Mariano swept into our Gordonton kitchen like a force of nature. A sharply dressed hurricane, with an Italian accent.
“Tonight,” he said, rolling up his sleeves, “I am making gnocchi, with fresh tomato sauce.”
A professional chef, Mariano was actually born on Sardinia, the little island to the left of Italy. Okay, it’s the second largest island in the Mediterranean sea but the point is he’s from a place where they take food very seriously indeed.
We met more than 20 years ago, when he was living in Hamilton. Over the years he has lived overseas but every two or so years would turn up on our doorstep, totally unexpected, and cook for us.
Rabbit, simmered in wine, garlic, olives, herbs, until it was perfection itself; lamb with rosemary and garlic, platters of artichokes; pasta, traditional Sardinian bread, piping hot from the oven.
Then there were the snails. For some reason, years ago, we wanted to try eating some of the vast gastropod population in the garden. We consulted the expert, who was living in Rotorua at the time. “Bellissimo!” he said, and rattled off a number of ways his family cooked and ate them. We followed his instructions – the key part is purging them for a week in a bucket of flour – but on the night, with friends coming, I lost my nerve and rang Mariano for last minute advice. He jumped in his car and, not long after, arrived in his chef’s hat and apron. The snails were a gastronomic delight, served in a tomato and garlic sauce. For the record, they are a bit like cockles and every single one got gobbled up.
Almost 20 years later, he was in our kitchen again and ready to work magic with gnocchi, Italian pasta eaten since Roman times. Rather like soft dumplings, but better.
I reminded Mariano that one of our family was allergic to tomato. “Not a problem,” he said, searching for a big mixing bowl, “I like a challenge.”
And gluten intolerant.
I swear he didn’t blink a long, Mediterranean eyelash. “No worries, we can do that.”
Within minutes our formica kitchen table was transformed into a professional work station as he formed a dough from the rice flour I happened to have in the larder. The mix was a tad crumblier than when using ordinary flour, so he added an egg, and worked at it slowly, kneading away.
We sipped our wine and watched on in awe. Clearly, we were in the presence of a maestro. But wait, it gets better. Not only does he cook like an angel, but he. Cleans. As. He. Works. How good is that?
After cleaning the table so it sparkled, Mariano then whipped up two delectable sauces to accompany the gnocchi, a tomato and herb version, and a bacon and onion taste sensation and soon we were eating.
The gnocchi was heavenly, topped with generous dollops of sauce and a handful of parmesan. Even more impressive given that this was gluten free. E stata un pasta deliciso. It’s great having Mariano back.
Gluten- free gnocchi
250g ricotta cheese
250g rice flour (add more if necessary)
1 large egg
dash of cream
Hand mix ingredients together in a bowl. Tip out onto a surface dusted with rice flour and knead to form a ball.
Divide into half and quickly knead. Divide each half into thirds, and, hand roll each piece into long, sausage shapes. Dust with rice flour to prevent the pieces from sticking.
Progressively cut into smaller sections, rolling as you go until it is all divided into pieces about 4 to 5cm long. Be prepared to take a little time on this.
Bring to the boil a large saucepan of water three-quarters full. Add a tablespoon of salt and a drizzle of oil.
Only cook a small amount of gnocchi at a time – Mariano divided our lot into five separate portions for five people. Place one portion into a metal sieve, and immerse in boiling water for one to two minutes, until they start to float. You need to be quick, if overcooked, they begin to disintegrate.
Fish them out with a slotted spoon and put the cooked pasta into a large bowl. Cover with a tea towel to keep warm.
1 – 2 onions, chopped fine
Fresh thyme, oregano, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 tins tomatoes
1 Tbsp olive oil
Heat the oil in a medium sized sauce pan. Fry onions and herbs in the oil, add salt and pepper. When onions are golden, add tomatoes and stir together. Sluice empty can with a little water and add to the sauce. Cook for about 10 or 15 minutes.
Taste, and adjust seasonings if needed.
To serve, pour sauce into gnocchi, leave for about two minutes so the flavours absorb. Dish up, and grate parmesan on top.
To make a bacon sauce, chop a similar amount of onion, and fry with about 150g of bacon, with herbs.