Haute Potato

em>New York Times magazine: November 7, 2004

My friend Darra says that you can always tell European chefs by their cool glasses. Case in point: Fabio Trabocchi, the chef at Maestro in the Ritz-Carlton in Tyson's Corner, Va. Trabocchi has glossy black Gucci frames with narrow rectangular lenses; with his spectacles on, he has the look of a sensitive scholarship student at the Vienna Conservatory.

At summer's end, I find him standing alone in the green marble kitchen built for him by the hotel. The staff has been dismissed for a fortnight while the chef works on his cookbook, "Cuisines of Le Marche" (to be published next year by HarperCollins). Trabocchi must now get his hands sticky with flour and potato as he teaches me to make gnocchi.

Trabocchi's gnocchi stand proud in a wasteland strewn with leaden potato pasta. If the world of gnocchi were a child's birthday party, most gnocchi would be the sagging balloons tangled in the trees; Trabocchi's soar off into the sun. A little much, you say? Perhaps. But good restaurant-made gnocchi are as rare as a tabloid without the Olsen twins. "In Italy, gnocchi are a personal thing," says Trabocchi. "Everyone has their own recipe. And that's inside regional differences. For example, in the north, they like their gnocchi firmer, but in Le Marche, we make softer, lighter gnocchi.

"When you make gnocchi, you want a potato that is floury, not starchy," he adds. Older potatoes are good, because the starch level decreases with storage time. Trabocchi uses baking potatoes, boiling them in their skins to prevent too much water absorption. Microwaving them in a dish with a little water is another option, but lately he's been roasting them on his stove top in a cast-iron Dutch oven filled with hay. The old Italian harvest-time trick gives the potato an autumnal hit of smoke.

The chef starts the potatoes in a pot of unsalted cold water, with a stern admonition against "brutalizing the boiling experience" by dumping cold potatoes into boiling water. Letting them heat up slowly minimizes water absorption: waterlogged potatoes make a purée that needs more flour, resulting in cannonball-dense gnocchi. He tests the potatoes with a knife and after a 20-minute simmer pulls them out and peels them.

The potatoes are puréed through a drum sieve: broken down with a tablespoon and then forced through the mesh. Food mills, according to Trabocchi, make for a gluey purée, and the ricers popular with some chefs seem foreign to him. The end result is a fluffy pile of fine potato shavings, which he "aerates" by spreading them out over his work surface with a spoon. He sprinkles them with flour, followed by Parmesan, and then he slips three egg yolks onto the surface and seasons with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

He makes the dough, gathering it with his forearms and bringing it into the center. He works quickly but gently, warning that overworking the dough would overactivate the gluten in the flour and make the gnocchi chewy. In less than a minute, he is holding a smooth ball.

Trabocchi chops off a quarter of the dough with a bench scraper, rolls it out into a cylinder the diameter of a rolled napkin, cuts this in half and then rolls half of it into a rope the thickness of a finger. He cuts this quickly with a knife into half-inch-wide pillows of dough.

In Le Marche, where his family is from, they groove their gnocchi: Trabocchi holds a fork at a 45-degree angle, and then rolls each gnoccho down the back of the fork, pressing it against the tines and then scooting it off with a little flick that dimples the back. Letting the gnocchi relax in the fridge for an hour or two before cooking helps them keep their shape.

The chef brings a pan of salted water to a boil, and then slides in all of the gnocchi at once. When they bob to the surface, he scoops them up, taps off the excess water and divides the gnocchi between two plates.

Trabocchi has made a quick sauce by melting a few tablespoons of butter and as it browns adding fresh sage, finally thinning the sauce with cooking water before dressing the gnocchi. He finishes it with a grating of Parmesan.

The gnocchi are fantastic, and I tell him so. I say it again, this time cursing for greater effect. He nods crisply. He puts on his glasses, and I decide that he actually looks a little louche in them. But definitely cool.

Potato Gnocchi

serves 6

1 pound uniformly sized russet potatoes (about 2), unpeeled
1 cup Italian 00 flour or all-purpose
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated (more for serving)
2 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 to 3 fresh sage leaves, torn.

1. Scrub the potatoes and place in a pot with cold water to cover. Cook until easily pierced with a knife, 25 to 30 minutes. Strain. Peel the potatoes while warm. Press the potatoes through a sieve into a bowl. (This is tedious, but worth it.) There should be about 1 1/4 cups.

2. Spread the potatoes in a circle on a work surface, leaving the center empty. Sprinkle the flour over the circle, and put the cheese, eggs, salt and nutmeg in the center. Using your hands, pull the potato and flour into the center and mix with the cheese and eggs. Stop as soon as the potato has absorbed all of the ingredients and comes together in a smooth ball; cover with a dish towel and let it rest for 30 minutes.

3. Sprinkle your hands with a bit of water. Taking a small portion of the dough in your hands, roll out the mixture using your palms and form a cylinder the length and thickness of a finger. Cut into half-inch pieces and then roll each piece along the back of the tines of a fork to indent. Repeat with remaining dough. Place the gnocchi on a tray or plate dusted with flour. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until ready to cook.

4. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the gnocchi and cook until they float to the surface, 1 to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to place on a serving dish.

5. In a small saucepan, heat butter over a medium-high heat until it just starts to turn brown. Remove from heat and add sage; loosen with a little water if desired. Spoon warm sage butter over gnocchi and dust with Parmesan cheese.