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Testaccio's Gnocchi alla Romana


You all know my mother is from Rome, right? Una vera romana, she can swagger and gesticulate with the best of them. And she's pretty cute, if it's still alright to say that about a woman of a certain age. She's the lady who taught me how to pan-fry thin little pork chops with slices of raw lemon until crisp and juicy and totally delectable. She's the one whose Parmesan broth with tiny noodles is still the only thing I want to eat when I'm sick. And its her tomato sauce that, simmering on the stove, makes any house my home.

She is, however, not a cook. By her own admission. My career path mystifies her. She loves to eat, but cooking is not her bag. She masters the simple, but leaves the complicated to restaurants, Sicilian brother-in-laws, her strange daughter, or the hallowed halls of her childhood memories. When I called her the other night to tell her I was making gnocchi alla romana, a classic Roman dish of little semolina pucks baked in the oven and served with tomato sauce, her voice registered only disbelief.

"You're going to make them? Yourself? From scratch?" She might as well have said, "why on earth would you ever bother?"

Told you she thinks I'm strange.


The thing is, semolina gnocchi really aren't that hard. You cook semolina with milk and butter until creamy and pulling away from the sides of the pot, sort of like polenta. You mix in some cheese and egg yolks and spread this mass out onto a baking sheet. Later, using a cookie cutter, you stamp out little rounds, tuck them into a baking dish, dust them with more cheese and dot them with butter and stick them in the oven until lightly crisped around the edges and browned. Yes, that's about it.

Oh, and that tomato sauce is so easy you could practically do it with one hand tied behind your back, whistling. (Though the slices of garlic were a little unsightly.) I didn't have any cookie cutters for the semolina gnocchi, so I tried to improvise with an egg cup. That was sort of a bust. I ended up finishing the job with a sharp knife, cutting little rounds out by hand which was far less fussy than it sounds.

What's important in this recipe is one small little thing: salt. Oh, ho. Yes. The amount of salt you add can and will be the difference between insipid baby food and something rather delicious. Which is why I found it so annoying that the recipe doesn't stipulate the amount of salt needed. I put in about a teaspoon and, sadly, my gnocchi tended very much towards the insipid. So try at least two teaspoons and taste taste taste as you go. If I made these again, I'd also double the amount of Parmesan used, and I'd put most of it in the semolina batter and only a little bit on top of the gnocchi.


This recipe made an enormous amount of gnocchi, but only a rather modest amount of sauce. The sauce is so nice that it's a shame to have too little of it. So I'd double that, if I were you. Leftovers, if you've got any, are easy enough to get rid of on your spaghetti dinner the next evening. The gnocchi need that acidic, juicy kick of sauce to give them some spine.

And here's the last thing about semolina gnocchi: you must eat them when they're fresh and when they're hot. I know, I know: Italians and their food rules. But really, listen up. If you've got leftovers, too bad. Do not attempt to eat them the next day. You will regret it. Instead, invite some friends over and impress the pants off of them with dinner. Make them scrape up every last gnocco and be glad you don't have any left to throw out.

Gnocchi alla Romana
6 servings

1 quart plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups semolina flour
1 5- to 6-ounce piece Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
3 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 14.5-ounce cans chopped tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper

1. In a 3- to 4-quart saucepan, combine milk, nutmeg, salt and 4 tablespoons butter. Bring just to a boil, lower heat to medium and immediately start adding semolina in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Keep whisking to make a smooth mixture. Reduce heat to very low and cook, stirring, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in most of the cheese and the egg yolks.

2. Use some of the oil to grease a baking sheet. Spread hot batter on baking sheet to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until very cold, 4 hours or overnight.

3. Heat remaining oil in a saucepan, add garlic and onions, cook until soft and add tomatoes. Simmer gently about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

4. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Use a little remaining butter to grease a shallow baking dish about 9 by 13 inches. Use a 2- to 3-inch round cookie cutter or a glass to cut disks of chilled dough. Keep dipping cutter in cold water to prevent sticking. Lift disks off baking sheet and arrange, slightly overlapping, in baking dish. Scraps can be kneaded briefly and smoothed out to allow for a few additional disks. Sprinkle disks in dish with remaining cheese and dot with remaining butter. Bake about 15 minutes, until lightly browned.

5. Gently reheat sauce. Serve gnocchi with some sauce alongside each portion.<nyt_update_bottom>

Zak Pelaccio's Chicken Breasts with Garlic-Chili-Ginger Sauce




No, no, no, no, no.

