It’s been a while since we made a batch of gnocchi. Not because it’s difficult, although it does take a bit of time, but because we never think of making gnocchi when we happen to have potatoes in the house. Instead, we think about gnocchi when we don’t have potatoes! Fortunately, there’s nothing that says you can’t make gnocchi from something besides potatoes, right? Right!
You’re the one eating the gnocchi, so, by golly, you should decide what goes into it. And, today, we’re going to make them from eggplant, using a recipe we found in Pasta, by Gianni Scappin, Alberto Vanoli, and Francesco Tonelli. If you haven’t seen this book, you should at least take a look at it. It’s full of delicious Italian dishes, and, when you read the recipes, it’ll quickly dispel the myth that Italian food uses a lot of garlic (you’ll also see that today’s eggplant gnocchi uses garlic in a very restrained fashion). If, like us, you don’t actually want to buy the book, consider checking with your public library for a copy. That’s what we did.
Ideally, use fresh basil leaves, but, if you don’t have any, go with about a tablespoon of dried basil. The oil doesn’t have to be olive oil; you can use any light neutral oil. Use a good Parmesan cheese. Yes, it’s expensive, but, with really good Parmesan (not the stuff in the green can), you need less cheese because it has a lot more flavor. And flavor is what it’s all about. The egg: in this recipe you might not notice the difference between eggs from free-range hens and woggy eggs from the store, however, you should still get the best eggs you can find. They do come in packs of a dozen and you probably don’t want eleven woggy eggs for which you need to find a use.
Procedure in detail:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat.
Halve eggplant. If you have large eggplant, you might want to cut them into quarters, but definitely slice them in half, stab the cut sides with a fork, and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Nope, no oil; place the eggplant just as they are on the sheet. We want to remove moisture from the eggplant, so we don’t mind if the cut sides dry out a bit in the oven.
Bake. Slide the eggplant into the oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the eggplant is completely soft. Remove from the oven and let cool until you can handle them without getting burned.
Scrape and dice. Scrape all the eggplant pulp away from the skins. Discard the skins. Now, get out your favorite chef’s knife and dice all that pulp into pieces about 1/4 inch on a side. Sure, it’ll look as if most of the pulp is just mush, but there are strands of eggplant in there that need to be cut up, so dice away. If the eggplant pulp seems very moist, try to squeeze out some of the liquid.
Cook garlic. This technique seems quite common in Italian cooking. Smash the garlic cloves lightly (we use the flat side of the chef’s knife) and place them in a skillet with the oil over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and let the garlic cook until it turns a golden brown. Now, remove and discard the garlic cloves, leaving the oil infused with garlic flavor.
Cook eggplant. Place the diced eggplant in the hot oil and cook, stirring continuously, until the eggplant has dried out a bit more, about 5 to 6 minutes, or possibly longer, depending on how moist your eggplant is. Once most the moisture is gone, place the eggplant in a medium bowl and let cool completely.
Make gnocchi dough. Once the eggplant is cool, add flour, basil, cheese, egg, salt, and pepper and stir to combine. The dough should hold together, but, if needed, get in there with your hands to check.
Shape gnocchi. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment (you may be able to use the one that you used for baking the eggplant). Then, working with about one-forth the dough on a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into a long cylinder about 1/2 inch in diameter. We had trouble getting the cylinder that thin — ours was about 3/4 an inch in diameter, but that’s okay, too. Slice the cylinder into gnocchi about 1 inch long. If you had a thick cylinder, you can roll these gnocchi under your palm to make them a bit thinner. Place on the prepared baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart.
Freeze (optional). We find that frozen gnocchi are easier to handle, so we always freeze ours. You can cook the gnocchi immediately, but you might have to handle them gently to keep them from falling apart. If you’re going to freeze, place the sheet in the freezer for about 30 minutes or until you’re ready to boil the gnocchi.
To cook. Bring 3 quarts of salted water to a simmer — not a rolling boil, a simmer — and, working with about 12 to 15 gnocchi at a time, drop them into the simmering water. Let them simmer, stirring gently, until they float to the surface, then remove with a slotted spoon. We like to place them right into the simmering sauce we’re having with the gnocchi. That way, they stay hot, and absorb some of the flavors from the sauce.
Eggplant gnocchi is quite good, with a mild eggplant flavor and a distinct basil taste. They came out fairly light — not as light as some gnocchi we’ve had, but that’s probably due to the technique used in making them — and they paired well with the Alfredo sauce (use the sauce recipe from Fettuccine Alfredo) we’d made to go along with them. The original recipe called for a tomato sauce, but we find that tomato sauce will often overwhelm the delicate flavors of homemade pastas and gnocchi. We think a cream sauce is a better choice. Yes, eggplant gnocchi are somewhat time-consuming to make, between the baking, the frying, and the boiling, but, then, most good food does take time to prepare, and it’s certainly a different way to use eggplant, and should surprise anyone who has had only potato-based gnocchi. Four stars.