Sunday, June 11, 2006

Zieht Uns Hinan

I bring you, readers, yet another tale of mild culinary woe.

First of all, you must understand that I am, apparently, completely uneducated. Yesterday evening, when all good and diligent DC-area gays were watching the Pride parade, I was, mostly, on my way to the Kennedy Center to see the National Symphony Orchestra and four or five large choruses performing Mahler's Eighth. I say mostly because I did get a look at most of the parade floats while they were still in the staging area. During the afternoon, I got a call from A., whose mother had asked her to call me to tell me that she and her friends from the Rainbow Youth Alliance were going down to watch the parade. Her mother had hoped that I'd be there so that I could keep an eye on A. My ex, who may not be entirely rational about such matters, worries that my daughter, who is straight, spends so much of her time hanging out with gay teenaged boys because (I am not making this up) my ex is convinced that each and every one of these (gay) boys is trying to work his way into my daughter's pants.

A. is an uncommonly mature and wise seventeen-year-old, and I do not spend an undue amount of time worrying about her inadvertently losing her virtue, least of all to a group of boys who is spending all of its collective time ogling the Saloon Cowboys (who, it must be said, are worthy of ogling), so I had no particular reason to want to chaperone her, but since we had to be a few blocks away at 7:45, there seemed to be no reason not to forgo driving all the way down to the Kennedy Center in favor of taking the Metro down to Dupont Circle and walking to the Kennedy Center shuttle by way of the parade staging grounds, where A. and her gay boys (and the mother of one of them) were stationed. (This plan also allowed V. and I to walk by and see any number of attractive men, each of whom was putting his best foot forward, but of course that never occurred to me.)

I mention this because while we were between flatbed trucks loaded with scantily clad young men, V. started to talk about Mahler's Eighth to me. He informed me that the second part of it was a setting of the ending of Goethe's Faust, to which I quipped, "Oh, so we know how it ends," and when he looked puzzled, I said, "Well, some version or minion or other of Satan comes from him, and he gets dragged down to eternal damnation, yadda, yadda, yadda, right?"

But no. Because I am completely without education, I had no idea that dear Mr. Goethe had entirely rearranged his Faust so that the protagonist is saved from damnation because he never ceases striving. OK, I'm paraphrasing. V. explained it all to me in some detail (he has a Ph.D. in German literature, and he's not afraid to use it), but I was so put out by the temerity of this Goethe person to not have Faust be damned that I had some trouble focusing. Granted, I have never read more than bits and pieces of the Marlowe version, and granted I've never even picked up Goethe's version, but I did study literature for a long time, and I have read some Goethe (ok, ok, only Young Werther; the Germans largely bore me, and while I have read The Tin Drum twice, that was clearly anomalous), and during all that time no one even bothered to mention to me that Faust cheated damnation.

Well, you can imagine how different Mahler's Eighth has to be if it's the setting of someone ascending to paradise rather than descending to hell. First off, you know that the basses are getting the short end of the stick. You do hell, you need bass. You do paradise, and chances are you're looking at a lot of soprano and tenor, though the very idea that any tenor could ever make it to paradise is so ridiculous as to be unworthy of discussion.

But let's give the NSO and the five choruses some credit: they did a magnificent job with Mahler's Eighth, and it can't be an easy thing to pull off. It's normally called the "Symphony of a Thousand," and while I'm thinking there were probably no more than 750 musicians involved in this particular production, that is still no small accomplishment. First off, you have to find places for all of them, which is why we had orchestra tickets last night: the entire second balcony was given over to two of the choruses, plus the trumpet section, and the soloist singing the Mater Gloriosa part. (In order to take her bow with the rest of the vocal soloists, she really had to move to get from there to where they were sitting; she looked a little flushed.) While the performance was tremendous, I am not entirely thrilled with the piece itself. I suppose that when you have that many musicians, you have to go big, but the first part of the symphony (a setting of a Latin hymn) was so loud that I hoped the musicians had hearing protection. The setting of the end of Faust was mostly gorgeous, especially the beginning of the second part, when two choruses are echoing each other from either side of the second balcony, and the singing was wonderful throughout, but rather than end the piece with the vocalists, they all sit down and the orchestra PLAYS REAL LOUD for a while, and the conductor jumps all over the place. The orchestra did play very well, and it was certainly an experience that I won't ever forget, but you can't help wondering whether Mahler was at the manic end of his cycle when he wrote that.

When you have experienced something that is sublime in its audacity, you naturally want to fall back onto something that is sublime in its humility, and no food anywhere meets that description more exactly than gnocchi. There may be other foods as good as perfectly executed gnocchi, but there are none better.

I mean, of course, potato gnocchi. There are other sorts, and I'm sure that each is fine in its way, but a gnocchi made from flour is basically another sort of egg noodle, and while there is nothing whatever wrong with an egg noodle, the sort of gnocchi that makes you, when you have eaten more than you ever thought you could, put your fork down and say, "I never want to eat anything else ever again!" is the sort that comes from the spud.

But the earth apple is a cruel mistress, and she does not surrender her favors easily.1 It is not hard to turn out serviceable gnocchi. And serviceable gnocchi can be served with significant amounts of butter, salt, and grated cheese, and, well, then you're back to egg noodles, which, you may have noticed, are pretty good with significant amounts of butter, salt, and grated cheese. Divine gnocchi, the kind you cannot get without striving but which striving alone will not guarantee you (Goethe be damned), are elusive. So many things can go wrong. You can be working with the wrong sort of potato. You can add insufficient amounts of egg and/or flour, and your gnocchi will disintegrate when they hit the water. You can add too much egg, and your gnocchi are too wet to work with. You can add more flour to compensate, and then your gnocchi will be heavy (but serviceable).