I most emphatically disagree with this recipe. I wish it wouldn't exist. It vexed me, irritated me, annoyed me to my core. It it were up to me, I'd strike it from existence. In short, I hated it.

It sort of hurt, hating it. After all, I love Zak Pelaccio's food. If it were up to me, I'd have a standing lunch date at the Fatty Crab every week. Also, I loved the mission of the article accompanying the recipe: how to make the lame old skinless, boneless chicken breast glam again. Loved it! (Also, must try the sauerkraut-stuffed, pan-fried chicken breast recipe now).

But this recipe was a doozy: my "gently cooked" chicken breasts were hard as rocks. I have poached many a chicken breast in my time and they've always been tender, juicy, a joy. These were rubbery, hideous things. German chicken breasts? Or this recipe? I'm looking at you, recipe.


Second of all, and this, I realize, is partially my failing because I emphatically do not subscribe to the school of Raw Garlic Adoration, but the Garlic-Chili-Ginger Sauce was so heavy on the stuff that it practically hurt. I woke up in the middle of the night after eating, oh, a teaspoon of the sauce, and had to go brush my teeth a second time. In the dark. In the middle of the night.

One word: UGH. Another word: wouldn't half as many garlic cloves still have worked?

The sweetened soy sauce was kind of interesting to know about, and the spicy broth was nice: I used it to cook rice the next day and that was totally tasty. But if that's the best thing that this recipe has to offer, I'm leaving it behind me in the dust.


Oh, and one administrative thing: After many, many requests, I finally got around to putting an RSS feed link on the blog. Want to subscribe to The Wednesday Chef? Look over in the left-hand column, all the way at the bottom. Enjoy. And thanks for your patience!

Chicken Breasts with Garlic-Chili-Ginger Sauce
Serves 4

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, 8 ounces each
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 5-inch-long piece fresh ginger root, peeled
8 fat garlic cloves
4 jalapeño peppers
1 quart chicken broth
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice, more to taste
Cooked rice, for serving
Sesame oil, for drizzling
1 bunch roughly chopped basil, for serving
1 bunch roughly chopped cilantro, for serving
1 bunch thinly sliced scallions, for serving
1 European cucumber, thinly sliced, for serving

1. Cut each chicken breast in half crosswise and season with salt and pepper.


2. Slice about an inch of ginger root into thin rounds and place in a large pot. Coarsely chop remaining ginger and place in a blender. Thinly slice 2 garlic cloves and add to pot. Coarsely slice remaining garlic and add to blender. Thinly slice 2 jalapeño peppers and add them to pot. Halve remaining peppers, discard seeds and coarsely chop flesh; place in blender.

Add chicken broth to pot and bring to a simmer. Let cook for 10 minutes. Add chicken pieces to broth and let liquid come back to a simmer. Immediately turn off heat, cover pot and let sit for 10 minutes. Cut into a piece of chicken to test for doneness. If it is not done, bring broth back to a bare simmer, then turn off heat, cover and let sit for an additional minute or two.

In a small bowl, stir together the soy sauce and brown sugar until sugar mostly dissolves. Set aside. To the mixture in blender add fish sauce and lime juice along with 1/4 cup broth from pot. Puree, if necessary adding a little more broth to help mixture move in blender. Taste and add a pinch of salt and more lime if needed.

When chicken is done, transfer to a cutting board and slice. Remove garlic and pepper from broth and discard, if you like. To serve, heap rice in 4 shallow bowls and top with chicken slices. Spoon several tablespoons broth over chicken and rice, then drizzle with sweet soy sauce and sesame oil. Sprinkle on the herbs, scallions and cucumber. Serve garlic-chili-ginger sauce on the side; have additional sesame oil and sweet soy sauce on table for more drizzling.

Peter Berley's Leek Soup with Peas and Sauerkraut

I knew I could count on you, lovelies, for cheering me up and on, for sharing your wisdom on baking in faraway lands and for making me feel just a little less alone in my kitchen. Thank you! I've said it before and I'll say it again, and again, and again: I'm so happy you're here.

I'd like to repay you, if I may, with the kind of recipe that seems as if it'd be possibly the lamest, plainest thing you'd ever look at or eat, but that turns out, slyly, to be the kind of thing you find yourself thinking about at the strangest moments, like before lunchtime or perhaps even dinner, and far more often than you'd ever care to admit. It might even, possibly, for some of you, become the kind of thing you crave, even though it's nothing more than a soupy mixture of cheap vegetables and flavored water.

Oh, go on. Let me tell you more.


