Inspired by lunch at Eataly: Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Wilted Kale

by Marion on January 22, 2014

Sweet potato gnocchi are quickly sautéed in butter, giving them a beautiful color and a lovely, nutty flavor. Then they’re tossed with kale cooked with garlic, shallots and red pepper flakes. Recipe below.

sweet potato gnocchi

Last weekend, our family plans fell through, leaving us with two marvelous open days of no plans at all. We were cheerfully meandering around town when we realized that we had not yet been to Eataly Chicago. All those stories of long lines and frenzied crowds had kept us away—during their first week in early December, they had a stunning 120,000 visitors. By the time of our visit on Saturday for lunch, it was bustling, but not as frenetic as the smaller New York store has been every time we’ve visited. And everywhere we looked, people were relaxed and happy, having a wonderful time and glad to be there.

We lunched at La Piazza, standing at a tiny communal table. Bread and olive oil appeared almost immediately, followed by glasses of Italian wine—a chardonnay for Terry, a prosecco for me. We shared three small plates—a salad of roasted beets, olive tapenade, sea salt and mozzarella (made there daily, and so fresh and light); a half-dozen oysters representing both coasts; and supplì, deep-fried balls of creamy risotto filled with Cacio di Roma, a sheep’s milk cheese. It tells you everything about the cheerful, friendly atmosphere that strangers stopped to ask us about the supplì, and then about the oysters, and then told us about what they were having and what they were doing in Chicago. Everything was convivial and everything was sublime. Which of course got us talking and thinking about Italian food.

For most of us growing up in America, Italian food has usually meant Italian-American food, hearty and delicious, but not especially complex or subtle. Increasingly, though, authentic Italian cooking is changing how we think about Italian cuisine. As with French food, there are distinct regional differences, and some of the most memorable dishes are made with a handful of well chosen ingredients, perfectly prepared. Just as important is the sense of hospitality and comfort that is part and parcel to this cuisine. Eataly made me think about what I like best in Italian food—beautiful food meant to be shared in each other’s company.

Eataly_Chicago_Cheese

When we started thinking about a way to convey how much we enjoyed our experience at Eataly, gnocchi came to mind pretty quickly.

In Italy, gnocchi are made from an array of flours or with potato, but here in the US, most people think of gnocchi as potato based. We’ve made potato-based gnocchi here on Blue Kitchen, but this weekend, we were thinking about a different take—something a little more interesting. Sweet potato seemed the right approach—a warm, rustic flavor that speaks to cozy winter evenings at home with good friends.

Making any gnocchi is a meditative process. It’s not difficult or miserable—it just needs to be done in its own way. You can’t rush it, you can’t skip steps, you need to just relax your mind and enjoy the ride. At the end you have a dish that is at once humble,  beautiful, inviting and convivial. The very essence of Italian cuisine.

Here are four tips for making sweet potato gnocchi (or any potato gnocchi):

1. This recipe takes time. If you want a pasta you can bang out for a quick, tasty mid-week dinner, try this ziti with sausage and fennel or, if you want a dish that is really elegant but you’ve been at the office all day, try duck breasts with raspberries.

2. Bake the sweet potatoes. Don’t boil them or steam them or microwave them. Baking intensifies their flavor and reduces the moisture.

3. Do not skip the part where you drain the ricotta. That takes at least two hours. On the other hand, while you’re waiting, you could watch two episodes of Orange is the New Black, or you could memorize the Gettysburg Address, or you could practice your latest tap steps.

4. After you make the dough, and before you roll it out, let it rest for five minutes. This gives the gluten a chance to develop, helping the gnocchi hold together better when you are rolling them out and forming them.

Making these is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Serve with something crisp and fresh—honestly, I would go with a prosecco.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Wilted Kale
Serves four to six (with leftover gnocchi to freeze for a future meal)

For the gnocchi:
1 cup ricotta
2 cups baked, mashed sweet potatoes (from about 1-1/2 pounds sweet potatoes)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup freshly grated parmesan
1-1/4 to 2 cups flour
salt

For the wilted kale:
8 ounces kale, ribs removed and torn into small pieces
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 tablespoon lemon juice

First, put the ricotta in a fine sieve and set it over a large bowl.  Let it drain for at least two hours. Some ricottas will give up a lot of moisture, some will give up only a little.  Don’t worry, be happy.

