorful yet it’s a breeze to make. Warm a saucepan over medium-low heat to melt the butter. Add the shallot and let it gently soften for about 5 minutes. When the shallots start to turn translucent, add the Gorgonzola, stirring with a wooden spoon so that the cheese melts evenly into the butter/shallot mixture. Turn the heat up to medium-high and add the cream, and let it thicken. Depending on your cheese and your tastes, you may need a little more or a little less cream. The tasting spoon is your friend. Once you’re happy with it, immediately get it off of the heat.
Assembling the dish couldn’t be simpler, particularly if your timing is right. Aim to drop the gnocchi into the water just after you turn your sauce up and add the cream; then, your gnocchi should start popping right as you’re removing the sauce from the heat. As the gnocchi pop, transfer them directly to the saucepan and stir to coat the gnocchi. Spoon it out onto four plates, forming it into a seemly pile. If you started with fresh pumpkin, go ahead and add those roasted seeds for some contrasting texture (you saved and roasted the seeds when you prepped the pumpkin, right?), or sprinkle on some toasted pistachio or roasted chestnut, or don’t…nbd.
Finally, it’s time to top that beauty off with a nice pinch of your Damn Fine Prosciutto, and serve it up quickly. Of course, a little bit of DFP goes a long way, but if you wanted to serve yourself a king-sized pinch anyway, I won’t judge.