It comes from Peter Berley's Flexitarian Table, which has turned out to be one of my dark horse cookbooks, an unassuming little tome that I end up turning to again and again, staining pages and cracking spine. (Do you know what is deeply fantastic, today? My boxes arrived from the United States! Right now, as I type, all my earthly possessions are sitting meekly in their boxes in the room next door. This is more thrilling than I can fairly handle. I want to rip open the boxes, throw myself at my pots, my favorite dress, my books, oh, my books, my sharp knives, and my Kusmi tea, and murmur adoringly to them all. But first, patience! I am still apartment hunting. Eeep.)

I first made the soup last winter. It is the epitome of soothing warmth and nourishment. It's green and bright at a time when the winter gloom threatens to swallow Berlin up whole (though we had 20 minutes of sunshine today, in some kind of miraculous stunt, for the first time in 16 days, apparently a record even for this gray city). It requires nothing all that fresh, except for two leeks and maybe some mint, though I've made it with parsley to delicious results and could imagine this even without any herbs at all.

Basically, you sauté a bunch of sliced leeks in olive oil before cooking them in stock (Peter stipulates vegetable, I like chicken) for a few minutes. Then in go frozen peas, which cook in about 5 minutes, and a mess of fresh sauerkraut. Don't forget its juice, its deliciously sour juice. Three minutes later you have a pot full of hot, sweet, vegetal soup that is chewy and tangy and rather hard to stop eating.


This soup will not win any awards for comeliness. And I believe it works out to be worth pennies per serving. It's simple, peasant food at its very plainest.  But it warms the belly and the heart, wakes up the mind with its sour zip, and is so easy to make you could find yourself doing it with one hand tied behind your back. I kind of love it.

And I hope you do, too. Who needs coffeecakes when you've got sauerkraut soup? Not me.

Leek Soup with Peas and Sauerkraut
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large leeks, about 2 cups, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon chopped mint or chopped parsley
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt, more to taste
1 pound frozen green peas
1 cup fresh sauerkraut (if there's something in your sauerkraut other than cabbage and salt, rinse it before adding it to the pot)

1. Add the oil to a large saucepan and heat it over medium heat. Add the leeks, mint, if using, and salt. Cook the leeks until tender, 5 to 8 minutes.

2. Add the stock. Simmer for a few minutes, then add the peas and cook until the peas are tender—just a couple of minutes. Add the sauerkraut and parsley and stir to combine. Taste for salt and adjust if necessary. Let the sauerkraut heat through, then turn off the heat and serve, drizzled with olive oil, if desired.

Buttermilk-Cinnamon Coffeecake


Readers, my mojo is off. I don't know how it happened, or how to get it back. But the mojo is askew. Possibly even temporarily missing in action. Is it the recipes I'm choosing? The German version of all the ingredients? The anticipation of the delivery of all my earthly possessions to my mother's apartment early Thursday morning and the fact that I still don't have a place of my own? I don't know, but it's bugging me. Deeply.

Spaghetti with tomato sauce I've got down. Salads, they are coming out of my ears! Cheese sandwiches, liverwurst toasts, I don't have any problems with either of those. Oh, and I've been doing some amazing things with rice lately. But newspaper recipes are shaping up to be my challenge of the week.

The universe seemed to be giving me a little gift when the editors at the Los Angeles Times threw open the doors onto a small sliver of their recipe vaults. Oooh, I clicked away, bookmarking a new collection of things to try. Georgian cheese bread! Calamari stew! A crazy-hideous Indian chicken in mango sauce! And a buttermilk coffeecake that just screamed to be made and brought to a Kaffeeklatsch I went to on Saturday afternoon.

(Well, they didn't call it that, no.)


I know from other Americans in Berlin that it's not an easy thing to simply make American baking recipes with German ingredients. The flour is different, the leaveners aren't exactly the same, and brown sugar, the squidgy, fudgy American kind, doesn't even exist here. Our light, fluffy cakes tend to result in somewhat leaden, dry specimens. Still, I thought, rather cockily, a simple, spiced buttermilk cake? I can do that.

Hrmph. Note to self: on next trip to the US, buy brown sugar. Also, some humility.

For this cake, you make a dryish dough that seems all wrong, then separate out some of it to be mixed with sliced almonds and more spices. This ends up a streusel topping of sorts. The rest of the dough is mixed with buttermilk and oil and egg, turning it into a buff-colored batter. That batter is poured into a buttered baking dish, then strewn with the almond streusel and baked until golden brown and fragrant and puffed, just as any good coffeecake should be.


