April 27, 2015
Today would have been my father’s 73rd birthday.
If I could, I would have made these gnocci alla romana for him, warm and rich, covered in Marcella Hazan’s butter-onion-tomato sauce, with meatballs on the side. There would be a big green salad, crusty garlic bread, and a bottle of red wine. Homemade ice cream—I think vanilla with bourbon pecans—topped with warm berries. We would have had a little Scotch afterward, something I never got to do with him because teaching myself to like whiskey was a project I undertook after his death.
Today, if he were here, I know that we would have talked about the earthquake in Nepal, about how David Brancaccio acknowledged the “awkward” transition from news about lack of water and basic medical supplies in an underdeveloped nation to stock reports from the world’s richest countries on Marketplace this morning. I wonder what my dad would say about the arguments that will begin in the Supreme Court tomorrow, arguments that—either way—will impact his daughter’s, and his grandson’s future. I like to think that his opinion would have shifted in the last nine years, the way that opinions have shifted all over this country in such a historically short period of time. I like to think that. It’s a useful fiction.
Tonight, instead, my mom and my son and my hopefully-someday-soon-legally-recognized spouse and I went out to dinner and raised a toast to the man whose life was unexpectedly cut short almost nine years ago. We toasted“L’Chaim”—to life—because toasts are sort of like prayers, words that build things when we declare them. To life. There are tiny humans growing in the bellies of two of my closest friends. To life. There are junebugs and roly-polys milling around my backyard, plucked by the hand of my son and brought to show me. To life. There are tomatoes on the vine, black and blue berries, too. To life. There is the news that we came home to, anger and judgement and a reality that is not new but is perhaps being newly seen. To life. To missing lives, to angry lives, to lives in crisis, to lives that have been all but exhausted. To lives of excess. To lives of service. To ordinary lives that are usually, upon closer examination, anything but. No matter the kind of life, death is the end game for us all; let this compel us into urgency but do not let it drive us to despair. To life. To life. To life.
“Tell me you believe the world is made up of more than all its stupid, stubborn, small refusals,
that anything, everything is still possible.” –Mary Szybist
Happy birthday, Papa. I love you.
GNOCCHI ALLA ROMANA
Recipe composite from Saveur & Lucky Peach
One of my mom’s favorite restaurants in town makes a killer version of these, so I decided to try and replicate them a few weeks ago when having her over for dinner. It turns out that gnocchi alla Romana are a breeze to make compared to their more traditional, potato-based cousin. They are so delicious that Jill, Shiv, & my Mom all went after seconds—and thirds. If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is. I plan to make this in the future for company, since you can do the main work ahead of time, then pop them in the oven to heat when you’re ready to serve.
You can serve them plain, but topping them with this simple but luscious tomato sauce really takes them over the edge.
4 cups milk
1 ½ cups semolina
1 ½ cups Parmesan (divided)
8 T unsalted, softened butter, divided
2 egg yolks, beaten
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Bring milk to a simmer in a large saucepot; reduce heat to low. Add the semolina very, very slowly and gradually, whisking the entire time. (Do not dump the semolina in, or you will end up with a giant, lumpy, clump—not that I would know from experience or anything).
Cook the semolina, whisking frequently, until the mixture is solid but soft, about 8-10 minutes. Whisk in ½ cup of the cheese, 4 T of the butter, & both egg yolks. Season to taste with salt & pepper; remove from heat.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with buttered parchment. Pour the semolina onto the sheet and smooth with an offset spatula—you are aiming for an even layer, about 1/2-inch thick. Allow the mixture to cool until firm. (If you are planning to make tomato sauce, this is an excellent time to do it!)
Heat your oven to 500° or as close to that as you can get. You can either use a knife to cut gnocchi squares, or use a biscuit/cookie cutter to make circles. The squares are more efficient, the circles more aesthetically pleasing. Either way, don’t waste your scraps! They are delicious.
Layer your gnocchi in a buttered baking dish, overlapping them slightly. You will probably end up with 2 layers of gnocchi; sprinkle each layer with half of the remaining cheese and dot with half of the remaining butter. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes; if needed, you might want to crank up the broiler for the last 3-5 minutes to achieve the lovely browning you’re after. Serve with warm tomato sauce (optional) and even more cheese.