Friday, 27 May 2011

Gnocchi That Pass the Brick Test

Is it possible to think of gnocchi and not think of bricks?  Put flour and potatoes together and there's a good chance you'll be mixing cement in no time.  This is the challenge of homemade gnocchi-- to make them firm to the bite but not too tough.  It was a challenge I was ready for. We had been married several years at this point, and my husband and I had found a way to tame the pasta-monsters within. By now we also had two mini pasta monsters living with us, so what did we have to lose? I figured the four of us could handle any bricks that came our way. 

I consulted some of my cookbooks and asked my mom and a couple of zias for advice.  "Not too much flour!"  "Just watch the flour!"  "Just remember to go easy on the flour and you'll be ok."   Got it.  I have seen the enemy and it is flour. 

Is it any wonder, then, that my gnocchi had the opposite problem?  Happier than our puppy when he gets a taste of nonna's pasta, I fondled my newly moulded nuggets to determine if they would pass the brick test.  Was I going to join the legions of kitchen brick layers that came before me? Or be blessed with beginner's luck and spin nuggets of gold?  I massaged the little mounds between my fingers. There was only one way to find out.

The first batch (about 50 of them) went into the boiling water.  After about three minutes, I scooped them out with my slotted spoon and wondered,  "Where did they all go?"  I could have sworn I put in double the amount.  And why were the remaining ones frizzing like soda pop?  I tried to remain calm and looked at my cutting board.  God, the kitchen was a disaster.  I took a moment to assess the situation.  I hadn't used too much flour so everything was ok, no?  

I drained the cloudy mashed potato water and wondered why none of my cookbooks had mentioned The Houdini Factor. Could it be that if you use too little flour, your gnocchi would disappear? But why wouldn't my cookbooks warn?  I set a fresh pot of water to boil on the stove and quickly set the table. Dinner was going to be late. I stared at the raw gnocchi on my cutting board. It wouldn't hurt to...add a little more flour to those that remained, would it?  I rolled each nugget lightly in the forbidden and set them aside. 

The second batch went into the boiling pot, and again, out came half, frizzing furiously. "They look like they've just been cooked by an electric fence," I thought. Dinner was definitely late now and there was little time for kitchen analysis.  On the plus side, my family hadn't complained about being hungry so at least I had that going for me.  I prepared the plates, ladled some sauce on top of each experiment, and called everyone for dinner.  Then I sliced plenty of bread and asked my oldest to place the basket on the table. We were going to need it. 

We sat down and dug in.  Eating in silence, our taste buds absorbing this new dish, I can only share my own perception. Foamy clouds topped with sauce and grated parmigiano.  Instead of making bricks, I had a boiled some version of Italian mini mashed potatoes, and they weren't very tasty mashed potatoes either.  Mortified, I said nothing. I looked at my kids for signs of displeasure but saw none. Their nonna had stopped making gnocchi long before they were born, and I don't think they'd eaten them anywhere else, so how would they know good from bad?

"Ooooo!  I hate gnocchi!" my oldest has always been a leader.  Within seconds, her sister followed.  "We don't want yucky gnocchi!"  To be fair, my kids aren't picky eaters.  They rarely complain about what we cook.  Watching my fizzling gnocchi (even the sauce was rejecting them) I spoke of world poverty and starvation.  I told my kids to be thankful they had a meal.  My husband consoled with, "They really aren't that bad," and somehow we got through that miserable dinner.  Half an hour later, we were all snacking in the kitchen.

We repeated this scenario three or four other times in the months that followed with progressively loud protests from our kids. The last saga ended with my husband making sandwiches for all and years of joking about mom's smoking-hot gnocchi. I estimate my last attempt was about five years ago. Though I added more flour each time I made them, my gnocchi never came close to being bricks.  I guess you could say I passed the test.

Hmmm...I think I'll propose A Gnocchi Challenge...what do you say?  Are you in?  No prizes or anything like that.  Just a chance for us to test our patience and culinary skills. First I need some time to consult with members of la famiglia, though.  And study a few of my cookbooks in order to offer you the best recipe.  In the meantime, if you have any tips on how to make good gnocchi, please share!


Sunday, 22 May 2011

Please Tell Me We Speak The Same Linguini

After greeting family with the usual kiss on each cheek and exchanging newsy bits, sooner or later conversations at family gatherings turn to culinary concerns.  Which bakery sells the freshest bread, where to get the best cheese, and "Where did you buy these amazing red peppers?"  

