I love to bake and I love to cook – it’s creative, hands-on, and fun! Taking time to learn family recipes, practiced and passed down for generations, provides a link to my cultural heritage. My childhood memories are filled with the distinctive sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Italian, American, and Czech cuisine. Dinner time has always been an important part of my family life. With my parents working long hours and my brother and me in school, dinner was the only time we really had to catch up with one another. Dinner has become more than a meal for me; it is a time to connect, reflect on the day, and to cherish loved ones.
Food plays an important cultural and social role as well, especially around the holidays. New Year’s dinner (black-eyed peas, collards, country ham and corn bread is typical in the south); Valentine’s day chocolate; Easter dinner (and those sugary Easter basket treats); Independence Day cookouts; Thanksgiving turkey with stuffing, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, and rolls; Christmas Eve lasagna and Christmas day brunch…the list goes on. My family and I would go to my Czech grandmother’s house for Easter. She liked to serve roast goose, which is a favorite dish in the Czech Republic. I was fascinated by my grandmother’s cooking and baking abilities, but I’ll save those memories for another post. Once Christmas came around, we headed up north to spend the holidays with the Italian side of the family. Christmas Eve has always been a time of love, laughter, tradition…and meat lasagna. Holiday menus are flavored by cultural traditions.
I decided to explore my Italian roots, adding three new recipes to my slowly expanding repertoire. The first recipe I chose to make was ricotta gnocchi with tomato sauce. The word gnocchi means “lumps” in Italian and is derived from the word nocchio (a knot in wood), or nocca (knuckle). I have always associated gnocchi with Italian cuisine and was surprised to discover that these tasty little dumplings were originally developed in the Middle East! (Perhaps this is explains the use of semolina flour in most gnocchi recipes?) Roman explorers brought the recipe back to Italy and gnocchi was incorporated into the Italian culture. Many countries have since adopted this style of pasta into their own cultural variation. Did you know that gnocchi is a common and popular dish in France, Croatia, and South America?? Me neither…not until I did a little research on gnocchi and Italian cuisine. What an interesting lump of dough!
Anyway, back to cooking. Using a recipe from allrecipes.com, I mixed the flour, ricotta and parmesan cheese, egg, salt, pepper, and garlic. I stirred the ingredients together into a lovely ball of pasta dough. Scooping the mixture onto a floured surface, I gently rolled the dough into several long “ropes”. I was tempted to twist them into shapes, but the dough seemed rather fragile so I left them alone. So much for creativity! ; ) I sliced the dough into bite sized pieces – this is much easier if you dip the blade into a little water before attempting to make any cuts – before transferring the little lumps to a floured baking sheet and placing them in the fridge.
Sauce time! To start, I added freshly minced garlic and chopped white onion into a small saucepan, letting it heat for a few minutes until the garlic was slightly browned and the onions had softened. I added a cup of Hunt’s diced tomatoes, bringing the sauce to a boil. The recipe called for red pepper flakes and basil as well, but I chose to keep things simple. I reduced the heat, covered the saucepan, and let the sauce simmer for a while on low. While the sauce simmered, I brought a pot of lightly salted water to a boil and carefully dropped the gnocchi into the water. A few minutes later, those cute little lumps started popping up to float on the surface. The gnocchi were so light, they reminded me of a tiny paper boats floating in a fountain or little rubber duckies in a tub. I scooped the gnocchi out of the water and placed them in a colander to drain.
Cooked and drained, I dumped the gnocchi into a bowl and poured the steaming tomato sauce over the top. It smelled wonderful and I was excited to take my first bite of Italian gnocchi! Of course, you can never have too much parmesan, so I added another generous sprinkle before digging in. Success! It was edible and tasty! I will have to try potato gnocchi next time or some other delicious variety. The meaning behind cooking a traditional Italian dish, and the excitement of learning something new, made this a fun and relevant process.
What does culture mean to you? What dishes or ingredients represent your family’s heritage? What lessons can we learn by taking a moment to reflect on where things came from and how they have transformed the world we live in and love?