Is there anything lovelier than a house filling with the scent of sweet baking? It's awfully reassuring, I find. Mixing together ingredients in a strange country, in a strange kitchen, baking them in a strange oven, then finding the fragrance just as it should be made me feel supremely capable at a moment in my life when I feel like most of what lies before me is out of my control. That was rather nice.

The cake baked up fine - from a flat little puddle into a nicely mounding cake, splintered and studded with almond slices and pockets of streusel. But it baked far faster than the recipe said (the conversion of Fahrenheit to gas marks is an inexact science and one I'm still trying to master as long as I'm without an oven thermometer), and once we tried to cut cooled pieces out of the pan, we realized the cake had fused rather maddeningly to the pan. I hate it when that happens.


Using granulated brown cane sugar instead of American brown sugar left the cake too dry and sweet and coarse-grained. It wasn't awful, especially when dolloped with a generous amount of freshly whipped cream to balance the sweetness (essential, this is, I can't stress it enough). And the men at the gathering were darling, eating great big pieces of it and murmuring approvingly. But I think they were just taking pity on me. I wouldn't make it again.

So here's my question. Or, rather, questions. Am I just being grumpy? Should I quit making American recipes with German ingredients? Should I be spending more time studying the different chemical compounds of German leaveners versus American ones? In my move from the US to Berlin, did I go from being a good cook to a mediocre one? Am I being a total drama queen? Should I give myself a break and just buy myself a piece of cake the next time I need it? Any thoughts you might have, especially from readers who live in Europe and regularly bake and cook American recipes, would be greatly appreciated.

Cinnamon-Buttermilk Coffeecake
Makes 8 to 12 servings

2 1/4 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup corn oil
1 cup sliced almonds
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk

1. Mix flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, salt and ginger. Blend in oil until smooth. Remove 3/4 cup mixture and combine with almonds and remaining 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Mix and set aside.

2. To remaining flour mixture, add baking powder, baking soda, egg and buttermilk. Blend until smooth. Pour into buttered 13x9-inch baking pan. Sprinkle reserved nut mixture evenly over surface of batter. Bake at 350 degrees 35 to 40 minutes. Place pan on wire rack to cool. Cut into squares to serve.

In The End, Haiti

Five days ago, I wrote this:

Today, in a fit of pique, I refused to put on pants. I've been wearing pants for a month straight, you see. Jeans, jeans and more jeans, sometimes alternating with a lone pair of cargo pants. And today I simply could not take any of them anymore. Wherefore my pretty skirts and tights? My New York City shoes, my dresses? I used to be so well-dressed, back in that other life I used to have. This morning, when I peered into my mother's closet and my pants stared out at me so sensibly, so responsibly, almost balefully from their perch, I just kind of wanted to pinch them where it hurts. Hard.

Instead, I closed the closet door and put on my favorite gray woolen tights, a nice denim pencil skirt (one of two skirts I dared take with me for these first few months) and my new pair of knee-high boots (happy new year to me!). Ooh, things were looking up already. I dabbed on makeup and put on my favorite earrings and felt almost womanly for the first time in a month.

Do you have a sense of where this is going? Because thusly clad (well, and wearing a jacket) I sashayed outside the house, got into my mother's car and, about 4 feet later, realized that the car was A) stuck on solid ice and B) had a flat tire. And there I was, defiantly under-dressed and freezing my...knuckles off. A kindly crew of garbage men and a good Samaritan took pity on me and helped with the car while I weakly shook my fist at the sky and at my vain self.

Universe, I salute your sense of humor. Also, I'm wearing pants again. You win.

I was going to tell you more, you know, about a Rachael Ray recipe I tried (and loved) a week before I left New York. There was a point to all that up there, is my point. But four days ago, I came down with a stomach flu and the thought of ever having eaten before or ever eating again became an impossibility. I will spend the rest of my life drinking fennel tea and eating Zwieback every other day, I thought solemnly as I lay in bed and contemplated my nausea. Too bad about that food blog, I thought. And all those recipes I never got to try.

Then, two days ago: Haiti. And though I may be able to eat breakfast again, the news from that country has struck me dumb. So all I've got for you today is this:

Partners in Health

International Rescue Committee

International Medical Corps


American Refugee Committee

Save the Children

Doctors Without Borders

Russ Parsons's Cauliflower and Potato Gratin


Well. Let me tell you one thing. Berlin? Is cold. Very, very cold. There's this Arctic wind blowing down on us from the north, apparently, and it's not going to stop anytime soon. Did you know that Berlin is on the same latitude as Labrador? New York, in case you're wondering, is on the same latitude as Rome. That might help put the proximity of that Arctic wind in perspective for you. It is awfully, bone-chillingly close.

