I’ve Got It, You’re An Italian. Huh? You’re Jewish?

Now that the Boy has figured out that if he requests things, I will make them, it’s been open season. And the memory thing is kind of scary. His ability to recall with granular accuracy exactly what I agreed to do and when is really making me wish that my wife had taken more drugs when she was pregnant. On the plus side, the meals in question are not too hard. Making them from scratch, as with lasagne in the previous post, does require some effort. That effort, though, is repaid a hundredfold by the splendid flavor of the result and the attendant adulation of one’s offspring. This affectionate worship is best savored now, before he is old enough to get tattoos and wreck my car, so I’m basking in it.

Kids love Italian food. I did, with an abiding passion. When I moved to Rome, I felt at home as soon as I landed and I never looked back. I was homesick for exactly zero seconds during my nearly two years there. I had a running (and it only got more funny, you can believe me) joke with my friends: we’d head out for an evening and I’d say “You guys feel like Italian tonight?” It killed. It’s no secret why kids love it so; the compelling combination of carbs and cheese with tomato sauce is not exactly a grant-worthy mystery. And as with all other things, when you make it from scratch it enters into the alchemical realm that Italian food shares with the other great peasant cuisines of the world: it affords actual glimpses of infinity in a grain of sand. Or, in this case, a potato.

After school, we went out into the still-thriving garden (though frost is imminent, we still have peppers and tomatoes, and the reseeded stuff is frantically clawing its way skyward) and dug some potatoes. We also picked pak choi and pulled a leek and a daikon for the requisite side dish. Part of what makes this simple food so amazing is that it begins with digging tubers out of the soil and ends with eye-rolling pleasure less than an hour later. The transition from diamond-in-the-rough dirty spud to plump, tender morsel swaddled in sweet, herbal, umamitudinous sauce is akin to that of the butterfly emerging from a chrysalis: magical.

I washed, cubed, steamed, and mashed the potatoes with some flour, salt, and two egg yolks until they got to the necessary dryness. Then I rolled them out into snakes on the counter and cut them on the bias into gnocchi. The sauce was a pint of homemade tomato sauce (you’ll be reading that a lot for the next few months) that I poured into some sizzling duck fat that a minced clove of garlic and some dried red pepper were busy flavoring like it was their job. I also added wine, herbs, and some raw milk that needed using up (I made more camembert today, but somehow overlooked this jar with a little bit left in it). To make full use of the milk without turning the sauce to cream of tomato soup, I added a fat pinch of flour to the duck fat before I poured in the various liquids. Thus was the spirit of the besciamella from Saturday night resurrected in dilute form to cosset our gnocchi with rosy magnificence.

While the sauce bubbled merrily toward its rendez-vous with destiny, I sautéed the greens in duck fat with the leek and daikon, deglazing with stock, soy sauce, and vinegar, and then letting it sit to marinate. I cooked the gnocchi in individual portions and sauced each plate individually to keep anything from sticking together, adding a sprinkle of marjoram to finish. For my money, marjoram is better than organo; it has a longer season, a more pronounced flavor, and it’s easier to grow indoors all winter long.

And that was it. Gnocchi with the firm-to-pillowy ratio of the perfect buttock, sweet-savory-creamy sauce, and the brightness of the herbal garnish. Pure joy. The greens weren’t bad, either.

10 comments to I’ve Got It, You’re An Italian. Huh? You’re Jewish?

  • What an ode – seed to plate. It all looks perfect.

    Lately, duck fat is front and center in so much of my cooking – and more so than previous years, for obvious reasons. It’s nice, isn’t it? Better than butter, in many applications. Are you baking with it yet?

    And I will admit to laughing, more than once, at “You guys feel like Italian tonight?”

  • Eve

    I love the idea of starting a meal in the garden – that’s the kind of education all kids need. Milo is a lucky boy.

  • Outstanding. I love homemade gnocchi. I’ve been biding my time till Texas cools off enough to really enjoy some… Hopefully with ox tails. Great post.

  • @Tim: Yup, Zappa, the fadeout of “Dancin’ Fool.”

  • El

    See, this is another dish I’d have lateraled off to old Milo, or at least the ricing and rolling-out parts. [okayOKAY I do well understand it takes longer to get them to do it (and do it all, unlike their usual dilettante way) but it's great time with the parent, even if the parent often sounds shrill.] But if he’s, you know, *asked* for it, you can discuss the meaning of TANSTAAFL.

    and I agree with favoring marjoram. It’s also less prone to bolting and spreading.

  • You should teach Milo to say “schiacciapatate”

  • Peter

    Cathy: I cook with it all the time, but as you know I hardly bake anything besides bread. And I think it might be too runny for pastry, unlike lard.

    Eve: All good meals start in the garden.

    Tim: Love your nails; you must be a Libra.

    Jake: Sugo di coda would be awesome with these.

    David: I have an even better one in store.

    El: I’m working towards it. He’s good at the mashing, but not for long enough. I need to ease him in to the more strenuous activities. He likes to roll out the snakes.

    Nicole: I should also teach him to open a bottle of wine.

  • How come you never make things when I request them?

  • Well, what a positively wonderful post. The gnocchi look terrific, and you are right about the good times prior to the tattoos and bad driving. Grazie e bravo!

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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