Meanwhile, bake the potatoes. Cut them in half lengthwise, rub them all over with olive oil, and bake them cut sides up on a cookie sheet or pizza pan until they are soft when you pierce them with a fork, about 30 minutes. Take them out of the oven and let them cool completely. When they are cool, scoop the soft flesh out of the skins, measure out 2 cups worth, put in a medium mixing bowl and mash thoroughly so the sweet potatoes are smooth and even. Don’t purée them in a processor or a blender! That will make them gluey. (The skins are edible and super healthy—save them for an informal snack.) Add the ricotta and mix well. Then stir in the beaten egg, salt and grated cheese.

Now the dramatic part. Start adding flour. Your goal is pillowy, fluffy, light gnocchi. In making the dough, you need to strike a balance between wetness and dryness.  You may make dough that is very easy to handle, roll, and to cut into pieces, but that dough will most likely yield gnocchi that are bouncy dense rubber balls. For this recipe, I found that about 1-3/4 cups of flour was the right amount. Depending on how moist your ingredients are, you may need more—some recipes with this volume of sweet potato use as much as 2-1/2 cups of flour. This was the gauge I used: the dough was ready it was still sticky, but had formed a soft mass and was starting to pull away from the sides of the bowl—and when, in the next step, I rolled a part of it on the countertop, it willingly formed a rope shape, and then was willing to be cut into pieces that just barely held their pillow shape.

When the dough seems to have reached this point, set a timer for 5 minutes and just walk away. Come back when the timer rings, flour a work surface and put the dough on one side of it. Cut it into four equal pieces. Place one of the pieces on the floured surface, lightly flour your hands, and roll the dough into a snake about 20 inches long. If the dough doesn’t cooperate—if it still handles like gunk—then put it all back in the bowl, add a little more flour and gently try again. (Also, when rolling out the rope, do not try to pick it up—it doesn’t have tensile strength.) Cut the dough into pieces about one inch long and set each piece on a lightly floured board, cookie sheet or plate. Each piece will look like a charming little puffy pillow. Do the same with the other three sections. You should have about 50 to 60 gnocchi.

Next: the dents. The classic treatment for gnocchi is to roll each one on the tines of a fork to give it the traditional deeply scored lines. I raked a fork across the tops instead. Some cooks prefer to simply dent the gnocchi with a thumb, and next time I am going to try that approach.

Once all the gnocchi are prepared, they are ready to cook. At this point, you may freeze some of them for future use (stack them in a freezer bag, interlayered with wax paper).

When you are ready to cook them, heat 3 quarts of salted water to a simmer.  Gently slide the gnocchi into the water, about 12 at a time. (If you put them all in at once, the water will stop boiling and the gnocchi will stick together in a hideous mass.)  Some recipes that I looked at call for the gnocchi to be cooked for a minute or less. I just do not get that. I found that anything less than 4 minutes left them raw in the middle.  When the gnocchi begin to float up to the top, test one – cut it in half and taste to see if it is cooked through. Take them out of the water with a slotted spoon and reserve in a bowl, covering them with foil.

Once the gnocchi are all cooked, they are ready to serve. But I thought they had a pale, weird look, so I took one more step, sautéing them for a minute or two in a little butter to lightly brown them. It improved their looks quite a bit and gave them a lovely nutty flavor. Do this step last, just as the kale is finishing cooking.

Meanwhile, prepare the kale. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a big, deep nonstick skillet. Add the garlic and shallot and sauté until the shallot is translucent – about 90 seconds. Add the kale and toss with a pair of spatulas so that it is all coated with the olive oil.  Salt lightly. Sauté until the kale has wilted down and cooked through, but is still bright green, about two or three minutes. Scatter the pepper flakes over the kale and continue sautéing for a little longer. Sprinkle on the lemon juice, toss again, and the kale is ready.

Plate by making a bed of the kale, then embedding the gnocchi in the kale.  Six or seven gnocchi is a good serving size.

