Monday, February 28, 2011

This Spud's for You

Behold--the humble potato. In spite of her cross-eyes, blemishes, dirty skin, and thick waistline, she is loved by--dare I say?--everyone from one end of the globe and back around again. As Americans, in a single year, we EACH consume 140 pounds of potatoes, and as a nation, 4,000 million pounds of french fries. Some historians credit the potato with the expansion of Industrialism across Europe; it was the cause of a war, aptly named, The Potato War, where opposing forces, due to crop failures, literally raided their enemies and took their potatoes, and due to a blight that caused the potatoes to rot from disease, it was the root (pardon the pun) of a decrease of over two million people from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine (1845-52),  gone to either starvation, or to America in search of work and food.

Personally, I adore potatoes, probably given to the fact that my mother cooked a lot of potatoes. In fact, to this day, I have never met anyone, myself included, who could work a potato over in quite the way that my mother can. Among her repertoire: crispy hash browns, wonderful potato pancakes, fried homestyle potatoes with thick rings of smothered onions, mashed potatoes, potato casseroles, baked potatoes, scored potatoes, and roasted potatoes. We ate, thinking back upon those days, a significant number of potatoes. I believe, although my grandmother, by coincidence, worked at the National Potato Board (how cool is that? A marketing agency for the potato!) that the real reason we consumed more than our fair share of the tubers was due to being poor, but I'm also certain that my mother cooked them so often simply because they were good and satisfying.

My real affair with the potato actually began when I was in my early thirties and living in San Francisco. Ken decided to take me to a wonderful little (and I do mean little) restaurant on the edge of North Beach (the Italian sector) called, Cafe Macaroni. After folding ourselves into one of the few tiny tables in a dining room made even smaller by the ginormous refrigerated display case brandishing a good fifty antipasto treats, Ken ordered the wine while I scanned the menu. "Don't even bother," he said. "I am going to order you the most perfect thing ever." And with that, we raised our wine glasses in a toast passing time, until the beautiful, young, I-can't-speak-much-English-but-I'm-Italian waiter arrived.

The dish that was placed before me was gnocchi. And even I, who had lived between the pages of cookbooks and had a subscription to not one, but two, highbrow food magazines, and who--seriously--had traveled in Italy, had never even heard of gnocchi. I was sheltered and naive and my soon-to-be husband was introducing me to a ball of boiled dough--no, a drug--that would plunge me squarely into the depths of addiction, for once that first little dumpling crossed my lips and my brain lit up with euphoria and my heart raced through my chest, I was hooked.

But this post is not about my battles with the dumplings, which is a sad and heartbreaking tale on its own, but rather, a moment where I give pause in my day to commiserate with my fellow human beings south of the equator in Argentina, who so love gnocchi, that on the 29th day of every month, they celebrate Dias de los noquis--Day of the Gnocchi--but February, a most uncooperative month, only gives us 28 days. I've never been to Argentina, so I'm not sure what that means, but from what I've read, the only time one can find gnocchi is on the 29th day of the month. Does that mean that these poor people will have to go without gnocchi since their last feast of January 29th until their next one on March 29th? There's no telling; but I will be frank by saying here, out loud and for everyone (well at least the half-dozen or so people reading this) that I would revolt--I would--in fact, I WILL eat gnocchi today, even though it is only the 28th, and I hope that you, too, will lift up your fork in solidarity.

But, where, you ask, can you buy gnocchi? My friends, making gnocchi is not as hard as you think, especially when one's addiction rarely allows time to go off in search of the 'stuff' available on the street.

Admittedly, I am new to making gnocchi. At first I resisted because it seemed so time consuming and I felt buoyed by my stash of ready made gnocchi in my cupboard. But one day, just like any addiction, those gnocchi weren't enough for me; they weren't light enough or fluffy enough and they were sort of dry, too, so it happened innocently enough, that in search of a snack, I spied a plastic container of leftover mashed potatoes. I know; I am well aware of the legions of gnocchi experts who say one must cook the potatoes; one must rice the potatoes; one must do this and that...or else. But me, well on my best days, I'm rebellious, so I pondered over those potatoes that had been in the fridge for exactly five days on the day that I saw them, and then I grabbed a yogurt and quietly shut the door of the refrigerator.

