I am fascinated by this little nub of pasta. It is a cicione, a type of Sardinian semolina-and-saffron gnocchi that is as golden as the sun, substantial without being leaden, and just downright beautiful.
I’m a big fan of trompe l’oeil in food — where something looks like something else, surprising (and hopefully delighting) the eater. In this case, the ciciones look like chickpeas. I first heard about them in what has become my pasta bible, the appropriately named Encyclopedia of Pasta. It says that the Sardinians, who use saffron a lot, added it to their pasta to make it look as if they’d used eggs.
Chew on that one a bit: Apparently in Sardinia it was cheaper to use saffron in pasta than eggs. WTF?! Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, and even Gucci eggs from my local farmer’s market aren’t more than $4 a dozen. Pretty trippy, eh?
I decided to use both saffron and eggs, especially since I had some kick-ass eggs on hand — you know, the kind with the bright orange yolks? What? You’ve never had such glorious eggs? Get thee to a farmer’s market and slap down the cash. I know it’s spendy, but the difference is radical.
The fact that this is a semolina gnocchi also intrigues me. Mostly I make potato gnocchi, and occasionally I make ricotta gnocchi, which are essentially ravioli gnudi, or naked ravioli — it’s the filling without the pasta. Gnocchi, incidentally, simply means dumplings or “little lumps.” The semolina gnocchi I’ve eaten have always been heavier than the potato kind, although they still should not be lead weights.
Turns out it was an exercise in Zen.
You start with a wettish dough that you knead well and then let rest for a long time; two hours or more. This lets the dough relax and results in a lighter gnoccho.
You then cut off a small piece and roll it vigorously between your hands until you’ve made a yellow snake the width of a pencil. You’ll want to work the dough up and down as you do this to get it as even as you can.
You then cut off little pieces of the snake that are, hopefully, about the size of a chickpea. Now you can stop here and cook them, or you can go the extra step and gently roll them between your palms into a nice round shape. And if you really want to get fancy, you can then pinch one end of each gnoccho between your thumb and your first three other fingers — this dimples the bottom, making the pasta really look like a chickpea.
Doing this a few times is fun. Doing this with several pounds of pasta dough is less fun. But after making about 100 or so of these little gnocchi, I fell into that state I call the “pasta trance.”
Spin the dough into a snake. Get it pencil-thin. Cut off even pieces. Roll, roll, roll. Pinch, flick onto board. Ooh, a good one! Definitely looks like a chickpea. Ugh. Flattened out the dough by mistake. Roll, roll, roll. Pinch. Eh. That one’s just OK. Ohm… ohm… ohm…
Every now and then I’d look up and take a swig of wine. Once I noticed my neck hurt. It was an hour later. Roll, roll, roll. Pinch, flick onto board. This is not a quick and easy pasta.
But it is a good one.
This first dish is what I had in mind when I decided to make these gnocchi. I had some green chickpeas vacuum-sealed in the freezer and wanted to use them, and I thought it’d be cool to mix them with the semolina “chickpeas” and serve it simply with a dense tomato sauce and pecorino cheese.
Gorgeous. Both the real and the pasta chickpeas had just about the same density, brought together with the rich tomato sauce, made last summer from simmering down Brandywine tomatoes until they became neither sauce nor paste (maybe a jam?).
Fresh chickpeas will become available in farmer’s markets and in Mexican markets starting in a few weeks, so I’ll soon get another chance to make this. If you’ve never eaten them, they are a little like fresh fava beans: Definitely beany, sweeter than starchy, and with an underlying “green” taste.
I had enough gnocchi left over to pair them with a traditional meat sauce, made in this case with ground venison. Sardinians mostly eat ciciones with meat sauce, probably pork and/or lamb. You could use your favorite red sauce recipe.
It was just as delicious as the first dish, and the flavor of the saffron distinguished it from what might otherwise be a very typical comfort food meal. Semolina gnocchi with a venison sauce is definitely heavier than they were with the green chickpeas, though.
Keep in mind these gnocchi are not light as air. They are chewier than potato gnocchi, although not nearly as dense as you might suspect. Ciciones make a perfect pasta course, served on small plates; I ate a big bowl of them once and regretted it. It was too much. What you see above is a nice serving, which can be followed by other courses, like grilled meat and a salad.
Can you reach nirvana making and eating these? Maybe not. But ciciones are aromatic, hearty, beautiful to look at, require no special equipment and fun to make — after you get past your first hundred or so. Ohm… ohm…
SARDINIAN GNOCCHI with CHICKPEAS AND TOMATO
Fresh chickpeas are in season in spring, and are available in many farmer’s markets and in Mexican markets. They come in little papery pods of two to three chickpeas, and require just a short bath in salty boiling water to be ready to eat. They are a little sweet, definitely beany and have a definite “green” taste to them. If you can’t find them, use peas.
The gnocchi look like chickpeas, and that’s the beauty of the dish: At first glance it looks like a plate of fresh and dried chickpeas with tomato sauce, but when you eat it, it is so much better.
Some keys to the dish are good saffron and semolina — you can get both online from Scott at the Sausage Debauchery – and a seriously rich tomato sauce. I make a tomato jam in the summer by reducing pureed tomatoes with salt until they are denser than a sauce, but looser than a paste. You can approximate this by putting a can of tomato puree in the oven at 300 degrees until you get the right consistency.
A final note: A little goes a long way, so serve this in small plates as an appetizer. Save any leftover gnocchi and serve with meat sauce.
Serves 4, with gnocchi leftover for another dish.
Prep Time: 3 hours
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- 13 ounces durum semolina flour
- 4 eggs
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- Pinch of salt
- Large pinch of saffron, crumbled into 2 tablespoons warm water
- Extra regular flour for dusting work surface
- Whisk eggs, oil and saffron water together. Whisk together the salt and semolina.
- Make a well in the flour, then pour the wet ingredients in and slowly mix them together. Knead well, about 5 minutes. The dough should be soft and pliable, not hard. If you find the dough too hard, sprinkle some water in at the beginning of kneading. If for some reason it is too sticky, add just a little more flour.
- Let the dough rest, covered in plastic wrap, for 2-4 hours.
- Cut off a small piece of dough and roll it into a snake about the diameter of a pencil. Cut off small pieces about the size of a chickpea.
- Roll each piece gently between your palms to round it out.
- If you want to get fancy, pinch one end of each gnoccho with your thumb and first three fingers to dimple it — this makes it look more like a real chickpea.
- Let the finished gnocchi rest on a board or screen while you finish the dish.
- 1/2 pound of fresh green chickpeas or peas
- 2 cups dense tomato sauce
- Grated pecorino or other hard cheese
- Bring a large kettle of very salty water — it should taste like the sea — to a rolling boil and pour in the chickpeas. Remove with a slotted spoon 1 minute after the water returns to a boil. Taste – it should be sweet and delicious. If the chickpeas are still dry and starchy, boil some more, checking each minute.
- Remove the chickpeas to a bowl and pour the gnocchi into the boiling water.
- Put the tomato jam on medium heat. When it simmers, turn the heat to low.
- Let the gnocchi cook at least 5 minutes. Taste one. It should be chewy, and not dry and chalky at the center. They may need more time. Test every minute until they are cooked to the center.
- Pour about half the tomato jam into the bowl with the green chickpeas and add the cooked gnocchi. Toss to combine.
- To plate, spread a pool of tomato jam on each plate and top with some of the chickpeas and gnocchi. Top with grated cheese and serve at once.