Cookbook Entry – Pasta: Gnocchi with Grandma’s Sauce
If one were to be asked to define food, it would most often be defined as sustenance or something that holds some kind of nutritional value and allows for our survival. Although this is true, food is so much more than merely fuel for our bodies. It may be seen as an art form that allows for creativity and self-expression. It is also something cultural, that tells a story, feeds our soul, and for some, inspires emotion. Emotional ties to food vary from person to person. For some, certain foods are tied to particular memories and trigger very particular emotions. Of these various emotions, the one that resonates the most within us is nostalgia. For me, pasta has this effect. Pasta is a very versatile food with many different preparations. It also has a very rich history and can be considered one of the original fusion foods. In my writing, I will attempt to illustrate my emotional connection to pasta, as well as, sharing ways my family prepares it, while touching on the history and culture surrounding it.
Pasta has always been a significant food in my life. Some of my earliest memories include gathering at my Grandmother’s dinner table with my family and eating pasta. Typically, this would take place every Sunday afternoon after mass. Pasta would also be at the center of any celebratory meal, but usually, in a more elaborate preparation such as lasagna, gnocchi, or freshly made fettuccini. Although pasta is delicious, its taste alone is not the reason why it is my favorite food, nor is the reason for its significance in my life; there are many foods I find equally delicious to pasta but do not hold the same significance or emotional connection. I went to high school in the San Gabriel Valley and many of my friends lived in the area. We would at times go out to eat foods such as ramen, hot pot, or dim sum since they were locally available. Today, I still enjoy eating these foods as well as many others and although I find them to be equally delicious to pasta, I am not transported back to my childhood; I am transported to a different time and place with my friends from high school. So then, it not necessarily just the taste of the food that I enjoy so much, but more so, reliving the memories and emotions that the food triggers.
As a child, I did not care much for vegetables. However, I loved pasta. Because of this, my Grandmother would always try to find new ways to get me to eat my vegetables. This was more often than not a futile effort until she thought of sneaking vegetables into the pasta sauce. Prior to this, we would usually eat pasta al Pomodoro, also known as, pasta with a simple tomato sauce on Sunday afternoons. This sauce consisted of olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, tomatoes which she grew and canned herself, and fresh basil. One day she decided to grind up some carrots, celery, and onion and throw the mixture into the sauce to try and get me to eat some extra vegetables. In Italian cuisine, this combination of carrots, celery, and onion is referred to as the “holy trinity” or “soffritto.” However, my grandmother was not a classically trained chef nor was she attempting to elevate her recipe or make it more sophisticated in any way; she was simply being sneaky and trying to get me to eat my vegetables. I remember my Grandmother eagerly watched to see if I had noticed a change when she brought the food to the table. When I took my first bite I instantly noticed a change. However, it was a change for the better. I told her the sauce tasted really good that day and asked if she had made it differently. She was quick to deny any changes in fear that I would stop eating. Week after week, I continued noticing this new taste, so I continued asking her about the sauce until the day she revealed her secret ingredients. At first, I didn’t believe her but I eventually did, and realized that vegetables could indeed make something taste better. Over the next few years she spiced up her recipe a bit with the addition of bay leaves, nutmeg, and pepper. This came to be known as my grandma’s sauce and my family has been making it ever since.
Over the years we have eaten this sauce on many types of pasta. The most common preparation of pasta in my family is dried pasta boiled in salted water to an “al dente” texture. The literal translation of “al dente” is “to the tooth” and basically means that the pasta is cooked through but is not mushy; you should feel some resistance on the tooth when biting into it, hence the term “al dente.” Once the pasta is cooked and drained, it is tossed with my grandma’s sauce, extra virgin olive oil, and butter. This process is referred to in Italian as “mantecare.” Once it is tossed, it is time to plate. The pasta is served in a shallow bowl and topped with more sauce, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, basil, and either Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese; the type of cheese we used would just depend on what type we had at home. Ideally, this dish would be paired with a Montepulciano from the Abruzzo region of Italy but really any dry red wine would be great. Growing up in an Italian household, there were never any drink restrictions I had to follow as a child, so drinking wine with this meal truly adds to the nostalgic experience. Of course, growing up we couldn’t afford something as fancy as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on a regular basis, so we would usually drink Carlo Rossi wine. At six bucks a gallon it was delicious! On more special occasions, we would enjoy this sauce on other types of pasta such as homemade gnocchi, lasagna, or fettuccini. Making homemade pasta with the right consistency can be quite tricky; especially gnocchi. To make proper gnocchi, it is crucial to start with piping hot cooked and peeled potatoes; if not, the gnocchi will not have the right texture. Once the potatoes are out of the water, it is important to work quickly to ensure they remain hot. The first step is to dump the potatoes out onto a board and smash them. After that, sprinkle a couple of fistfuls of flour and a pinch of salt over the smashed potatoes. Next, make a well in the center of the potatoes and flour. Into this well, crack in an egg and start kneading the potatoes and flour into it until forming a dough. The dough should be firm but not too firm. Once the dough is formed, roll it into a thick rope, cut it in half, and repeat this with each piece until you have thinner ropes about three quarters of an inch in diameter and chop into bite size pieces. By the end of this process, the gnocchi should still be warm. Place the gnocchi into trays ensuring that they are not touching one another and freeze. Once the gnocchi have frozen, they can be dropped into boiling salted water. If the gnocchi were made correctly, they should float to the top after about five minutes. This means it is time to take them out of the water and toss with my grandma’s sauce. To plate, scoop into shallow bowls and once again top with more sauce, extra virgin olive oil, cheese, and fresh basil.