I spent the next 12 hours thinking about the possibility of having a first time run at homemade gnocchi and yes, I did wonder how almost week-old mashed potatoes would work. I briefly toyed with the idea of starting with fresh potatoes, I mean, if I was going to commit myself to something so laboriously (at least I thought so) time consuming as gnocchi, then I should really set myself up for success by starting fresh. But then, that would mean, since it was the weekend and still football season, missing a good game, and, having to throw out perfectly good, albeit, aged food. Plus, I'm just stating for the record that I had recently read a recipe that stated that the secret to ultra crispy hash browns (another of my obsessions) was to parboil the potatoes and then stash them in the fridge for a few days. The science behind this trick had to do with the starches getting a chance to get all cozy with each other, and as we know, the cozier the starches get, the happier everyone is in the end. So, I reasoned that my potatoes weren't really aged, but rather, seasoned. And thus, I took the container out of the refrigerator so the potatoes could get to room temperature.

Making gnocchi is a pretty intimidating task and if you read enough recipes, you will probably shy away from it altogether, which is almost what I did. Then I came across a recipe that said that it really wasn't about how much flour you added as it wasn't about measurement, but about the consistency of the dough. That won me over and gave me the courage to proceed with my plans. I dumped the mashed potatoes out onto a floured cutting board, made a well in the center and cracked two eggs into the hole, added a good pinch of salt and several generous cranks of the pepper mill, and then I just started working in scoops of flour. I will confide that at one point, I was fairly certain that I had used way too much flour, but I just kept thinking that in the end, I was going for consistency of the dough, so I continued to add the flour until it was smooth and pliable and had lost its stickiness.

The next part was easy: I cut it into pieces, rolled out long ropes and cut the ropes into tiny pillows of dough. Now, there is a whole other argument about making fork tines in the gnocchi, but aside from a decorative purpose (I eat gnocchi with a spoon, so the 'well, the sauce needs something to hang onto' argument didn't work for me), I could see no good reason to put the time into the task. The rolling and cutting went by quickly and I could see that my little container of leftover mashed potatoes would result in too many gnocchi, even for me, so I decided to freeze them for later use. I did this by rolling them in flour, tossing them onto a cookie sheet in a single layer, and freezing them until firm and then, dividing them into freezer bags.

How beautiful are those little babies. huh? In the end, the little freezer trick netted me several little packets of 'spud gold' and the security of knowing that on any given day, at any given time, I was only minutes away from great gnocchi.

I will end with a picture and a general recipe for my favorite way to chow down of these perfect dumplings. For while I love them with gorgonzola or marinara, and while they are pretty darn good with browned butter and sage, I particularly like them a'la Mel, which is to say, boiled and then panfried in a bit of olive oil and garlic, a huge spoon of my tomato jam (recipe to follow) a bit of good feta, crumbled over the top, and a handful of toasted bread crumbs and parsley.

I'm not good at exact recipes, so here's a basic idea of how to make the tomato jam, which by the way, is divine with lamb chops.

Mel's Tomato Jam
Heat up a good glug of olive oil in a heavy saucepan. When hot, add 1 large onion, chopped, a few toes of garlic, finely chopped, and a big pinch of brown mustard seeds.  Let the onions and garlic caramelize and then stir in a big pinch of cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves, fennel seed, and cumin; allow to cook until very fragrant. Add in one large, drained can of diced tomatoes (unless it's tomato season and then you should use fresh tomatoes or all colors and varieties), a few heaping tablespoons of brown sugar, the juice of one lemon and a few good teaspoons of lemon zest, and allow to simmer until 'jam-like' in consistency. Correct seasonings; store in small containers. I keep several on hand in my freezer for impromptu fixes.

To make the gnocchi:
Boil the gnocchi (they are done when they float to the top) and remove to an oiled plate with a slotted spoon. Heat a nice dose of olive oil in a cast iron skillet over medium high heat until the oil pops a bit when you sprinkle in a drop of water (careful; you haven't made enough gnocchi to feed the fire department), slide the gnocchi off the plate into the hot pan and fry until crispy and brown (don't worry; the insides will melt in your mouth); add in a bit of chopped garlic; brown; then add in a couple of big spoonfuls of tomato jam, a generous handful of crumbled feta cheese, a few turns of the pepper mill, a pinch of salt and a handful of chopped parsley. Remove the pan from the heat and serve.

Happy Dias de los Noquis, people!

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