Traveling to Europe turned out to be the best of the unexpected benefits of teaching, right up there with walking the sidelines of high school football games, snapping photos, and keeping score on the bench at away basketball games, at the table for home ones.
Traveling meant different cultures to experience, foods to taste, languages to hear, sights to see, memories made. Touring with students provided me with them all.
Last summer—11 years after my first trip—seeing the word gnocchi on the menu at 3 Doors Down Café in Portland, Ore., took me back to Florence, Italy. At an off-the-tourist-path sidewalk café with its tiny square tables and umbrellas, with spoken Italian flying all around my head, I tasted my first-ever gnocchi. Delightful little dumplings they were—tasty, tender, moist and fluffy. The Latin teacher who ordered them said that traditionally gnocchi, an Italian word that means lumps, were made with potatoes in the dough.
Dough. Oh. Dough done right is good.
Back in the '70s I kneaded dough for wheat bread, hamburger buns and dill pickle rye bread. I lightly mixed piecrust dough into a ball, covered it with Saran Wrap and let it cool in the fridge before using it for chicken potpies. I pushed dough through the holes of my metal colander to make spaetzle, those cute curly dumplings so good with spare ribs.
I enjoyed every morsel. Leland, my younger son, who cooks there, explained that 3 Doors Down's gnocchi are made with fresh ricotta. I'm convinced the only thing keeping those little dumplings from floating off the plate was the beurre blanc sauce and a sprinkling of shredded fine Italian cheeses and finely chopped chives.
Now I've got this gnocchi recipe from my older son Lamont. I'm feeling like kneeding dough.
Brie Gnocchi with Pears and Prosciutto
1/2 C. Brie, rind removed
2 C+ all-purpose flour; 2 egg yolks
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
Pears and prosciutto:
1 med. shallot, fine diced
2 good-sized slices of prosciutto, julienned
1 med. pear, sliced thin
3 T. toasted pine nuts
A few sprigs of parsley, finely chopped
2 T. unsalted butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil to sauté
Let the Brie sit out at room temperature, until pliable. In a large bowl, mix by hand the brie, egg yolks, nutmeg, and salt and pepper, tasting as you go. Starting with a quarter cup of flour, knead softly, adding flour until you have a workable dough—you might use up to 1/2 C. of flour. Don't overwork the dough; it needs to be soft and supple. Roll the dough into a long rope and cut it into 1/4 inch pieces. Toss these pieces in the excess flour, coating all sides so that they won't stick together. Wrap the gnocchi in a cloth napkin and put into the fridge until later. They'll keep 10-12 hours but will be better if you don't leave them overnight.
In a large pot, bring lightly salted water to a rolling boil, with a pasta insert or a wire strainer in the water. In a large sauté pan on medium high heat, sauté the prosciutto in olive oil until it starts to get crispy. Add the shallots and continue to cook. Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water. When the shallots are becoming translucent, add the pear slices to the sauté pan.
Reduce the heat to medium. Add the pine nuts. Make sure that you don't sauté the pears too long because you don't want them mushy—you want them to hold their shape and texture. The gnocchi will float up in the boiling water; cook them 45-60 seconds more, then pull them out and put them into the sauté pan.
Add just enough of the hot water to cover the bottom of the pan, enough to deglaze the pan, loosening anything stuck to it. Throw in the butter and let it melt until it comes together with the water as a buttery liquid. Toss with parsley, season to taste with salt and pepper.