Then, the snow. The city has been blanketed in white since I arrived here almost three weeks ago. At first it was festive and clean! Now, I sort of want to kick all that snow in the teeth. I've been wearing the same waterproof, wool-lined hiking boots for weeks. Doesn't the weather know that a woman's happiness is bound up in her ability to alternate footwear at least once or twice a week? Or at least change out of the heavy duty socks purchased on one trip to the Rocky Mountains a few years ago.


Anyway, all of this complaining is actually to explain why on earth, after the absolute gluttony of the holidays, I made a cheese sauce-cloaked potato and cauliflower dish on New Year's Day. Delicate salads and gossamer soups, take your pretty little selves to warmer climes. Here in Berlin, I'm turning on the oven as often as I can. The more burners I can use, the better! And I need butterfat to help the cause.

Russ Parsons meant for this dish to be served as a side for a Christmas feast, but there was no such restraint in my kitchen. Between two mouths at dinner, one admittedly a little larger than the other, the whole thing was polished off in no time. Okay, fine, with a salad. And it was delicious. Honestly, I don't know that I'd ever serve this as a side dish - I need those usually to be simpler and plainer. But it is perfect as a vegetarian main course. Just right.

The Gruyère was restrained, the cauliflower practically sweet, the potatoes creamily yielding. Russ has you make a leek-studded, cheese-scented béchamel that would make a lovely blanket for any number of vegetables (endives! leeks! white asparagus!). It gets poured over and under a pile of boiled, cubed potatoes and cauliflower and then stuck in a hot oven for bubbling, crisping action. The gratin must be eaten straight out of the oven, never mind about your burned tongue. Hot, hot, hot, it does a wondrous job filling bellies and warming cold bodies. (Thank you, Russ!)

In other news, I have one small victory to report: I have a working cell phone! With a German number! It only took me three weeks, three missed delivery attempts, some minor computer hacking and a few chewed cuticles to get here. And it feels glorious. Like the first piece of my everyday life just shifted into place. Next up, an apartment of my own, pretty please.

I'm camping at my mother's apartment while I look for my own place. It's not half-bad, living rent-free, and in a gorgeous, art-filled, turn-of-the-century apartment with a lovely kitchen (the counter space! the dishwasher!) to boot. Cooking in her kitchen is a little weird - like walking in a pair of shoes that's a size too small or eating dinner at a table that's about 5 inches too high. You know what I mean? It's doable but feels a little off. Though the measuring cups and spoons that I brought with me from Queens are making me feel a little more settled.

Anyway, I'm still getting used to the light here, so please forgive the strange quality of the photos in my posts for now - they're all a little wonky. On the whole, though, I have to say, it is so nice to be here. Cold weather, weird lighting, longing for a space of my own, I can take it all. It's good to be home.


Cauliflower and Potato Gratin
Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish

1 (1 1/4-pound) head of cauliflower
1/2 pound small boiling potatoes
1 tablespoon vinegar
1/4 cup butter
1 leek, white part only, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cups milk
2 tablespoons crème fraiche or sour cream
3/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese, divided (about 1 1/2 ounces)
Freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the dried base and green leaves from the cauliflower and discard them. Separate the head into florets about the size of walnuts and chop the stem into similar size pieces. Cut the potatoes into similar-size pieces as well.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high head and salt liberally. Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar and the cauliflower and potatoes (the vinegar will help keep the cauliflower white). Cook until the cauliflower pieces are tender enough to be easily cut with a spoon, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

3. While the cauliflower is cooking, make a cheese sauce. In a medium, heavy-bottom saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat and stir in the leeks. Cook until they are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and whisk to make a smooth paste. Add the milk a little at a time, cooking until it thickens. When all the milk has been added, reduce the heat and cook over medium-low heat for 5 to 10 minutes.

4. Stir in the crème fraîche, then one-half cup of the Gruyère, 1 teaspoon salt and a generous grating of nutmeg (a little less than one-quarter teaspoon). Whisk until smooth, then taste and add more salt or nutmeg if necessary.

5. Butter a 6-cup gratin dish and spread a thin layer of the sauce evenly over the bottom. Arrange the cooked cauliflower and potatoes in an even layer over the sauce. Pour the remaining sauce over the top and spread evenly with the back of a spoon. It should come about three-quarters of the way up the vegetables.

6. Scatter bread crumbs evenly over top and then scatter the remaining one-quarter cup Gruyère over that. Bake until the gratin is bubbling and the top is browned, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately.