Skip to content

The Wife & the Gnocchi Tree: A Food Fable

August 30, 2008

The Italian translation for gnocchi — the soft tender dumplings made from potatoes, semolina, flour, bread crumbs, or ricotta — is the word lump, and is derived from the word nocchio, which means a knot in wood. But the real story behind gnocchi was recently uncovered in the files of the late great writer and folk fable collector, Italo Calvino.

Once upon a time, a Roman villager left his wife to go on a long journey. When it came time for his return on the second moon of the new season, his wife wanted to make him a celebration. But their fields had gone fallow since he’d been gone, and their hungry goat went on strike and stopped producing milk. The wife went into the forest to forage the fruits of nature, but the nuts and berries had all been plucked by hungry villagers. Perched on a tree stump, her elbows and knees scraped from thorns, she began to weep.

Suddenly, the tree that she was sitting on began to quake and quiver, startling her. “Young woman, why is it that you weep,” the Tree asked. And the woman told the Tree about how her husband was returning and she would not be able to give him a proper welcome. The Tree lifted down its branches and said, “collect the knots of my branches, bring them home, and cook them for your husband.” The woman smiled at the Tree, touched at the gesture and responded,”I thank you for your generosity, but I could not take your knots from you.” The Tree, sensing that the Woman was wary of feeding her husband wood, insisted, “Do not worry, my knots will make a meal fit for a king.” And with that, he started to rip the knots that formed in the crooks of his twisted branches until he filled her empty basket. The Tree said, “All I ask is that you cook them with love and attention, and your husband will have the best meal of his life.” And so the woman returned home to prepare for her husband’s arrival.

Back in her kitchen, the Woman started a fire. As she placed the dark, gnarled knots in a cauldron, her goat snuck into the house and nuzzled her legs. She had worked up a little milk and wanted to share her bounty with her Mistress. The Woman leaned down to milk her goat, happy that she would be at least be able to give her husband fresh milk. And at that very moment, her husband came in through the door and whisked her off her feet into a loving embrace. The wife gave the husband a glass of goat’s milk which he hungrily drank up. He asked what was cooking at the stove, noting it smelled wonderful.

When the wife turned back to the cauldron, she could not believe her eyes — floating atop the pot were not gnarled knots, but soft, white pillowy dumplings. “Gnocchi,” she proclaimed, and ladled out a plateful. “Wooden Knots,” the husband said with a curious smile, excited for a new experience. From under his hat, he produced a handful of cherry tomatoes, a bunch of fresh basil, and a jug of Nero d’Avola wine. The wife quickly made a simple sauce with the tomatoes and basil, while the husband poured the wine and lit a candle. And together again, they sat down for the most memorable meal of their lives.

Last week after an epic airport nightmare getting home to LA, I came home to a plate of steaming ricotta gnocchi with heirloom cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and ricotta from the farmer’s market, complements of my wonderful wife and inspired by Judy Rodgers from her amazing Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

The Wife’s Gnocchi

For the Wife’s Recipe…

The Wife’s Secrets Revealed:

From Judy Rodgers Zuni Cafe Cookbook

For 40 to 48 Gnocchi (serves six to eight)

1 pound of fresh ricotta (2 cups)

2 large cold eggs, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

all optional (pick one): 1 to 3 fresh sage leaves (chopped); or a few pinches of freshly grated nutmeg; or a few inches of chopped lemon zest

1/2 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (about 1/4 cup very lightly packed)

About 1/4 teaspoon salt (a little more if using Kosher salt)

All purpose flour, for forming the gnocchi

To make the gnocchi:

Beat ricotta vigorously. Mash a little against the side of the bowl — if you can still make out firm curds, press through a strainer to break them up. Stir in eggs. Melt butter (with either sage, lemon zest, or nutmeg, if using) and add to batter. Add Parmigiano and salt and beat mixture very well until light and fluffy.

Make a bed of flour in a dish (about 1/2 in. deep). Using two spoons, form small almond-shaped balls of batter. Tip into the bed of flour and roll over with the spoon to cover, being very gentle. Place gnocchi one by one onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. Chill in the fridge for about an hour. (Although you can skip the chilling, the gnocchi are very delicate and prone to bursting apart when cooked if too moist, and chilling helps prevent that. If your gnocchi are firm and dry, you may not need it. See the note below.)

Bring a wide pan of heavily-salted water to a gentle boil. A skillet-type pan works best as long as it is at least 2-3 inches deep. The gnocchi will float to the top; simmer 3-5 minutes from the time it floats until just firm. Remove carefully with slotted spoon.

Toss with whatever topping you are using — we used sliced cherry tomatoes with olive oil and basil, gently warmed. You can also melt a little butter and swirl in the pan. The other night we ate fresh ricotta gnocchi with melted butter, corn, and lima beans at Cube, one of our favorite restaurants. The gnocchi are very versatile but a little delicate, so nothing too heavy.

Note: Judy Rodgers explains that fresh ricotta varies based on the season, what the animals are eating, who is making it, and how long they drain it so you may need to tinker the recipe to get the right mix of Parmigiano-Reggiano or butter. If the ricotta is really wet, add a little more egg, and/or hang it in cheese cloth overnight. She warns against substituting supermarket ricotta not only for flavor issues, but mechanical processing ruins the consistency needed for good gnocchi. I got my fresh ricotta at the Farmer’s Market, of course.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2008 4:10 am

    Yummy! When I read in an older post that your wife made this for you, I was thinking I need that recipe! Thanks!

  2. ronicita permalink
    September 10, 2008 5:15 am

    was this fable inspired by your wifey? that’s too cute…you guys need to go down as cute-foodie-couple of the year

  3. ronicita permalink
    September 10, 2008 5:16 am

    i’m officially on the blog now FYI…

  4. lastomach permalink*
    September 10, 2008 5:49 am

    yes indeed, the wifey is my inspiration… for fables… for cooking…


  1. Farmer’s Market Bounty: August 31, 2008 « la stomach
  2. Farmers Market Bounty: September 7, 2008 « la stomach
  3. Farmer’s Market Bounty: October 12, 2008 « la stomach

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: