The Italian chef has struck again. At 4.30pm precisely Mariano knocked on our door, laden with ricotta and parmesan cheese and the very best of Giacomo Antonio Puccini on CD.
He was here to make gnocchi – and this time it wouldn’t be gluten free.
But first, he went for a stroll around the garden. There’s not much out there at this time of year: some hungry chickens, a few silverbeet plants and the like. Within minutes he’d returned, jubilant, clutching seven or eight long, greenish-white stalks, over which he almost clucked.
These belonged to our hardy cardoons, which have sort of crossed with some globe artichokes over the years. The plants are closely related – artichokes are grown for the unopened flower heads, cardoons for their celery-like leaf stalks.
Mariano loves artichokes. During his university days in Italy he would exist for weeks on little but artichokes and olive oil. Many years ago he visited on a summer day, and instantly spied the artichokes waiting to be harvested in the garden. He told us he would prepare them for us, threw a tea towel over his shoulder and disappeared into the kitchen. This was the last we saw of him or the artichokes. Unable to restrain himself he cooked and gobbled them on the spot. We weren’t unhappy, he did throw us some bracts to gnaw on, and showed us how to cook them ourselves.
I reminded him of this while he cleaned the cardoon stalks he’d brought in. “Really? I did that?”
Next he rubbed the stalks with a tea towel, which removes most of the white, slightly tough, skin. At the same time he managed to chop garlic and parsley and got all that sizzling in olive oil, while Puccini sang and he reminisced about eating artichokes in Sardinia.
I watched him like a hawk, writing down everything he did, because he said – as he rolled his sleeves up – “I don’t follow recipes.”
In very short order, he’d make a huge batch of fresh gnocchi, and created the most exquisite tomato-based sauce to go with it, topped with grated parmesan cheese. The sauce was flavoured with herbs, but carried the definite flavour of summer artichoke, and was seriously, utterly, divine. We really sat up to attention at the dinner table that night.
Fresh gnocchi with cardoon and tomato sauce
This made enough for four diners, with sufficient left over for lunch the next day. Halve the recipe if desired.
A handful of fresh parsley, chopped
6 – 7 garlic cloves, chopped fine (you can also use onion)
2 – 3 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped
1 ½ tsp salt
2 tins tomatoes
4 – 5 cardoon stalks, 30cm long (can be omitted if you don’t have them)
Remove any leaves from cardoons, wash, and rub with a tea towel so the stalk is clean and ready to use. Strip out the coarsest of the fibres that run along the stalks, and chop into slices.
Cover the bottom of a saucepan with olive oil. When it is hot, add the garlic, herbs and salt and fry, stirring with a wooden spoon.
When the garlic is golden brown, add the cardoon, and fry about 10 minutes. Add the tinned tomato with all its juice.
At this point Mariano secretly added a dash of red wine – a bottle was sitting near to hand – and then the sauce was left to cook and reduce for about 45 minutes, with the occasional stir.
1kg ricotta cheese
2 cups flour
Few thyme leaves, chopped, if desired
Place half the ricotta cheese into a large bowl and, using your hands, slowly mix in some flour. Continue until all ingredients are mixed together. Add the thyme.
Take handfuls of the dough and knead a little, then roll with hands into sausage shapes, about 25mm diameter, and cut with a bread knife into slices (for more detail see Sardinian Cooking in a Kiwi Kitchen.)
Boil a huge pot of water, add about 2tsps salt. Put a small amount of the dough into a sieve, to cook in batches in the boiling water. It is ready when it floats.
Once all the dough has been cooked, layer some of it into a heated bowl and top with the hot sauce and grated parmesan. Then add another layer of gnocchi and continue. Top with parmesan and a sprinkle of parsley.
Eat immediately and answer the phone to no one!