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A few years ago, I would have written this dish as “gnocchi Romana” on a menu, in preference to the more straightforward “semolina gnocchi”. No disingenuity here — this variant on potato gnocchi is often called “alla Romana” in Italy — but not a lot of transparency either. In those days, I regarded semolina as a deterrent. Of all the loathed milk puddings at school, semolina was the most loathed; little flecks of white grain held in a thick, gloopy suspension. I myself loved it but I did not regard my own taste as being entirely normal.
Today, semolina has different connotations. Anyone who has made their own pasta or pizza knows that semolina flour helps in the dough. Even milk puddings have a certain excitement, having thrown off their institutional connections, although it might be a while before we see a restitution of sago or ground rice to the menu.
In a moment of absent-mindedness, I made my gnocchi with semolina flour. Having made them countless times before, I was somewhat alarmed by how quickly the mixture thickened into an almost unworkable paste. I assumed I had made a massive mistake, jettisoned the mix and started again with semolina, which, having a much coarser texture, is far slower to thicken. However, I realised in the end that the two doughs are pretty much interchangeable. My first effort was eminently saveable — and subsequent research showed that many recipes specify the flour rather than the meal.
So, are semolina gnocchi better than the more common potato gnocchi, or the rarer pumpkin or ricotta? In the best hands, potato gnocchi are hard to beat: beautifully light, and terrific with a rich mushroom or truffle sauce. Trouble is — and this goes for all these alternatives — the best hands are hard to find, and all too often potato gnocchi are dull and leaden. On the other hand, the semolina version is a piece of cake. Once one realises that the mixture needs to be properly cooked before being poured into a tray and set, it is relatively easy to produce a light and consistent result.
They are also incredibly adaptable. In Rome they are either baked with a rich tomato sauce or with butter or cream and Parmesan. Although they can accompany a roast or a stew, I tend to serve them with vegetables, partly to please the vegetarians but also because it pleases me. 6
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Gnocchi Romana, baked artichoke
This is a big batch of gnocchi but not a waste: leftovers can always be refrigerated and used later as a lunch or supper dish for two.
|For the gnocchi|
- Bring all but 50ml of the milk to the boil with a good pinch of salt and half the butter before sprinkling in the semolina, whisking as you do so. Bring back to a simmer and continue to stir occasionally, cooking over a very low heat for at least 20 minutes. Mix the remaining milk with the egg yolks and half the Parmesan and stir into the hot semolina mixture, beating it to a smooth consistency.
- Melt the remaining butter and line a small oven tray with greaseproof paper and grease with a little of the butter. Pour in the semolina mixture, level it off with a palette knife and then refrigerate for at least an hour (or 20 minutes in the freezer).
- Once fully set, cut the gnocchi into rounds, crescents or squares as you fancy. Line an oven dish with some of the melted butter and place the gnocchi on top. Dress with a little more butter and bake in a hot oven (200C) for 20 minutes. Baste with some of the butter and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top; return to the oven for another five minutes.
|For the artichokes|
|Half a glass||white wine|
|2 tsp||breadcrumbs and Parmesan|
|Pinch of chilli flakes|
- With a sharp serrated knife, cut across the base of the artichokes and rub the exposed flesh with half a lemon. Then cut across the top, removing the top leaves, about half a centimetre above where the heart stops. With a smaller but equally sharp knife and a rounded action, trim around the bulb, carefully cutting away the leaves to expose the white heart and rubbing with lemon as you go. Bathe the finished hearts with lemon juice.
- Bring a pot of well-salted water to the boil. Remove the stalk from the tomato and blanch in the water for 20 seconds, then plunge into cold water before peeling. Drop the artichokes in the water and cook at a simmer for 20 minutes. Allow to cool before scooping out the hairy “choke” in the middle of the artichoke. Season and then fill with the halved tomato, cut side up.
- Bake with the oil and wine in a little oven dish, with the cheese and breadcrumb mix on the tomatoes, in the same oven for 10 minutes. Add the shredded mint to the juices, along with a pinch of chilli flakes, a little salt and a squeeze of lemon. Serve alongside the gnocchi.
Photographs: Andy Sewell