Two more days of school left. Two! And while I know, the proper emotion when faced with this fact is a healthy mix of excitement, sadness, relief, and fear, I have trouble feeling anything but impatience. Two days is two days too many, in my book.
Part of that impatience comes from the anticipation of summer travel. In August I’ll take a long overdue visit to my grandparents back in China, followed by a bit of brother-sister adventuring around Beijing, which will no doubt be interesting. But first, I’m heading off to Milan to work at the World Expo. This is where that jumble of excitement and fear strikes. I get to meet people from all over the world, experience aperitivo (legal), look at impeccably dressed Italian men (you know what they say), and travel alone. But I also have to watch my back for pickpockets, deal with a language barrier, figure out how the toilets work, and travel alone. Can’t wait!
In preparation for my travels I thought I would brush up on some Italian culture, starting (and ending) with food. It’s not a bad way to get to know a country—if you know what they eat, you know how they live, and there’s not a country where that is truer than in food-obsessed Italy. I checked out this gorgeous book from the library.
“The Painter, the Cook, and the Art of Cucina”
It turns out, there is no such thing as “Italian cuisine,” at least not in Italy. Each region of Italy has its own character. Gnocchi is made of semolina in Rome, of spinach and ricotta in Tuscany, and of potato in many other areas. But there is one thing that is common throughout Italy: its love of tradition. Italian grandmothers are the authority when it comes to cooking and they all seem to hold an attitude of Well if this heirloom recipe has been tested for hundreds of years, what else is there to change?
We Americans on the other hand have a constant itch for novelty. “Innovation” we call it when talking about technology, a quality we take great pride in. It’s why one of America’s trendiest bakeries sells cornflake-marshmallow-chocolate-chip cookies and why limited edition dill pickle wheat thins line the supermarket shelves: we love the new, even if it isn’t quite as good as the old, simply because it is exciting.
Of course, I’m generalizing quite a bit here (Southerners have been known to fiercely defend their regional barbeque) and maybe it’s because I live in the hippie dippy Bay Area / Silicon Valley, but it would explain a lot. For starters, it would explain the cult following of Marcella Hazan and why I disliked her style so much. She was an opinionated Italian grandmother, a champion of tradition, and I, a girl who grew up eating limited edition crackers. This was the age old battle between tradition and innovation rearing its ugly head right before my eyes.
With this realization I began to feel less stifled by Marcella’s rules. I mean, it’s just tradition we’re talking about. And seeing as I’m not Italian, I don’t see why I would want to cook like an Italian grandmother, however delicious her meals are. Her rules are more like suggestions, served with a side of Marcella persistence, for those who want to follow in her footsteps. Since I don’t necessarily want to do whatever she says for the sake of being authentic, I’m free to do as I like. (Oh man, I just realized how ridiculous this sounds since she “talks” to me from the pages of a cookbook. All that I can say is that her writing has a simultaneously frightening and reassuring tone that is hard to disagree with.) As my math teacher often said, “We don’t do cookbook style learning around here.” Amen, Mr. Lau.
And with that I give you…
Adapted from Guliano Hazan’s recipe, which he got from his momma Marcella
I think I owe Marcella Hazan an apology. She really does have excellent recipes and I admire her for her stubbornness in defending what she thinks is right.
But I couldn’t resist tweaking something in her recipe. Her shaping method involves rolling a pillow of gnocchi dough along the tines of a fork using her finger, but I found my dough to squishy and my finger too fat (?) to do so with ease. The ridges just disappeared when I tried shaping it. So instead, (drumroll please I am very proud of this) I used TWO forks, one to roll the dough with and one to roll the dough on. This way you get two ridge-forming surfaces instead of one and the dough still curls to form that cute cavity. Pro tip: dip the forks in flour when the dough starts to stick.
Please, hold the applause dear readers.
1 3/4 lbs russet potatoes, unpeeled and scrubbed
Roughly 5 oz (1 cup) flour, more or less depending on moisture of potatoes (original recipe says 1 1/2 cups, no weight measurement)
- Boil the potatoes for 30-40 minutes until the potatoes are thoroughly cooked. Try not to test them too often or they will soak up too much water.
- Remove the potatoes and as soon as they are cool enough to handle, peel them. Run them through a potato ricer, piling the riced potatoes on a floured cutting board. Sprinkle half the flour over the potatoes, working it into a sticky dough, then continue adding the flour little by little until the dough is only slightly sticky. A bench scraper used to fold the dough over on itself works well for this purpose since the folding motion will prevent too much gluten from forming. Otherwise your hands will do the job just fine. This is largely a matter of feel since different potatoes have different water contents, but it should be around 5 oz.
- Divide the dough into quarters. Take one quarter and roll it into a long rope of ¾ inch diameter on a floured surface. Cut the rope into square pillows. Place one pillow at the base (non-pointy end) of a fork. Using another fork, roll the gnocchi up the tines of the fork, creating little ridges. It should also have a little cavity where the top fork pierced it in the rolling process.
- Continue step three for the rest of the dough, placing each finished gnoccho on a floured baking sheet in a single layer. If you do not plan to cook the gnocchi in a few hours, you may freeze them in a single layer on the baking sheet before transferring to a Ziploc bag.
- To cook the gnocchi, bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Salt the water like the sea. Slide some gnocchi into the water, making sure not to overcrowd the pot. When they begin to float, cook for 30 seconds more then remove with a slotted skimmer. Repeat with the remaining gnocchi.
- Serve with melted butter and crispy sage leaves, a Bolognese sauce, or cinnamon and sugar.