Thursday, May 24, 2012

Light as a Cloud Gnocchi

I love gnocchi.  Not the hard, prepackaged, rock-like nuggets you can buy in a grocery store, but the real deal.  Fluffy little pillows that melt on your tongue, so light that they could nearly levitate on a humid day.  They have those little indentations that hold onto just the right amount of sauce.  They are delicious, and you can eat a lot of them without feeling weighed down. 

They are also quite easy to make, if you know a few tricks.

For 4 servings you will need:
about 1 kg (2 pounds) starchy potatoes that have started to wrinkle
pot of boiling water
1 slightly beaten egg
about one cup of all purpose flour
sauce (in the spring time I love using homemade nettle pesto)

The lovely thing about gnocchi is that measuring is completely  useless.  You just have to eyeball it.   The potatoes you use are important.  You want to use starchy, kind of dried out potatoes.  I like to use them once they start to get wrinkly.  You see, the secret to good gnocchi is adding little flour, and if you use a starchy and wrinkly potato,  that will be much easier.

My friend Alexis grew these potatoes high up in the Alps.  This is what 2 kgs looks like. See how nice and wrinkly they are?

Wash the potatoes, cut them in half (or thirds if they are big), and cover with water.  Boil them until they are tender, about 45 minutes,  scoop them out of the water and let them drain well.  When they have cooled down enough so that you won't burn yourself, peel them, and pass them through a ricer or food mill.  If you don't have one, you could use a potato masher but it won't give you quite as good of a result.

Food mill over a bowl, so that the milled potatoes don't get squished

When you use a mill, like the one above, it finely mashes them and leaves little fluffy bits of hot potato behind.  We want to do this, and while they are hot and then let them cool off a bit, so that as much water from the hot potatoes can evaporate as possible.  This will mean we can add less flour later on, which leads to lighter dumplings. 

Milled potatoes left to cool

Get a pot of well salted water boiling; you can use your potato water from before, or a fresh pot, whichever you prefer. Spread mostly cooled potatoes on a counter in a rectangle, and pour the beaten egg on top of it.  Some people don't use an egg, or use only the yolk, but I like the consistency when I add a whole egg. Then sprinkle about 3/4 c of flour on top.
Potatoes, egg, and flour

Then I take my handy-dandy plastic scraper (I use that tool for nearly everything!) and fold the potato into the egg and flour, and then gently knead it until it comes together into a soft ball.  If it is still sticky, add a little bit more flour.  I usually end up using about a cup of flour, up to 1 1/4 cup.  Any less, they are mushy, any more, and they are too dense.  For fluffy gnocchi, try to not over knead.

Flour your work surface, and cut off a bit of dough about the size of an egg.  Roll it into a 'snake' about the width of a finger, and then cut it into little dumplings about the size of small finger joints. 

This is how I do the next part.  I hold a fork in my right hand, and I put a dumpling on the fork.  Using my right thumb, I gently roll the dumpling up the fork a little.  When you do this, you get a thumb indentation on one side, and fork tong imprints on the other.  This will help your gnocchi hold onto sauce. 

I usually put the gnocchi on a lightly floured plate, or they stick to the counter.  Before the next part, you want to go ahead and put your sauce into a medium sized bowl. 

Then I dump about 15-20 gnocchi at a time into the pot of salted, boiling water.  They will sink and then gradually rise to the top. About 15 seconds after they have risen to the top of the pot, I scoop them out with a slotted spoon, put them directly into the sauce, and gently mix them in.  Repeat until all your gnocchi are done!
Don't forget this step or else the gnocchi will all stick together!
Serve while hot and enjoy!

Homemade gnocchi with stinging nettle pesto from my field

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Crazy Cow Party in my Backyard

I was in the middle of making some gnocchi (post to come soon on that!) for dinner, when my husband Gianluca runs into the kitchen shouting, "Go outside! Go now!  The cows!  They are being funny!"

So of course I tossed down my potatoes, my hands still covered in dough, and I scampered outside.  If there is one thing my husband knows about me, it is that I can't resist a funny cow.  We live in an apartment, for lack of a better word, on a dairy farm.  It is a small cluster of who-knows-how-many-hundreds-of-years-old houses and barns all squished together, surrounded by fields where they grow the hay to feed to cows.  Every day I see the baby cows going in and out of the barn, but I've never seen the mama cows.  I knew that the cows are going up to the alpeggio soon....that is when the cows go on a summer holiday.  The farmers herd their cows up, up, up the Alps to the very high mountain pastures, where the cows feast on tender mountain grass all summer.  This is what gives Fontina cheese its distinctive taste. 
This is what an alpeggio looks like. 

