We have just a few traditions in our house that we abide by with comforting regularity, and one of them is spending the holidays during the last few weeks of the year with my sister-in-law L, otherwise known as YaYa, and her husband S, The Old Man.
Because they teach at a university, they have the benefit of a long vacation break between semesters. Because we have a few children, we make them fly out of Logan Airport at holiday time to visit us. It’s a win-win situation, really.
When I tell people that we have relatives moving in for a few weeks over the holidays, they usually groan in sympathy. I know they’re probably imagining a scene out of a John Candy movie, where crazy Uncle Jack overstays his visit, starts drinking beer at lunch, terrorizes the children and stops up the toilet.
While we definitely start drinking lots more alcohol and we have actually called upon the services of Roto Rooter at least once this past month, to say that we look forward to the visit is putting it mildly. We live for it.
Who wouldn’t? For us, it’s all about celebrating and feasting; for two whole weeks we feel like we’re on vacation. By unplugging ourselves from our usual routine we can really get into the spirit of things. We cook together just about every night. We make multiple trips to the wine store to restock, and depending on our mood, stay up too late listening to music, talking or playing our favorite obscure board game, Who Killed Dr. Lucky.
We manage to keep up a fun spirit of camaraderie in the kitchen; everyone gravitates toward a job, depending on the menu. T and The Old Man team up for things like crabcakes and their famous pumpkin ravioli, while YaYa is mistress of salads and table setting. She also helps me plan our list of menus, because somebody needs to be in charge.
Although, this year, because I just finished reading Phoebe Damrosch’s book Service Included, we took to calling each other “chef” – with the just the right tone of irony, of course – because Thomas Keller runs his kitchen with a sense of democracy, that’s how all the employees at Per Se are instructed to communicate, apparently.
This was our Year of the Gnocchi. We used a recipe from chef Charlie Palmer’s cool waterproof book, the Practical Guide to the New American Kitchen. We all agreed that these were as light, tasty and fluffy as potato dumplings could be. I think that baking the potatoes (rather than boiling them) makes for lighter gnocchi; they don’t absorb all that water and can just merge gracefully with the flour and egg.
If you don’t have a neat ridged gnocchi board, you can use a fork to make distinctive grooves in each dumpling. However, you will miss out on the pleasure of feeling just like an Italian mama.
Potato Rosemary Gnocchi
Adapted from a recipe by Charlie Palmer3 large baking potatoes, about 2 pounds total
2 egg yolks
2 – 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons olive oil (if sauteeing)
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Poke the potatoes a few times with a fork and place directly on the oven rack. Bake about 1 hour, or until fork-tender. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove the skins and push them through a food mill or ricer into a large bowl.
Add the salt and egg yolk, and 2 cups of flour and mix together. Turn the mixture out onto a floured surface and knead, adding more flour if needed, until a soft (but not sticky), smooth dough forms.
Divide the dough into portions the size of your hand, and roll each into a rope about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 1-inch lengths. If you’re inclined, roll each gnocchi firmly over a gnocchi board or the concave side of a fork. Arrange the gnocchi on a floured baking sheet as you go.
Bring a large stockpot of water to a boil; drop the gnocchi in batches into the water and boil until they bob to the surface, about 3 minutes.
At this point, you can sauce them up as you please, or lay them out on a tray and freeze them (transfer them to zippered bags when they’re solid) so that you have an emergency late-night gnocchi stash on hand .
If you want to sauté the gnocchi, set up an ice bath with a colander set into a large bowl of ice water. Remove the gnocchi from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and immediately drop them into the colander. Drain and toss with the olive oil.
Just before serving, sauté the gnocchi in melted butter, garlic and some spinach or dandelion greens. Pass the grated Parmesan.