Today, pasta is eaten worldwide and many countries even have their own variations of it. Greece has orzo, Poland has pierogi, Germany has spaetzle, etc. Many believe pasta originated in Italy. Although, its origins are not clear, some believe it is of Chinese origin and that Marco Polo was the first to introduce pasta to Italy. In Marco Polo’s book, “The Travels of Marco Polo,” he mentions a plant that produced something similar to flour. Today, there are speculations of that being breadfruit. However, since this text no longer exists in its original form, there is no way to know for sure. Although the Chinese did produce something similar to wheat flour with breadfruit, there was already documentation of pasta consumption during the 13th century and prior to Polo’s trip to China, making it very unlikely that he was the first to introduce pasta to Italy. However, the notion of pasta originating in China is most likely true because China is the country that has the earliest documentation of noodles and furthermore, archeologists also believe that noodles originated in central Asia. These ancient Chinese noodles were not made with wheat; it is speculated that once pasta reached the Mediterranean, it was refined and made with durum wheat due to its availability and high gluten content. This process of refinement along with the use of durum wheat gave us what we know today as pasta. Over time, pasta grew in popularity worldwide, including overseas to the Americas. Although Spanish settlers were the first to bring pasta to the Americas, Thomas Jefferson was actually the one who catalyzed its popularity. During a trip to Paris in 1784, he ate pasta for the first time; he called it macaroni. He enjoyed it so much that he brought some back with him and it has been growing in popularity since.
Today, there are quintessentially American pasta based dishes such as macaroni and cheese and some that were created in America, fusing traditional Italian recipes with local ingredients. One example of this is penne with vodka crème sauce. This took the traditional recipe of penne all’Arrabbita and fused it with vodka and crème. Usually, I am a purist when it comes to pasta, but this is one nontraditional preparation of it that I find quite enjoyable. Besides, the story of pasta is the story of fusing cultures and ingredients. I like to refer to pasta as the original fusion food because of recipes like this one but also because of its history. It took various different cultures as well as ingredients from all over the world to create a recipe that we think of today as traditionally Italian. Pasta al pomodoro is the most quintessentially traditional preparation of pasta there is. However, if we trace each ingredient back to its origin we will find that this dish is truly a fusion of many different cultures. Noodles originated in china; tomatoes were brought back to Europe by Spanish conquistadors returning from the Americas; cheese and olive oil was used throughout the Mediterranean, and basil along with other spices made its way to Europe through the Indian spice trade. Therefore, pasta can safely be referred to as a fusion food. This is the story of pasta but really, it is the story of food in general; there is not one cuisine where all of the ingredients used come from that same location. This is part of the beauty of food; it is intrinsically fluid and constantly evolving. Besides, what else has the power to marry cultures and bring people together in the same way food does?
Recipe: Gnocchi with my grandma’s sauce
- 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 5 cloves of garlic
- 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
- 7 tomatoes
- 1 onion
- 2 stalks of celery
- 2 large carrots
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 1 pinch of salt
- 1 pinch of pepper
- 1 pinch of nutmeg
- 1 sprig of basil
- Start by cooking olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes together in a large pot. Be careful, these ingredients cook fast. This should only take about 15 seconds on high heat.
- Blend tomatoes, onion, celery, and carrots and add to the pot. You want to add these immediately to the oil to avoid burning the garlic and red pepper.
- Add a pinch of nutmeg and the 2 bay leaves. Lower the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper taking into consideration that the gnocchi is cooked in salted water.
- Remove from heat and stir in the butter and basil.
- 5 russet potatoes
- 2 ½ cups of all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- 1 large egg
- Boil the potatoes for about 20 minutes or until fork tender.
- Drain and peel the potatoes. It is important to peel the potatoes immediately after they have been boiled to ensure they remain hot throughout the process.
- Place the cooked and peeled potatoes onto a board and smash.
- Sprinkle the flour and salt on top of the potatoes.
- Make a well in the middle of the potatoes, flour, and salt.
- Crack an egg into the well.
- Kneed the potato and flour mixture into the egg until forming a dough.
- Flour the board to ensure the dough does not stick to it.
- Roll and cut the dough until you are left with ¾ inch thick strands.
- Chop into bite sized pieces, place on a tray, and freeze.
- Once the Gnocchi are frozen, remove them from the freezer and drop them into boiling salted water.
- After about 5 minutes the gnocchi should rise to the surface of the water. When they do, take them out of the water carefully.
- Place the gnocchi into a large serving bowl and mix with my grandma’s sauce.
- Serve into shallow bowls and top with more sauce, extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil and either Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano.
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