My mother did not teach me how to cook. Unlike most students at culinary school, I didn’t stand next to my mom and stir the pot of simmering sauce. I didn’t watch my mom bake peach pies from a 5,000 year old family recipe. I was off playing with my chemistry set, or practicing the piano, or writing and illustrating a book of poems. Food was necessary, but if my mom had just served us a plain
The one time I do remember cooking with my mom was upon the arrival of our new cookbook series, “Look and Cook,” a marvelously detailed and photographic set of instructional books from TimeLife. These cookbooks were truly idiot-proof. Mom told me to pick out a recipe from the “Italian Country Cooking” book and we would make it together. Most of the recipes from the book were fairly simple, lots of pastas, pizzas, and some antipasti – but, being Holly Kapherr, I chose the hardest, most time-consuming recipe in the book. Spinach gnocchi.
Gnocchi is a small nugget of potato pasta that is rolled into long, inch-thick logs and then cut into inch-and-a-half pieces before being thrown mercilessly into a pot of boiling water. I have seen old Italian mamas (and Mario Batali, who might as well be an Italian mama) put the dough in a garbage bag and cut off the tip to make an enormous pastry bag. The gnocchi bag is put under their arm like a bagpipe, and squeezed with the elbow. The gnocchi come out as cute little tubes, and are met with the mamas thumb or a pair of shears to cut the gnocchi right into the boiling water. I have not been able to do this, nor will I ever, most likely. This kind of advance gnocchi-making is not for the “Look and Cook” home chef. You can add lots of things to the dough, including lemon zest, figs, or, as in this case, spinach. Gnocchi is probably one of my favorite things, but now it carries a history behind it. I will probably never make gnocchi (or its tinier cousin gnocchetti) ever again. After spending five hours rolling the dough and cutting the little gnocchis and watching most of them disintegrate into nothingness in the pot, my idea of gnocchi is that they should, and for me always will, come frozen and parboiled.
All through the grueling tedium which was our gnocchi adventure, I never once (and never have since) saw my mother throw up her hands in despair and defeat. She is the kind of woman who takes a step back, takes a deep breath, assesses the situation, and comes up with a more efficient way to deal with it than throwing a tantrum (the option I usually choose, along with a pint of ice cream and mindless television). I thought about this today, being Mother’s Day, the day after I ruined eighteen crème brulees in the space of 4 hours (in 4 batches) by leaving them in the oven too long and curdling them into cheese and whey. I was about to cry, give up, and walk out, when I thought about the way my mother dealt with our gnocchi. Our feet hurt that day, and my seven-year-old attention span was drained to empty, but my mom kept going. When a gnocchi fell apart, she spooned it out gently, rolled it in some flour, and dropped it right back in.