On Friday I brought home a new cookbook called Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. It entranced me from the get-go.
Author Jessica Theroux spent more than a year doing exactly what the title suggests: Traveling around Italy cooking with grandmothers, the keepers of traditions and culture. It might sound like a gimmick, but it was a serious quest. In the introduction, Theroux explains some of her motivation to spend time in kitchens to learn the more rustic styles of Italian cooking:
Good cooking, the kind that feeds the soul and nourishes the body, is the result of listening openly and acting simply. All of the women in this book taught me something about the power of food to connect us; to ourselves, our history, our land, our culture, to our past and present moment.
I spent most of Saturday sitting on my porch in the sun reading this book, cover to cover.
Each chapter focuses on one of the grandmothers as Theroux introduces them and what she learned. She makes it to different regions of Italy and cooks several recipes specific to the region. Most of the women seem to cook by memory. Some forage and make something delicious out of whatever they find. Some prepare specific recipes. Old and young, they put a lot of thought, care, and energy into their food; it really shows as Theroux absorbs their lessons. The book includes lots of wonderful color photography of where she stays and of the food of course.
We decided to try our hand at the Gnocci con Ragu (Potato Gnocci with Tomato Beef Ragu). We’ve been making pasta for months, but this turned out to be more difficult than we thought!
Our first crucial mistake was in undercooking the potatoes. They seemed all the way done, but when we tried to mash them for the dough, the centers were still a little firm. The recipe says to run them through a ricer or mesh strainer, but our strainer was too flimsy for the firm potatoes. So we grated them, which gave us a mixture that was both lumpy and glutinous at the same time. The flavor was good, but the texture made shaping them difficult. Cooked, they were soft like proper gnocchi, but they didn’t have the toothiness that we wanted.
The second mistake was with the sauce. It was a very simple recipe: Onions, beef, tomato paste, water, and precious little else. But the onions and beef didn’t brown up like we wanted. And when we added water, we put it all in at once, and it turned out to be more than we needed. Even after two hours simmering it was still too watery and it seemed underflavored.
That’s not to say that our dish was bad – I mean, we still ate two portions each. But before we serve it to friends we’ll have to practice a little more.
You can look up videos of Italian grandmothers making these recipes and they make it look incredibly easy, the same way Olympic athletes make their performances seem simple. But that ease is honed with decades of practice, and I guess we couldn’t expect to get it just right the first time.