Gnocchi, Tortellini and my trail of memories

They’re all lined up neatly on wax paper-lined cookie sheets.  My gnocchi, subtly ridged, charmingly uneven in size, patiently handmade.  No, I don’t pictureoften dedicate myself to painstakingly craft edibles that require inordinate lengths of time to complete.  But it’s my daughter’s birthday and that was her special request, so I’m happy to comply; besides she loves to help me shape them with that cute special tool, the ridged wooden board.  This, the one my mother sent me from Italy many years ago. When I still thought I could always talk to her about gnocchi or tortellini or whatever, because she’d always be there, yes, terribly distant, but still only a phone call away.  But no, at one point she just left, and I wasn’t yet prepared for it.  No, not at all.  But enough.  Gnocchi then.  Okay, so now that the most time-consuming part is done – the boiling and pureeing of potatoes, the gentle kneading of the dough, soft and golden with eggs, warm and supple under my fingers, and, of course, the shaping – I can cut the long, thin strips of prosciutto di Parma that I will carefully add to the steaming, butter-drenched freshly cooked gnocchi.  They will fill my long, rectangular ceramic bowl, then I will shower them with grated Parmigiano Reggiano to enhance the flavor of the rich butter, and this feast of simple sophisticated food will brighten my daughter’s face.  So well worth the labor.  But it wasn’t gnocchithat my mother made for us.  She was the queen of tortellini.  Born and raised in the lovely northern city of Modena, in a region justly famous for its excellent cuisine – Emilia-Romagna – my mother spent her entire life gracing every holiday table with the most perfect, aromatic and delicious tortellini.  The day before, she would pull out the large tagliere, a wooden board the size of the kitchen table, then pour flour in a mound, make a well in the center and fill it with a few eggs.  Quickly, her magic hands would produce a tender, silky dough which she would let rest for a while under an inverted bowl.  Then – patiently sometimes, not so much others – she would start rolling it out, then cut wide strips, put them through the hand-cranked pasta machine several times, until they were just the right thickness.  After that, the actual cutting of the little squares began, tedious and stressful, because you had to be very careful to cover them completely (she wrapped them in dish towels), so they wouldn’t dry out and become impossible to fold into the little bundles stuffed with the most savory meat filling –prosciutto, mortadella, chicken breast, ground veal, parmigiano and a touch of nutmeg – which she had prepared in advance.  Well, the stuffing and shaping was when we came in – me, my sister and (rarely) my brother.  We had all learned how to shape them in that very special way that was her maternal family trademark, a method so secret that could never be taught to anyone who wasn’t a direct heir.  And that was final.  Indeed I kept my word: only my daughters will be entitled to this privileged information.  Plate upon plate would be filled with these meticulously shaped little forms, and we would scramble all around the apartment, seeking suitably cool places to store the precious tortellini overnight.  No, my mother would never consider using the refrigerator, even though the stuffing was based on meat; it just wasn’t done, besides the fridge couldn’t very well hold ten plates or so.  But, I assure you, nobody ever became ill from ingesting that delectable pasta. To this day, Italians casually leave perishables out for hours on end, and everyone always lives to tell.  I guess it’s all about what you get used to.  Anyway, on Christmas day (or Easter or New Year’s), my mother would bring to the festive table deep individual bowls of hot, shimmering homemade chicken broth, in which the delicate yet rich tortellini would float, dusted generously with freshly grated parmigiano. The fragrant scent would fill my nostrils, the steam warm my eyes, as I prepared to enjoy that very special dish made in a way that only my mother could.  She was a teacher, you know, my beautiful mother, and had little time to dedicate to fine cuisine, even though she loved it.  But every day she was able to produce delicious meals, between her hours in the classroom, the hectic daily trips (on foot) to the open market, the frequent after-school meetings, and, of course, the running of our busy household.  Superwoman indeed.  Or, I should say, a woman, because superwomen we all need to become at some point, no?  Allora, those tortellini have a special place deep in my heart, a secluded, obscured corner where I don’t often venture because it can be very cold in there, or perhaps very warm but quickly turning frigid on me.  She’s no longer with me, my mother, not even faraway, just only on the other side of a telephone wire.  Maybe she’s keeping an eye on me, watching me stumble through life, sometimes insecure, hesitant, sometimes hopeful, constantly re-inventing myself because that’s what we women do.  She knows: she’s been there.  But I see you always, mamma, when I’m in school, when I cook, when I read an Italian novel…I know that maybe now you understand.     For Gnocchi recipe, click here


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