Although it's only food, family members talk with the passion of political-election candidates. "No! It's better if you go around 3 in the afternoon when they're taking the bread right out of the oven!" 

Well, it's not better if I'm at work...

Food tops the list but questions can also involve other matters of the kitchen.  At a family reunion two years after we were married, one of my cousins turned to me and my husband and asked: "So, who threw the first plate?"

When we were newlyweds, I did most of the cooking and was delighted to make pasta every night. My husband didn't like the idea and told me so.  Pointing to the offending carbo in the room he told me he was gaining weight.  The Penne Rigatte with Pesto had to go.  So did the Garlic Spaghettini with Eggplant and Zucchini, Bowties topped with Chicken, Roasted Red Peppers and Gorgonzola and a few of my other favorites.  "But what will we eat?!" I cried.  "Just cut out the pasta and we'll eat without it." 

Wha-?  How do you do that?

I am addicted to carbos-- pasta, specifically-- but I'll take risotto as a  substitute anyday. And bread dipped in homemade sauce?  As a friend of mine says: "Von bite of dat and you go to da heaven."   

Although we're mostly a once-a-week pasta family now, the decision to give up that daily pacifier-in-a-bowl resulted in a pasta metamorphosis that zapped my energy more than a kitchen renovation.   It took years to figure out a different way to live.  Shortly after we negotiated a new regimen of sorts, I decided this change needed to be absorbed slowly.  Try the one cup (ok, one and a half cup) per person rule (yuck), eat with lean bread for a pass by the land of gnocchi for a time. 

Ahhh, gnocchi.  Are they delacacies or bricks?  Everyone who's made them has a story.  Or three.   I'll tell you all about mine in my next post.  In the meantime, here's my family's recipe for basic tomato sauce (add the peperoncino and you've got arrabbiatta).

Salsa Fatta in Casa ~  My Family's Homemade Sauce

Most pasta sauces use basil and oregano but sometimes change is good.  I often substitute those spices with thyme and marjoram for a break but I suggest you use what you like best.  Experiment...maybe try a combination of all four.  That's the advantage to any plate that's fatto in casa.

1 (28 oz)  tin, whole tomatoes
1 (28 oz) tin, crushed tomatoes 
4 cloves of fresh garlic, minced
2 cooking onions, chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil
(1/2 tablespoon peperoncino for Salsa Arrabbiatta)
Thyme, marjoram (1 tsp each)
Salt to taste

Place the whole tomatoes in your Cuisinart (use the plastic or steel blade). Spin for 30 seconds and set aside.  In a heavy sauce pan with heat on high, add olive oil, onions and garlic.  Lower heat and saute, stirring often.  Add a 1/2 tsp each of thyme and marjoram, (all of peperoncino for arrabbiatta) and stir a little more.  Add both tins of tomatoes and raise heat again.  When the sauce begins to boil, add the other 1/2 tsp of each remaining spice and adjust heat to simmer.  Add salt to your taste while it simmers, anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour.  Stir a few times in between.  Enjoy with your favourite pasta. Serving size is one cup per person, though I've never met anyone who actually follows that rule.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Growing up Italian-Canadian and what to do about it

*A glossary of terms is available at the bottom of this post.

I saw them while driving to my zia's house, the young Punjabi family, four children and two moms watching over them as they ran around the tree laughing in the sunshine.  Sometimes I see these new immigrants in much larger groups in front of their houses, just hanging out, being family.  Is that how we looked 50 years ago?  Were there really that many of us standing in the driveway?  Playing soccer, eating pizza, getting yelled at for not stopping long enough to give un baccieto to the zii who just dropped in.  Such pride. Much pain.  And so many pensieri.

We were Italian immigrants and we travelled in packs.  Our parents had come to l'America (Canada in this case) for a better life.  For insurance, my Sicilian grandmother-- always dressed in black--  blessed our home and each new car with handfuls of Sifto salt to keep il m'alocchio away.  My Ciociare grandparents came and went with nocchere and other fine foods.  Our English neighbours kept their distance.  There was a definite "us" and "them" mentality.  Were we all afraid or was it just a matter of not understanding one another?