Kitchen Notes

This simple wilted kale preparation may take the lead on its own for a quick weeknight meal, along with a tubular pasta or brown rice. A little parmesan cheese wouldn’t be wrong.

These gnocchi also lend themselves to many accompaniments. Many people like them with browned butter and sage. I was really surprised to see how many recipes out there pair sweet potato gnocchi with flavors like maple, cinnamon, honey, and apple cider. Because the gnocchi are so sweet, I recommend steering away from other sweet things and toward flavors that are bitter, like kale or escarole, or earthy and savory, like sautéed mushrooms with garlic butter. Or just simply toss them with some creamy, tangy goat cheese and a good grating of black pepper.

Finally, don’t overthink the flour problem. When you are working with the dough, you’ll see what I mean and it will make sense to you.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

John@Kitchen Riffs January 22, 2014 at 10:08 am

I love this recipe! We’ve been thinking sweet potato gnocchi thoughts lately (and sweet potato ravioli). Hadn’t thought of adding kale — I’m so going to steal that idea! BTW, my wife always orders bubbly any chance she can — the two of you sound like the two of us! Really nice recipe — thank you.

Anita January 22, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Hm. Don’t care for for Orange, I know the Gettysburg Address, and the people in #452 would be seriously irked if I took up tap dancing. That aside, my question is – well, also a bit tangential. I wind up with horrible frosting on absolutely everything I freeze. Even chili or black beans poured into baggies and de-aired to the best of my ability somehow wind up with permafrost. I can only shudder at the ice layers my gnocchi might develop. Any ideas? Oh, and when you forked the gnocchi, you did this individually, right? Not to the snake, but to each separate pillow? Thanks!

Marion January 22, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Thanks, John! Please do totally steal that idea. And the next time we are in St Louis, we should get together.

Anita, we have that problem at times because we have a lousy neurotic apartment refrigerator. My solution is not to hold things for very long. And when I dented the gnocchi, yes, I did not do the snakes but the bits.

Dr. M January 22, 2014 at 8:27 pm

Mmmmm this sounds lovely and although I would love to make it, I am pregnant and impatient lately and I just want it NOW! Maybe we will go have italian for dinner somewhere….

Marion January 22, 2014 at 11:05 pm

Do that, Dr. M. I well remember those impatient gestational days of MUST EAT NOW. You work hard and write a beautiful, useful blog! Take it easy and go out for a nice dinner.

jeri January 23, 2014 at 8:24 am

I was given a throwdownjust yesterday to include more sweet potatoes in our food rotation. My BF’s father is quite long-lived, and he credits eating a sweet potato every day to his good health. I never thought of sweet potato gnocci, but what a good idea. I never make anyone’s recipes religiously (except for baking, of course), but yours always take me somewhere. Today it’s taking me to sweet potato gnocci with sage and brown butter. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

eeka January 23, 2014 at 10:10 am

I love the combination of sweet potatoes & kale in any form. This is outstanding!

randi January 23, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Unfortunately I’ve only had really doughy gnocci at not so great restaurants. I think I would need to try some really authentic gnocci to make me want to attempt to make it. The sweet potato & Kale combination sounds lovely! What a perfect pairing.
I’m losing my mind over that picture of the Eataly counter.
(and I’m addicted to Orange is the New Black)

Dr. M January 23, 2014 at 9:16 pm

Oh thank you Marion! That was nice to hear (read). :)

Marion January 23, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Jeri, do let us know how it turns out, and you may also want to try this recipe for roasted sweet potatoes with shallot.

Thanks, eeka! that sweet-and-bitter thing is really delicious, if I say so myself,

randi, Eataly is so nice and inviting and busy. It just is.

You are always welcome, Dr. M!

Shari @ Simply Shari's Gluten Free January 24, 2014 at 3:21 am

I’ve made something similar without the cheese. Your recipe sounds so much better. Can’t wait to make it. Thanks!

Marion January 24, 2014 at 8:37 am

Shari, to make this gluten free, would you use Cup2Cup?

William Lopez February 3, 2014 at 1:34 am

Well this recipe look very delicious. I have never tried Potato Gnocchi with Wilted Kale. But i am sure i will try this recipe.

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