Roman and I have adopted an Italian grandma named Elena. A real nonna romana who calls us nice names and is teaching me to cook Italian dishes. I first wrote about her here (see "stop two"), but little did I know at the time that she would become part of our life. She stands about 5 feet tall, has kind, brown eyes and thinks Roman's name is Omar even though I tell her it's just "Romano without the O."
She arrived on time, potato ricer in hand, methodically tied her red apron on and stood, practically on her tip toes, to reach the bowl perched on our counter while she squeezed the potatoes through the ricer into the bowl. "I wake up full of enthusiasm, but as the day goes on I lose my energy," she said, struggling a bit with the ricer.
I asked her how she learned to make gnocchi. "Per forza maggiore," she says, looking at me sideways, "out of necessity"- explaining that she had a very demanding husband and a mother in law who was a great cook.
Half way through the kneading she sighs. "Can I take over?" I say, trying to pry Roman off of me so I can help. "You're wondering why I sighed?" Turns out she was thinking of a woman two floors above her who jumped to her death two days ago. Reminder that things can be ugly in this world outside of my cozy gnocchi making kitchen.
We talk about how she had three kids in four years back in the 60's and had to get up at 4:30 am to prepare lunch for her husband who wouldn't come home to eat. Then she'd dress the kids and get them out the door and go to work herself. "I had a brutta vita" she said, a hard life.
But now, buzzing with energy around my kitchen, tossing ideas left and right about what we'll make next, she says, "when can I come back, are you free Tuesday?"
Old school Italians still follow tradition and eat gnocchi on Thursdays. An elaborate dish in anticipation of the upcoming weekend.
As can be expected, Elena didn't give me quantities or have me write anything down. We used red potatoes, one egg, one yolk, Italian 00 flour and salt. Like pasta, gnocchi is something that gets practiced and perfected. The recipe can change depending on the crowd you're serving, the water content of the potatoes, the size of the eggs. I did learn a few key tips that I never would have known otherwise. The potatoes get boiled whole and un-peeled. Start by putting them into cold water and bring to a boil. When they are cooked, they must be peeled while still hot (I used a dish towel to hold them while rubbing the skins off). Another tip, perfect for the novice gnocchi maker, is to boil a small amount of water while you are kneading the dough. That way you can break off a piece or two, roll it into a ball and boil it for a few minutes so you actually get to test the consistency until you achieve the desired results. Now find yourself an Italian grandma and you'll be all set!