Anyhow, I ran outside and in the field above our house there was a damned cow party going on!  About fifteen cars and farm trucks were parked on the field, and old guys with sticks were standing around, passing unlabeled bottles of homemade red wine back and forth.  Young guys were running around with sticks, chasing after the cows.  The field was filled with cows and they were going NUTS!  They were galloping in circles, chasing each other, and butting heads.  It was like my very own Battle of the Queens.... in fact, I thought maybe they were holding a preliminary battle, there was such a crowd, and so much head butting.
Cows and old guy with a stick
Which one is gonna win?

Let me tell you, a happy cow galloping is a beautiful thing. 

I walked up to one of the old guys and asked him what was going on.  He said they were letting the cows outside to shake their legs out before going up to the alpeggio.  They'd been cooped up all winter and they needed time to go crazy, completely nuts, before making the trek up the mountain.  I'm not sure why it turned into a party...I think parties happen whenever the cows butt heads and the guys carry sticks. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Italian by Osmosis....on learning Italian by living it

When I first met my husband five years ago while walking 1000 kilometers across Spain, I didn't speak a word of Italian. I spoke Spanish (I studied it for 18 years between school and college), and was in the process of trying to learn a bit of French and Swedish. Italian? Not really. I never really thought about the country of Italy much, much less the language.

After that very very long walk across Spain, I spent time in Italy with Gianluca before returning to the US. For the next two years, I went there when I could, which was twice a year. Then, in 2009, I moved to Italy. By that time I could communicate in Italian, but I wouldn't say I could really speak.

What's it like to learn a foreign language by immersion as an adult? It's hard to explain, because I don't really know how it happened. That might sound strange, but learning by immersion just kind of sneaks up on you. I didn't do language classes.... I tried, but I quit after two days. Italian grammar is just so frustratingly complicated that it made me yell and throw books. I figured that I would learn better if I didn't really know I was learning. I thought in Spanish, and I altered Spanish to sound more Italian, because that works well enough. People figured out what I was saying, and corrected me, and I would replace the Spanish word with the new Italian word, or in some cases I tweaked a French word that was similar. In this way, Italian ate my other languages. I can't speak I word of Spanish anymore, as a result.  My Swedish is also gone.  I learned words by comparing them to other languages, or by having people pantomime things out for me. If people around me spoke English, I would ask them what the words I didn't understand meant. I have always completely and utterly ignored the grammar, because I find that I start using it correctly without realizing it.  Studying it makes me blow steam out of my ears. I also mostly ignore the several formal tenses, but they also started appearing more-or-less correctly in my speech. I don't know how to use the subjunctive, or the various past tenses, but I think I use them almost correctly most of the time. Well, maybe not the subjunctive. But I expect that will come with time.
This is me when I study Italian.

In this way, I gradually started understanding. I remember one specific moment about a year and a half ago when I was in the car with my husband, and we were listening to a talk show on the radio. I was zoning it out, until I realized that I understood what the radio was saying. I UNDERSTOOD! Not everything, but enough to know what they were talking about. I started paying attention to conversions around me at parties, and was able to pick out bits and pieces. The feeling that I was understanding at least some of what was going on around me gave me the confidence to leap in head first and try to carry on conversations. I found that I was able to carry on a conversion more easily in Italian than I ever could in Spanish. I think all of my technical grammatical knowledge actually held me back in Spanish. I would be thinking so hard about what the proper way to say something would be that I couldn't get anything out at all. Because I studied Spanish for nearly two decades, I felt like I should be able to speak it perfectly, so I psyched myself out. With Italian, I didn't have expectations of myself, and because I didn't know the grammar, I had nothing to ponder on before I spoke. So, I just let words fly. Sometimes I was understood, sometimes not, but in that way I did learn. Italian by osmosis.

I speak quite well now. I am I guess what you'd call weirdly fluid. I can understand just about everything, say just about anything, and my grammar is often correct, or nearly correct. I can mostly read, and I can't write hardly at all. My accent has gotten a lot better, so very few people can tell I am American from my accent. However, I do still sound foreign, and most people assume I am eastern European when meeting me (it probably helps that I look it), which isn't that great of a thing around here. However, recently someone thought I was Chinese....yeah, I don't get it either.

That said, I'll leave you with two examples of funny slip-ups in the learning process:

-While on vacation, I asked my husband if he wanted to go relax on the scamorza. I was trying to ask him if he wanted to go to the beach (spiaggia), but instead I invited him to relax on the smoked mozzerella cheese.
-I was at my mother-in-law's house for dinner, and I overheard her talking on the phone. I thought I heard her say, "Vorrei un pisellino," and I was shocked because that means "I would like a penis." Apparently I confused pisellino (nickname for penis) for pisollino (nap). She wanted a nap.