Though they never explained it in words, our parents' sacred-immigrant work ethic unfolded daily:  we work hard, and take on as much work as we can handle.  We buy our own homes and polish them until they shine, for that was what we lost before we came here.  And you must stay in school and choose a career so you'll never know la miseria we lived through!   This was the mountain before us.

In those early years, we held onto each other as we would life preservers in the middle of an ocean.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, nonni, we were a city unto ourselves.  We'd crowd the airport for every new arrival, organize convoys to Niagara Falls, and congregate in High Park on Sundays (the only campagna we knew then) with enough food to welcome The Pope.  Our fathers were stunned when nearby picnickers called the cops on us once.  Wine was not permitted in the park?  No worries.  Questi non sono pensieri. A large glass bottle emptied of Coke would hold what we needed.  Just cork it and cover it with a little tinfoil.  No one will ever know.  After all, homemade wine was as necessary as aria fresca-- and anyway, what's a picnic senza vino?  Never heard of such a thing!

As we explored our young city, my nonna never left the house.  Every morning she'd sit on the front porch waiting for the postman.  We translated.  No, there was no mail from Italy today.  No, he didn't know when the next letter would come.  I was too young to understand how much her heart must have ached for her homeland.  She had lived through enough miseria to worry about what Wonderbread would have meant to us.

Our parents had a house, furniture to pay for and growing children so off they went a zappare early each morning.  Hunched over sewing machines working piecework on Spadina, our mothers sewed their fingers to the bone.  Our fathers sweat blood laboring in construction, or worked long hours delivering milk and bread or selling goods to grocery stores opened by entrepreneurial paesanos.  The bills were never ending.  Our mothers split pennies in two.  We ate enough pasta to build a CN Tower full.  And many of our fathers built the real CN Tower, too.

As kids, despite our parents' good intentions, we struggled with feelings of shame.  Who were we?  As children of immigrants, many of us felt displaced even though we were born here.  We hid our thoughts so as not to hurt them.  I still feel paralyzed when I remember the English kids laughing at my grade-three hands clutching two thick pieces of pizza stuffed with rapini.  Heavenly Father, please help me live through this sangwich and 'til the end of the day. Amen.

By the time we reached high school, many of our parents were fluent in English and we had survived by learning to laugh at ourselves and the world around us.  Transcending years of humiliation, we shared gelato and side-splitting stories with amici at La Sem, one of the first popular Italian cafes on St. Clair near Caledonia.  The English were now mangia-cakes (mangia-twinkies on our more hilarious days) but there was more.  The plastic on the couches, the madonnas on the front lawn, the homemade vino that could strip furniture.  The shoe in the head.  By our university years, some of us were exploring the rightful place of Italese.  (Is baga a real word?)  Then we weren't so sure.  Today, there is no doubt.  We studied the socio-economics of it all within the larger context of the globe and debated passionately with dear friends far into the night.

We rarely hear stories of la miseria now.  And we don't travel in packs so much.  I have a fondness for the front-lawn madonnas who witnessed our struggle that surprises me.  One step at a time, between rounds of Mannaggia al'America and Signore ti Ringrazio, we overcame huge obstacles-- our language, the stigma of the tomato garden, even the rapini stuffed between two pieces of pizza.  While he was still alive, my English father-in-law used to tell me the story of how people in his hometown of Ottawa would laugh at pizza when it first came to town.  What was this crazy thing?  It seems inconceivable now. 

We have the education our parents so desperately  wanted for us.  We're working professionals and business owners with houses and gardens of our own.  Some of us still make thick pizza and drink homemade wine, though it's come a long way from its turpentine days.  And yet, to me, it all seems so bittersweet.  For the truth is, when you climb a mountain as high as Everest, you're bound to be transformed by the time your reach its peak.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm thankful for the luck I've had and all I've worked hard for.  And I pray we never come face to face with la miseria again.  But I feel the journey has changed us.  Is it just my impression, or have we forgotten where we came from?  I capture bits of it when I see driveways packed with young immigrant families.  I long to pass them handfuls of salt to keep il m'alocchio away.  And I think to myself, God bless these new people for they have known la miseria and have such a challenging mountain to climb.  I wish them every success and the strength to hold onto their pride.  May we all stay humble so we can help those who come after us.  For in the end, despite all our pensieri and the success we will achieve, that is what counts most.