Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Back the days of my picky youth, when I was a vociferous and unforgiving critic of everything my mother ever cooked, there was one meal in the dinner rotation that pretty much took the gross-out cake. Every now and again, perfectly good pasta would disappear, and a special dish would take its place. The name of this dish, as I heard it, was appropriate: ‘n’yuckis.’ These dreaded foodstuffs were large spongy pasty golf balls of some unidentified white substance, which definitely contained cheese (verboten).

Nyuckis were so terrible, in fact, that I completely blocked them out. It was only very recently that I ever thought to connect them with that beloved and trendy comfort food, the gnocchi (or ‘ñoquis’ as they like to call them in Buenos Aires). However far from the mark, it now seems clear to me that those nyuckis must have been an attempt (possibly successful to those over the age of five) at gnocchi.

I mean no disrespect to my mother’s cooking, she is an inventive and practiced cook who was entirely wasted on her audience. The nyuckis may very well have been a taste sensation that I simply couldn’t appreciate. I do wonder, however, if she had ever had a version of this dish before attempting to make it. (Mom?) A sense memory of the dish I'm attempting to create always makes a big difference for me, though it's far from infallible, as detailed below.

I recently found an older edition of a classic Marcella Hazan cookbook, and the most interesting thing about it is her constant lament for unavailable ingredients and implements I would now consider not only available but commonplace. She frequently gives a straight-faced explanation of something like Italian parsley, as if we might have never seen it before. In fact, the whole book is couched in the tone of a person explaining foods the reader is likely to have never seen or tasted. These days, I look at cookbooks to find out inspiration and techniques to create food I have usually already seen or tasted. At the time that book was written, though, the target audience was so unfamiliar with Italian eating that they were receiving their first introduction to these foods from the imperfect beginner versions they had just cooked.

This has advantages (joy of discovery), and pitfalls. If my entire experience of gnocchi was limited to the gnocchi di patate that I made last night, future interaction between myself and these mushy little potato dumplings might have been minimal. They weren’t terrible, just not all that great. These days, the memories of nyuckis are faint, and I’m more or less a fan of gnocchi. It isn’t my favorite pasta, but I order it a lot in restaurants because I tend to prefer whatever it’s sauced in. Gnocchi lend themselves to simple pure sauces, and that is often what I want when I want pasta.

This gnocchi recipe was an extremely simple one, consisting only of mashed potato and flour, full stop. It made adorable little dumplings, and I think with a little refining (possibly an egg yolk or some more finely whipped potatoes) it will be a success. Certainly something I plan to try again, especially as there are so many possible variations. All in all, the gnocchi were a little soggy, but entirely edible. They looked very cute with their fork tine marks on, and Jill and I ate them with simple tomato sauce and spinach sautéed with ramps (potatoes, spinach, & ramps--all local). As I learn over and over again, food doesn’t have to be perfect to be dinner. That said, my gnocchi have a long way to go, and I apologise, Mom, for the millionth time. As I cross my fingers, I hope against hope that my children will like to eat everything, and that I will be able to afford to feed them anything.

1 comment:

Joan said...

Dearest Katya - I find it hard to believe you could impugn the magnificent gnocchis your mother slaved over whilst you were still in the household here. These were true works of art which took a great deal of effort. Besides, they were absolutely delicious with a simple red sauce. What warped memories you must have. Oh, children, why do we bother with our efforts for them. As for "nyuckis" this term sounds more like the 3 stooges as in "nyuck, nycuck, nyuck" or close to the nuggie, (and we won't start to discuss that!)- hardly an apt description for the light and fluffy delicious little balls of gnocchi which I remember so fondly.
Your father