The problem most people have, I reckon, is starting out with potatoes that are too wet. If you boil your potatoes, you will then have to find some way to dry them out before you mash them and mix them with your egg and flour, or you will end up with disintegration or gumminess, depending on how you proceed. When I went to make gnocchi this weekend, I tried cooking the potatoes two different ways. I steamed one pound of potatoes using a pasta insert over an inch of water with a large sprig of rosemary. That took about half an hour. I wrapped the other pound of potatoes, along with two small sprigs of rosemary, in heavy duty foil and baked them for half an hour at 350, then I opened up the foil and baked them for another twenty minutes. When I went to use them the next day, they weren't tender enough, so I put them in the microwave on high for six minutes, and they were just right. In fact, I believe that the best way to cook potatoes for gnocchi is probably to nuke them right from the start. (You would, then, have to find another way to infuse your potatoes with a subtle rosemary flavor, but you can always heat a sprig of rosemary with the butter that you're going to use to sauce your gnocchi. Rosemary is not the first herb you probably think of when you think of potatoes, but it should be. Trust me on this one.)

Alas, by the time I got around to microwaving my second pound of potatoes, my gnocchi had already given up on reaching paradise (i.e., they were serviceable; they were eaten at dinner with a not inappropriate amount of enjoyment and a somewhat inappropriate amount of butter, cheese, and salt). I suspect that I started with the wrong potatoes. I had a bag of red potatoes sitting around the house. They are good roasted, and they make terrific potato salad, but they seem not ideal for gnocchi. I had steamed them, and they were not overly damp, but then I got cocky and added a second egg.

In my defense, it was not entirely my fault. L. was over, and she wanted to cook with me, and I told her that we'd make the gnocchi together, and after I let her mash the potatoes part way, I told her that she could break the eggs into the potatoes. I should have stopped after the first egg, but she really wanted to break the second one, and I let her do it. By the time I got the bright idea of adding the second pound of potatoes, I'd already added a lot of flour. Sic transit gloria. But L. loved helping with the gnocchi. Her favorite part was rolling the dough out into cylinders and then cutting off pieces for me to form. When all is said and done, having fun cooking with your daughter is even more important than getting divine gnocchi. I can't believe I just wrote that.

Anyway, if you decide to learn from my mistakes and make your own gnocchi, you'll probably want to start with some Idaho potatoes of moderate size. Take a pound and a half of them, microwave them until they're cooked, let them cool, remove the peels, and mash them with a potato masher. You do not want to use any sort of mixer here. Add about half a teaspoon of kosher salt and one large egg, and mix all of it together with a fork. Measure out two ounces of flour, and pray that you don't need any more than that. Turn the potato mixture out onto your marble or countertop, and with a pastry scraper, start to knead the flour into it. You want to end up with a dough that is relatively easy to work with, but it can still be a tiny bit sticky. It should take you a couple of minutes to knead the dough to that point, adding flour from your two ounces as necessary.

Let the dough rest while you get a pot of water going on the stove. Add some salt to it and set it to boiling.

Pinch off a small piece of dough and form a test gnocchi by rolling the piece of dough along the tines of the fork. The preferred shape for a gnocchi is roughly cylindrical with a small thumb-shaped indentation on one side and fork ridges on the other. Drop the test gnocchi into boiling water. It should sink like a lead balloon. When it rises, it should be done. Remove it from the water with a slotted spoon, wait a moment so you don't get burned, and then taste it. If it needs more salt, knead some more salt into the dough. If your test gnocchi disintegrated (and pray that this doesn't happen to you), then you will have to work in a bit more egg and flour. Crack an egg into a cup, mix it up with a fork, and add about a half-tablespoon of it to the dough. Add enough more flour to bring the dough back to workability, then test again.

When your dough is working properly, cut off a larger piece, and roll it into a snake about three-quarters of an inch wide. Lightly flour a plate. Cut off the dough in about half-inch pieces until your plate has about as many gnocchi as will fit comfortably in your pot.

Because you'll be cooking the gnocchi in batches, you'll need a way to keep them near their peak while you finish up the cooking. I do this by putting a few tablespoons of butter and some fresh rosemary in a glass baking dish and putting the dish in a 325 degree oven. Then when the first batch of gnocchi is ready to come out of the water, I drain them briefly and slide them into the baking pan, shaking it to coat the gnocchi with butter.

When you have done this with all the gnocchi, grate some hard cheese over the top of the gnocchi, and serve them as soon as is possible. If they are serviceable, people will compliment you on them. If they are divine, then you'll be stuck with a tableful of people who will never want to eat anything else ever again and will be expecting you to provide it. Congratulations: you have just acquired your own group of lotus eaters. I never said there wasn't a down side. I'm not Goethe, after all.

1I love that sentence more than life itself; clearly, there is no hope for me.


Anonymous lindy said...

I have never made any gnocchi of any kind. I'm thinking about trying some spinach ones if my farmbox has more spinach next week.
Yours sound entirely delightful.

I wish there were more people capable of loving a favorite sentence more than life itself.
Somehow, I think this would have a positive effect in many areas of modern life.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Dunkee Hotay said...

IF this recipe works, I might name my first-born after you.

Incidentally, in a single Saturday devoted to potatoes, my culinary instructor was unable to come up with recipes for: gnocchi, latkes, tater tots, or knish. Is there even a point if you're not going to hit the big four (well really, three; the tater tors are just a sentimental thing).

11:22 PM  
Blogger goblinbox said...

Holy cow! This post made me laugh out loud no fewer than four seperate times, but the loudest was when you said, "though the very idea that any tenor could ever make it to paradise is so ridiculous as to be unworthy of discussion." *giggling*

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Faustus, M.D. said...

I am a tenor, buddy.

You'd better watch your step, or I'll come and sing loudly in your ear.

9:30 PM  

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