I don’t know how life is where you’re at or how well you are holding up during the quarantine. But in my home, we are starting to have trouble remembering which day it is or whether or not we took a shower in the last 24 hours. Life is quickly becoming a blur between dawn and darkness.
The highlight of each day is our family lunch. It’s actually the one time we come together as a family and forget all the troubles of the world, even just for an hour. Our mealtime ritual is always the same. I plan a meal, open the wine, my 9-year-old sets the table while I cook, and then my wife Lisa stops working to join us.
These days I find myself cooking more comfort foods like pasta, roast chicken, soupe au pistou, and pork rillette. Gone are the self-imposed restrictions like eating less gluten or only eating soups for dinner. I noticed many friends have followed suit as if some invisible call went out to the world of home cooks. I see social media posts full of baked loaves of bread, strands of homemade pasta, and more cakes than the most stocked bakery would ever dream of making. Comfort food is the only bridge to what once was a normal life. The simple act of cooking has become comforting during life in crisis.
I was first introduced to gnocchi at a young age. The Ranieri’s were family friends who lived in the same building I grew up in. Going to their apartment was like taking a trip to Italy. The colors, the music, but mostly I fondly recall the pervasive scents of something really good always simmering on Tina’s stove.
It was at their house that I first had real gnocchi. I vividly remember the platters of feather-light pillow-shaped dumplings served in a rich tomato sauce as if it were yesterday. I was too young to realize but their food transported me in a way that only great food can. The food had a soul, it wasn’t a high-end restaurant meal cooked for profit. Their rustic Italian fare was very similar in many ways to what my Provencal mother cooked but in a slightly different shade. I loved eating at their house.
Divorce and Gnocchi
My parents divorced when I was two, though they lived together until I was 12. My parents were old-school and wanted both my older sister and me to grow up with both parents in the house. When my dad finally left, I would visit him on weekends. Because he did not cook, he would always take me out to eat.
We often went to Papa Milano’s, an old-school Italian eatery. The kind of place that was so out of the past that you felt like you were entering a time-warp just by walking in. I would compare it to Pascal’s from the hit movie ‘The Big Night’ to lend context. The place was always packed. I remembered the plates being piled so high with food that there was no way you could eat it all in one sitting.
The first time I ate there the waiter handed me an oversized menu full of 1950s American Italian restaurant fare you would expect. Knowing I was overwhelmed by choices, my dad leaned over and suggested the gnocchi. Eating gnocchi took me to a dream-world full of gaiety and joy.
Being a creature of habit I always ate gnocchi whenever we went there. It felt familiar and soothing to eat gnocchi. Looking back, gnocchi became a pacifier in my life and provided continuity between life before and after my family’s divorce (yeah, whole families divorce — not just the parents).
How To Make Gnocchi
I’ve made gnocchi a million times in my life before I really learned how to make them (and cook almost every other pasta) from a close friend, Chef Tony Priolo, owner of Piccolo Sogno in Chicago. We were opening Pili Pili, a French restaurant and the opening was delayed as it always happens. The owner of the restaurant group thought it would be beneficial working for Tony in the pasta station, predictably the busiest station in his restaurant.
It took on the look and feel of a pasta Bootcamp. Every shift I made hundreds of plates of pasta under Tony’s close scrutiny. Endless bowls of AOP would be rejected for reasons I couldn’t see but Tony could spot from halfway across the restaurant. Nothing like repetition and experience to make you grow and be able to see the same flaws you couldn’t see before. Tony taught me to understand pasta in a new way.
This home version is based on what I learned (I just pray I don’t embarrass Tony with a mediocre recipe). To this day I cannot eat gnocchi without thinking of my father and my childhood. Give this recipe a try at home and I hope you find comfort and solace within its bowls as I do.
A basic recipe for Italian potato dumplings
- 2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
Bake potatoes at 350 F until soft, about 1 hour. You should be able to easily pierce a potato with a small knife.
Peel and mash the potatoes in whatever fashion works for you. The best way for me is with a food mill or a potato press but use whatever method works well for you. Add all the rest of the ingredients and mix well by hand. The dough should be soft to the touch and not sticky. Add a little flour if the dough is sticky.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil.
Cut the dough into 4 even pieces and roll each one out into strands about the same diameter as your finger. Cut each strand into 1-inch segments. This next step is optional: Roll each piece on the back of a fork to put ridges on the gnocchi.
Drop 1/4 of the gnocchi into your boiling water and cook until they float to the surface, about 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from the water and cool off in ice water immediately. Repeat until done with all the gnocchi. Drizzle with olive oil and refrigerate until you are ready to eat. Keep no longer than 3 days.
Here are a few variations I love:
- Simple gnocchi with a tomato sauce. Bring the tomato sauce to a boil, add the gnocchi, heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Toss in a 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan. Serve.
- Squash Gnocchi
- Gnocchi with Tocco di Carne (a meat and porcini sauce)
- Gnocchi with Veal Sauce
A veal sauce made like Bolognaise perfect for gnocchi or pasta or risotto.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic chopped fine
- 1 leek washed well and diced
- 1 onion diced
- 2 ribs celery diced
- 3 small carrots diced
- 2 tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 2 tsp herbes de Provence
- 1 tsp red chili flakes
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 handful fresh herbs from your garden (rosemary, thyme, summer savory, fennel fronds) optional
- 1 pound veal feel free to substitute pork or beef
- 28 oz can San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 cup red wine
- 1/4 cup basil shredded
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add garlic, leeks, and onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add celery and carrots, cover with the lid and cook for 10 minutes until vegetables are soft. Add salt, pepper, herbs, chilies, bay leaves, fresh herbs, and veal. Cover and cook for 10 minutes longer. Add the tomatoes, red wine, basil, and cream and simmer over low heat for 1 hour. Adjust seasonings to your tastes.
San Marzano Tomato Sauce
A basic tomato sauce
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 onion chopped
- 2 cloves garlic mashed
- 1/2 cup chopped basil leaves
- 28 ounce can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 pinch sugar
- salt and pepper to taste
Saute chopped onion and garlic in olive oil. Hand crushed San Marzano tomatoes and add. Add everything else and simmer for 30 minutes. Puree everything through a food mill. If you do not have a food mill then a blender very quickly at low speed, You do not want to aerate it.