My godmother, aunt Paola, traces the early showings to my passion for all things food to a day in the mid 70's when I was barely the age my little boy is now, 9. She was hosting me in her striking apartment in the center of Pisa and thought that preparing a dish of gnocchi alla romana, the semolina dumplings every Italian kid counts among their favorites, would best express the godmotherly love she felt, and still does, for me.
When she didn't get the expected wows, she asked. It seems my answer was a diplomatically vague remark on her skills as a cook. She pressed, until I admitted that while they pleased my eye much, they failed to engage my palate.
We laugh about it today, that I have acquired the wisdom to understand how poetic this humble dish can be.
Below is a version I enriched with staple and seasonal pantry ingredients and have taught to much appreciation of my students.
I will be teaching it again on Tuesday, June 11 during my Gnocchi Primer at 18 Reasons in the Mission. Join me, it'll be fun.
Gnocchi alla romana con asparagi, prosciutto e Asiago Semolina gnocchi with asparagus, prosciutto and Asiago
for 8 people: 1 small shallot salt 1/2 bunch asparagus 3 tablespoons olive oil 4 slices minced prosciutto splash white wine 1 quart whole milk salt 1/2 pound semolina 2 egg yolks 4 tablespoons butter 1/3 cup grated parmigiano grated nutmeg and pepper to taste 1/4 cup shredded asiago
Mince the shallot with a generous pinch of salt. Snap off the whitish bottom part of the asparagus and peel away any conspicuously fibrous skin. Slice the asparagus in thin wheels, leaving the very tips whole.
Soften the onion into the olive oil and add the asparagus. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add in the prosciutto and caramelize for 1 to 2 minutes. Deglaze with a splash of white wine.
Cover and continue cooking until the asparagus is tender, about 10 to 12 minutes, adding liquid along the way if necessary. Adjust salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.
Bring the milk to a boil with a generous pinch of salt. Slowly drizzle in the semolina whisking continuously. The mixture will quickly become dense.
Cook for another 10 minutes, mixing constantly and detaching from the sides and bottom. Remove from the heat and work in the yolks.
Season with 3 tablespoons of the butter, parmigiano, pepper and nutmeg. Taste for salt and adjust as needed.
Evenly work the asparagus and prosciutto mixture into the semolina dough. Pour the dough onto a lightly dampened surface and spread to an even layer 1/2” high. Let cool.
In the meantime, butter the bottom of a baking dish with the remaining tablespoon of butter.
With a small cookie cutter of your preferred shape, cut small pieces from the semolina dough. To avoid the cookie cutter getting to sticky, dip it into water after each 5 to 6 uses.
Arrange the gnocchi into the baking dish in increasingly shrinking layers, so that, when all used, they will form a sort of pyramid.
Cover with a generous dusting of the shredded asiago and place in a 375˚F oven for about 15 minutes, until heated thoroughly and somewhat golden.