Friday, October 7, 2016

Gnocchi Gratin

We invited a friend over to play with my seven-year-old last week after school. She's the kind of friend every parent dreams of for their kid - sweet, well-mannered, genuine and mature. Man, is she ever mature. 

The first time she came to our house, we were discussing a classmate who wasn't always behaving in the kindest of ways. She shared with me all the offenses that had hurt her feelings but then went on to explain that she was trying not to be too upset about it. She told me that we don't always know everything that is going on behind-the-scenes that might explain a person's behavior. She concluded with a humbling "So it really isn't my place to judge." 

In that moment, I did my very best to keep my mom-cool, though inwardly, of course, I was freaking out over the wisdom pouring from this seven year old seated in front of me. "There is hope for the world!", my thoughts shrieked. I grabbed my phone and sent off a text her mom saying "I don't know what you are doing with this kid but whatever it is, it's amazing. Well done." 

I wish I could recall all the flooringly-mature comments I've overhead come out of this girl. I'll just siffuce it to say that I'm doing everything in my power to foster this friendship between my eldest and her. We (meaning the kids AND I) can certainly use mature little non-judgmental tidbits of wisdom in our lives more regularly. It doesn't harm matters either that this kid makes great company. I love how she will sit with me at the kitchen table, enjoying her after school snack and spilling all the details and latest happenings at school. I can get more information from her in the span of two minutes than I can from my all of my kids combined over the course of 2 months. Gleaning information from them is about as successful as milking a grasshopper. Pretty much impossible. But this kid, she just opens up.

She's a youngest child so I think she's just like that - used to hanging around with people older than her. Even after the rest of the kids have excused themselves to play, she'll sometimes hang back with me and chat. She's told me before how she thinks I'm really nice and she likes coming over. Go right ahead and butter me up! I'll take it, girl. I've never met a 7 year old soul quite like her and I truly adore her. My kids of course love her too. She is a peacemaker, she's complimentary, and she's a great example. We always welcome her in our home.   

She was on her usual best behavior when she came over here last week, except this time, she had a chance to charm my husband's socks off too. Graham arrived home from work earlier than usual and I was busy in the kitchen preparing dinner. The kids were playing well in the other room and so he seized the opportunity to unwind on the couch, guitar in hand. As he sat there plucking out some tunes, apparently our guest was listening. About 10 minutes into his playing, she approached him from the next room over. 

"I didn't know you played guitar! It sounds beautiful and I'm really enjoying it."

WHAT KID SAYS THIS SORT OF THING? Needless to say, the comment caught him completely off guard.

For those of you who know my husband, you know he is a quiet guy. He speaks somewhat rarely and only when he feels he has something important to say. We always joke that he was born with a set limit of words that he can use each day, and once he reaches that number, he quite literally can speak no more. Given that he is a medical provider who sees and talks to patients all day long, it is no surprise that on most days, by the time he arrives home from work, he has well surpassed his daily word limit. I've learned to compensate and do my do diligence by taking the "evening shift" and filling the silence by doing most of the talking. ;)

So in this moment, this moment where Graham was face to face with a seven year old complimenting him on his guitar playing skills, I think he was literally, totally speechless. Not just in an I'm-out-of-words-for-the-day sort of way but in a wow-this-has-never-really-happened-before sort of way. It was certainly a first. (I must confess his mad musical expertise goes pretty much unnoticed in our house. We are spoiled and I'm sure my kids think it's entirely normal for a dad to pop on any old musical instrument and whip out each and every song request on the spot...) 

But this kid, our guest, recognized talent and then took the time to approach him and tell him he was doing a good job. How humbling. Although I haven't officially asked him, I'm pretty sure he would say this friend is welcome over at our place any time. Even grown men need to be buttered up on occasion. ;)

I'd been keeping myself busy in the kitchen, all the while taking in the scene playing out before me. We hadn't set a firm end time to our play date so I invited our guest to stay for dinner. The kids were having a blast and I knew they would be thrilled to get to eat together too. I was making gnocchi, or, more accurately, preparing the creamy sauce in which to nestle store-bought gnocchi, the end result being a delicious Gnocchi Gratin. 

I told our guest what was on the menu and she eagerly exclaimed "I think I've had that before! My godmother is from Italy and I think she served it to me once and it was delicious!"

"Oh gosh," I thought. "This kid has an Italian godmother. Maybe inviting her to stay was a mistake. Certainly this will be where the compliments come to a screeching halt." 

I was sure she had had the REAL thing, authentic Italian gnocchi, and that my version would pale in comparison. You can imagine my relief when she asked first for seconds and then later thirds of the dish. Not surprisingly, she outlasted all of the other kids (who also had multiple helpings) at the table. 

"I don't mean to be impolite and eat so much," she told me. "It's just that it is SO good."

Eat away, my friend. My cooking ego and I both welcome you at our table anytime. As if we didn't already love this girl enough in our family, her cooking compliments officially SEALED THE DEAL. 

As for the recipe itself, it has been a family favorite of ours for years now, the ultimate cold-weather comfort food. I never did order any gnocchi when I was in Italy (a royal shame!) so I'm really not sure how exactly it compares to what one might find "When in Rome..." but, in the opinion of a seven-year-old with and Italian godmother, you can be assured that this is where it's at!

When explaining the dish to others, I often liken it to homemade macaroni and cheese though I'm not entirely sure that's the best description. It's as comforting as macaroni, definitely, but in a more fulfilling, more sophisticated way. It's a dish that is homey enough for the every day but feels fancy enough to serve to guests as well.

To prepare the sauce, start by cooking up a few slices of chopped bacon until they are browned and crispy. Remove the bacon and use the drippings as the beginnings of your sauce. Supplement it with a little butter, then flour and seasonings and whisk until toasty. Next comes milk and chicken broth, boiled until creamy and smooth. The sauce is finished with cheese, bacon and chives - yum, yum and yum! Pour over the cooked gnocchi, sprinkle with parmesan and bake until browned. It's certainly comfort food to the N-th degree. 

Gnocchi Gratin

2 pounds packaged gnocchi
4 slices bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour 
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups milk
3/4 cup chicken broth
1 1/4 cups grated Gruyère cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
1/3 cup (1 ounce) grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400°.

Cook gnocchi according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Drain and return to large stockpot.

In medium saucepan over medium heat, cook bacon until browned and crisp. Remove bacon pieces with and slotted spoon and set aside, reserving bacon drippings in saucepan. Add butter to drippings and melt. Sprinkle butter, salt and pepper over drippings and cook, stirring constantly with a whisk for one minute to brown. Add milk and broth slowly, whisking to eliminate lumps. Bring mixture to a boil and then turn down to a low-bubbling simmer until thick, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in Gruyere cheese. bacon and chives. Pour sauce over gnocchi and stir gently so as not to damage gnocchi.  

Prepare a baking dish (2 quart Le Creuset or a basic glass 9 x 13 inch pan will do) with cooking spray. Transfer gnocchi and sauce to prepared baking dish and sprinkle with parmesan.* Bake in 400° oven for 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Serve immediately with a glass of chilled chardonnay. 

Serves 6-8

* Recipe can be made ahead up until this point and refrigerated and then baked just prior to serving.

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posted by kelsie