27 September, 2009
gnocchi, my would-be Waterloo
Well, I cannot profess to have a recipe for gnocchi, although I successfully made gnocchi this evening. How to explain this conundrum? It's a very flexible dish. Let me explain.
My dear friend Charlie, our houseguest this weekend, gave me a lovingly and extravagantly inscribed copy of Antonio Carluccio's Simple Cooking. In his over 50 years of cooking, it's no surprise he can come up with a rather slim and gorgeously photographed book of simple tips, easy recipes, pantry advice, you name it. It's a book you may have bought by many other people, many other times. Marcella Hazan? Guiliano Hazan? Jamie Oliver, even, or in America, Mario Batali or Giada di Laurentiis. Basic instructions, things you would think I could follow.
Except that I simply cannot follow a recipe. Unless I'm REALLY scared. And for some reason, because gnocchi was Italian, I wasn't scared. Enough.
So I thought, triple the spinach, why not? I love spinach. I'll tell you why not. Because spinach adds, more even than flavor, LIQUID to a recipe. And if you're making pasta, liquid matters. Sigh.
I found myself having religiously followed the proportions of the other ingredients: flour, egg and mashed potato. So religiously that I dragged John out of the house to the hardware store to buy batteries for my scale. And then, what did I do? I simply flung spinach at the recipe as though it were being rationed. And the dough, my dears? Too, too sticky for words. Too sticky to live! What was a girl to do?
I had already cleverly taken the leftover mashed potato (after its religious weighing) and turned it into proper mashed potatoes, as with butter and cream. Well, I felt I should fling it in, to make up for the incredible amount of extra flour I knew was coming. And it WAS. A couple of abortive technology-failed transatlantic phone calls to my Italian mother in law (with the brief intervention of my annoyed husband: "why can't you just follow a recipe, and no I will NOT be the translator on this phone call because you're covered in flour!") elicited the brief and wise advice, "Sift in some flour, very gently and work it in." Leaving aside the fact that I do not own a sifter, I drifted in some flour. And some more and some MORE. Finally I rolled the little devils out and placed them upon platters where... they STUCK. Like grim death.
Dinner time arrived. "The tomato sauce smells terrific," John said, and I thought, people have existed on less. I wrested the little blobs of green gnocchi from their platters and simply threw them in the boiling water. Sure enough, they blobbed to the top just as Antonio told me they would. I scooped them out, added a bit of the pasta water to thin the tomato sauce, topped them with mozzarella cubes, a scattering of chiffonade of basil, and some parmesan, and...
What on earth happened?
Light, fluffy (reminding me of Charlie's nickname for Avery, "part-time fluffy"), coated in perfectly garlicky tomato sauce. A revelation. What happened?
A very, very forgiving recipe, is all I can say. The next time I try it, I promise - hand on heart - to follow the instructions STRICTLY and report a real recipe. But my immediate advice would be: find a congenial recipe, change whatever you like, and... fly by the seat of your pants.
So tonight we ate, hearts on our lips, and enjoyed a gorgeous salad to follow of an Italian air-and spice-cured beef, with rocket, chilli oil, lemon juice and pepper. Just brilliant. And here I'd pictured family-wide scrambled eggs at 9 p.m.
The lesson? None at all, except be grateful you have a family who will sit down to Lord knows what, and that there is a cuisine like Italian which professes to have recipes, but can accommodate any number of stupid errors. And for fresh-grated parmesan, which makes EVERYTHING all right.
Also, my dinner was proof that if you have a little rocket, a little preserved meat, and a good oil, you have a salad. In this country, it's surprisingly easy to accomplish. People may moan about packaging (so much plastic, and yes it's true), or so many air miles (Italian meat, I know). But that aside, my conscience aside, it's sinfully simple here in England to buy gorgeous Italian cured meats, fabulous buffalo mozzarella, bitingly sharp rocket, aged Parmesan, and with a little spicy olive or truffle oil, you have a salad. Such was our experience at dinner at my friend Sally's last week.
The lady has no fewer than four children, and a working lad for a husband, tired out from the city. You'd never know it at their house: candles glowing, art with a very definite sensibility on the walls, two of their girls concocting Sally's salad as we arrived. Figs! Prosciutto! Rocket, spinach, mozzarella, balsamic vinegar. Quite perfect.
And this weekend, reuniting Avery's friend Sylvie with her family, and introducing Charlie to them all, at La Fromagerie. Quite simply the most CHARMING of all communal tables, in the heart of Marylebone, attached to the cheese-mongery but rising far above such limitations to offer a charcuterie plate to Sylvie's brother of astonishing proportions: chorizo, salami, saucisson sec, you name it, all surrounded by cornichons and centered with an amazing celeriac slaw. Avery had a tomato tart, John and Charlie a mushroom tart, I a fish platter with smoked mackerel AND smoked trout pates, smoked salmon, and fresh taramasalata. Simon ordered the cheese platter for us all to share. A friendly din, a happy sharing mentality, and adjoining us, a Swedish fellow about to go back there, and determined to pay his entire bill in English COINS! Laboriously piled in stacks per denomination! Somehow the lovely French waitress found this charming, and did not bring out a pistol to shoot him in his Scandinavian knees.
Finally, off we went, parting from Charlie (sob) and Sylvie's family, to collect our... NEW CAR! Minnow, she's been christened, pearly gray as she is. TINY, simply tiny. We tooled off in the afternoon sun, filled with sad memories of Emmy, the beloved Mini, but ready to start a new era with the Cinquecento. And in that Italian frame of mind... gnocchi, as well. Sante!