When I think back to holidays as a kid, I always smile. The Grinch would have most assuredly needed a bigger boat (or sled) had he made the mistake of visiting our house. In my family, I’m an oddity as an only child. Mom is the youngest of 6, and most of her siblings have large families themselves. While my grandparents were still alive, we would all come together to enjoy the holidays with an enormous Italian-Irish-American feast that would make the one in Whoville look like a snack! I remember tables set up buffet-style with tons of family – aunts, uncles and cousins – all parading through the house with plates of food, laughing and having a great time.
I’m sure my version is a bit skewed, but it seemed that most of these celebrations were at our house.
Mom was in her element, cooking in a way that I don’t imagine I’d ever be able. She does everything by feel – no measuring – and seasoning things to account for my grandmother sneaking into the kitchen to add her own touches to the dishes. Cooking for all those people AND doing it with a back seat driver in mind? Really, I didn’t appreciate the enormity until I started cooking big meals for my favorite people.
A typical Hammond/DiMare family feast consisted of appetizers, like cheese and crackers, calamari … and things my dad would steal from the other courses (particularly meatballs!) This would be followed by a “light” salad: A giant antipasto, bursting with olives, lettuce, cukes, onions, tomato and a host of cold cuts and cheese. Next up (for those still standing) … a pasta dish, like lasagna, ravioli (my fav) or gnocchi. Finally, my mom would bring out a gigantic turkey with all the trimmings. There were various versions of potatoes, squash, veggies, and bread.
Family members still awake after this gluttonous feast would be treated to a variety of desserts – cake, pies (I loved my mom’s chocolate cream pie!), and Italian cookies and pastries. Dessert was always accompanied by demi-tasse cups of espresso with just a touch of Anisette or Sambuca … maybe a beer for my Grampy and sometimes my grandmother, NonniMa. Now those two – thick Irish brogue and Italian accent respectively – chatting it up over a brew? Priceless.
The aftermath always included dad and my uncles passed out in the living room, scattered around on the recliner, chairs and couch, while my mom and her sisters would sit in our kitchen chatting and enjoy coffee.
Wow… I miss those days.
My grandparents passed ages ago, and most of this family has now grown and gone off to forge their own family traditions. But my mom still does her best to reproduce scaled versions of this wonder. And as I’ve now found my way into the kitchen, it’s time that I take up the torch.
I was lucky enough to get my mom to pass along her Yoda-like wisdom and teach me how to make some gnocchi from scratch recently. No mean feat, considering written recipes and measurements are inconceivable to her Italian sensibilities! I received great technical commentary, like, “Cook them until they are tender but not mush,” and, “Roll them into snakes. No. Really I should have said ropes instead of snakes because snakes are creepy!” It made the experience better than anything you could ever dig out of a cookbook (and yes, Mom, snakes ARE creepy.)
The passing of this knowledge couldn’t come at a more perfect time as I’ll soon share my first married Thanksgiving with my new bride and our newly combined families. My child-like excitement over the newly extended size of our family can’t be measured. I look forward to the days when she and I will be cooking for our combined brood as we celebrate together and give thanks for one of the most important things in life: family.
Mom Hammond’s Gnocchi
3 pounds Russet Potatoes
2 ½ – 3 cups Flour
1 Extra Large Egg
1 teaspoons Fine Sea Salt
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Don’t season it. Cook the potatoes until tender, but firm (read, “not mush!”). Cool and add a “scant” tsp of salt. Use a potato ricer or mash well. Potatoes should not be lumpy.
Flour a pasta board or your counter. Make a ring with the mash potatos then surround it with a ring of flour. Leave the center open, like you’re making a “well” (think “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with the mountain hollowed out!).
Add a slightly beaten egg to the center of the “well.” (in that open space you’ve left).
Gradually incorporate these ingredients well by gradually “pulling” these ingredients together, kneading until a round ball of dough is formed. You want it to be bread dough like – like a giant ball of playdough! Using floured hands take a small amount of dough (maybe golf ball sized) and roll them out to form long ropes (don’t roll too thin, should be about 1/2″ around).
Cut diagonally into 1″ pieces. Using your thumb, press to curve gnocchi slightly or you may use a fork’s tines to add lines to gnocchi. The finished gnocchi should have a slightly dry consistency.
Let them sit for about a half hour.
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Gently drop gnocchi in a few at a time.
Let them cook 3 – 5 minutes. They will let you know they are done by floating to the top. Drain and serve with your favorite pasta or pesto sauce.