If you’ve traveled to Argentina, you may have heard about the tradition they have there of eating ñoquis on the 29th of every month. On restaurant menus all across the country, the ñoquis appear as a special feature on this day. Ñoquis are those pillowy, fluffy potato dumplings known as gnocchi in Italy– light and dense at the same time; in Argentina they feed both spirit and belly. Why? And where does the tradition come from?
At the start of the 20th century, Argentina, like the US, was experiencing an industrial boom, bringing waves of European immigrants to its shores. In Argentina, over 50% of those immigrants came from Italy, and they brought their traditions and cuisine along with them. The 29th is the feast day of the Italian saint, San Pantaleon, one of the patron saints of Venice, who was canonized on this date.
Pantaleon was a doctor in the 8th century who, upon converting to Christianity, made a pilgrimage across Northern Italy. Along the way, he practiced the miraculous healings that led to his sainthood. On one occasion, he asked some poor farmers for a little bread, and they invited him to share their meager meal. He blessed the farmers, who reported abundant crops the next year-another miracle. Eating simple food (represented by the ñoquis) on his feast day is the customary way to honor that miracle and ask for prosperity and blessings.
Now, if you’re thinking that ñoquis, with their fluffy dumpling texture and rich potato flavor, topped with a creamy, cheesy cuatro quesos sauce is anything but simple food-it’s the ingredients that are modest. Ñoquis are made of potato, flour, egg and cheese-all basic pantry items.
Each month, all of Argentina honors those with humble beginnings. Ñoquis are an economic meal for those with fewer resources, who, by the late date in the month, cannot afford to have meat at their table.
It’s tradition to place money under each plate as the meal is eaten– whether it’s divine intervention from San Pantaleon you desire, or as a talisman of good luck; the intention is the same-prosperity and abundance in the month to come, celebrated by a humble and yet delicious meal of ñoquis.
Receta de Ñoquis del 29
Recipe for 29th-of-the-month Gnocchi
The goal, and the challenge, of good gnocchi is that it should be light and fluffy while also dense enough to have flavor, but not so dense that they are chewy or gummy. It takes a little practice, but by the third time you make these, you’ll be rolling our gnocchi like an Italian grandmother.
2 lbs. baking potatoes (about 6)
1 cup fresh, good quality ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (plus more for topping)
2-3 cups flour, plus more for dusting
Peel and quarter the potatoes, putting them in a medium stock pot with enough water to cover the potatoes with one inch of water. Add a handful of coarse salt. Put the potatoes to boil until they are tender when pierced with a fork, but not mushy. Drain the potatoes.
Put the potatoes through a food mill or potato ricer. (Or mash very finely with a fork.) In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, eggs, parmesan and ricotta, and mix well using your hands or a fork until consistent dough is formed. Be careful not to over mix.
Add the flour a half cup at a time, mixing each time by hand until there is a soft, pliable dough. The dough should not be sticky, and it should not be hard. If it’s too sticky or soft, the gnocchi will be mushy, but if there’s too much flour, the gnocchi will be chewy and tough. (This is the only challenging part!)
Knead the dough a few times until uniform, adding some more flour if needed, and divide the dough in half.
Flour a work area, and roll the dough out into a long thin roll about 3/4 inch thick. Cut these tubes of dough into sections about 1 inch long. Meanwhile, bring a stock pot of water to a boil.
There are a variety of ways to ‘mark’ the gnocchi-all just a style choice, since at this point, they are more or less done. Here are some suggestions: Mark an indentation in the center of each gnocchi with your index finger; or roll over the side of a cheese grater to make patterned indentations; or roll over the backside of a fork, or roll over the center of a wooden gnocchi tool.
Note: for more dense gnocchi, roll lightly, just enough to mark the dough. For light fluffy gnocchi, roll on a gnocchi tool (available in any Argentinean grocery) and press firmly so that the gnocchi rolls around the tip of your thumb and resembles a little ear. Tip: If using the gnocchi tool, flour the ridges periodically so that the dough doesn’t stick as it’s being pushed into the grooves.
At this point, the gnocchi can be frozen laid out on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. After they are frozen, they can be stored in a freezer bag. Frozen gnocchi are just put into the boiling water like the unfrozen ones.
To make the gnocchi, either fresh or frozen, throw the gnocchi one at a time into the boiling water. (If you throw them in by the handful, you will get one big glob of gnocchi.)They are cooked when they rise to the top. (Less than 5 minutes) Collect with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate. Serve with the sauce of your choice. (Some nice choices are walnut Gorgonzola, tomato or alfredo/cuatro quesos.)
Rebecca T. Caro has traveled to Argentina numerous times with her husband, who is from Mendoza. She hosts a blog dedicated to the cuisine and culture of Argentina, From Argentina With Love and can be contacted there.