Visit any fruit and vegetable market in northern Italy in the first chill of autumn and you may be forgiven for mistaking it for a New England farm stand.
You’ll see apples and pears, certainly, but also great piles of pumpkins and pumpkin-like squashes.
Pick the right squash
The Italian language doesn’t distinguish between the two. They’re all zucca, an ingredient of amazing versatility when an Italian cook gets hold of it.
Zucca is used to fill the hat-like cappelacci di zucca in Ferrara, made into gnocchi in Udine, folded into risotto near Mantua. Italians will toss hunks of pumpkin with pasta and Parmesan, add them to frittatas or purée the cooked vegetable into soup. And that’s just the savory side of the repertoire!
More from Zester Daily:
Just when all this started is a little unclear. Pumpkins and squashes were a New World import, but since the word for native European gourds in Italian is the same as the one for the rotund American arrivals, old recipes don’t give much clue. Certainly Renaissance-era recipes must refer to gourds. But what should we say of Vincenzo Corrado’s 18th-century instructions for making fritters, for which mashed “zucca” is mixed with ricotta, grating cheese, eggs and spices? “Delicious” is the first word that comes to mind! And certainly worth trying to replicate.
Italians aren’t the only ones to sow confusion in what to call the pumpkin harvest. Americans are pretty loose with what we deem a pumpkin or a squash. New World pumpkins and squashes as well as Old World gourds — along with melons and cucumbers — all belong to the Cucurbita genus, but beyond that indisputable fact little else is clear.
The big round orange ones we use for carving jack-o’-lanterns belong to the C. pepo species, but these are mostly useless for cooking. The so-called cheese pumpkin may look like a tan version of its spooky cousin but belongs in fact to the C. moschata species, and is delicious to cook with — as are many relatives of the C. maxima, which can grow into one of the giant pumpkins you find at competitions but is also cultivated in the more manageable form of buttercup and kabocha squashes.
Good choice for gnocchi: Jarrahdale pumpkin
The Jarrahdale pumpkin belongs to the same family. As a rule, the many varieties of zucca found across Italy belong to the C. moschata or C. maxima clans. These tend to have sweeter, denser, dryer flesh, better suited for many an Italian recipe including the following one for gnocchi.
Some gnocchi recipes require the pumpkin or squash to be peeled and cut into pieces, but more often than not what is needed is a purée. The simplest way of doing this is to take a large sharp knife, stab it in near the stem and pivot it down to cut the squash in half. Do the same on the other side. Scoop out the seeds, place both halves on a lightly oiled baking pan and set in a 350 F oven for an hour to an hour and a half, depending the size. When a small, sharp knife slides in without resistance, you’re in business. Cool the squash, scoop out the flesh and purée in a food processor. Or just mash it if you want a slightly chunkier consistency. Any extra will freeze beautifully.
Pumpkin Gnocchi With Crisp-Fried Sage Leaves
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 6-8 minutes
Total time: 38 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup pumpkin or squash purée (see above)
About 1 1/2 cups (divided) all-purpose flour
1 cup grated Italian Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
1 large egg
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves (about 50)
Gather gnocchi ingredients
1. Combine the pumpkin with 1 cup flour, the Parmesan, ricotta, egg, nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste, and pepper.
Make a smooth, soft dough
2. Stir until smooth. The dough should be a little softer than cookie dough. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Roll it out and cut into pieces
3. To form the gnocchi, heavily flour a board. Using floured hands, roll out the dough into cylinders about 1 inch in diameter. Cut these with a floured knife at half-inch intervals. Roll lightly in flour and place on trays heavily dusted with cornmeal. The gnocchi should not touch. Refrigerate for up to 2 hours. Freeze for longer storage.
Fry sage leaves in butter
4. Combine the oil and butter in a medium skillet over moderate heat. Heat until the butter just begins to color. Add the sage leaves and cook, stirring until very crispy and lightly browned. Set aside.
5. To cook the gnocchi: Bring about 1 1/2 gallons water and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt to a gentle boil in a large saucepan. Add the fresh or frozen gnocchi and simmer for 6-8 minutes. Carefully remove the cooked dumplings with a slotted spoon and toss with the sage butter mixture. Serve more Parmesan on the side.
Main Photo: The finished pumpkin gnocchi with sage leaves offers a rich combination of fall colors. Credit: Copyright 2015 Michael Krondl