Ah summer… How I love it so… Someone asked me recently how my summer was going, and if I were to answer literally, I would have to say, “Not any different than the rest of the year.” I work full time, so I still get up at the same time every day, go to the gym, go to the office, come home, make dinner. My routine is the same, but it’s SUMMER! Warmer weather, longer days… And it’s Super Bowl Sunday every day, food wise. Everything’s in season, ripe, juicy and delicious. It’s heaven.
Summer for my daughter is another story. Her routine is turned upside down and sideways during the summer months. Not only does she not have homework or after school activities, she goes to sleep away camp. When you’re a teenager and not old enough to drive or get a job, and both your parents work, the options are 1) stay home all day and watch Dr. Who, or 2) go to sleep away camp. We chose sleep away camp. Six weeks total this summer! She’s been going to sleep away camp for four years, but this is the longest stretch she’s been away.
As a kid, sleep away camp was a mysterious, other-worldly concept to me. I grew up in New Jersey where lots of kids went to camp. They’d head out in packs and return home right before school started. We’d get together and I’d listen to their stories of midnight swims and kissing boys. It sounded so grown up and sophisticated. I was so jealous that I didn’t get to go with them.
Summers for me meant hot, lazy days at the pool. We belonged to Brookside Country Club, a generously named swim club with a couple of pools, a few tennis courts and a snack bar. My mother would drop me and my sister off at swim team practice at around 9:00am and not pick us up until dinner time. We’d spend the whole day goofing around with friends, free from parental supervision, and reveling in general tomfoolery. (I have no idea where the moms went – none of them worked – but they didn’t seem to be around either. There were definite mah jong and bridge contingencies on opposite ends of the club. I can only assume they picked a side and stuck to it.)
(Note: When my brother Terry read the above paragraph, he said, “You forgot to mention that Mom dropped me off at swim team practice, too. Only I wasn’t on the swim team. I was left to fend for myself, by myself. Kinda like when we would go shopping for school clothes at Steinbachs.” Bahahahaha!!! I forgot all about that!)
The camp my daughter attends does not go straight through the summer. It is divided into one or two week sessions with stops at home in between, so technically, my daughter did not go six weeks straight through. But I did seem to miss her more than usual this year and couldn’t wait to have a family meal when she returned. Several years ago, when she first started spending summers away, I asked her what she would like me to make for her when she returned home. Her answer was gnocchi.
Gnocchi? Really? This surprised me. The recipe I use is from France: The Beautiful Cookbook, one of those oversized photo/recipe books from the 90s with serf-heavy fonts and filtered photos. There are only six ingredients in the whole dish. I made it for her when she was younger and going through a bland food phase. She gravitated to it immediately. She’s a big pasta and potato fan, and this recipe combines the two and not much else. She would eat it with just a little pecorino romano cheese and no sauce. And now, every time she comes home from summer camp, we have gnocchi.
As is typical, I make a big production out of Gigi coming home. We love her so much and want her to know we celebrate her going out in the world and coming back to us. I invite my brother Terry, his wife Kris and their daughter Mae over, as well as Kris’s mother Kathy (see: Say Hello to Your Brother’s Mother-in-Law For Me) and her husband Tony. There’s no way I’m making enough gnocchi for eight people, so I started supplementing the meal with linguine with clams, a favorite from Christmas Eve’s Seven Fishes dinner (see: My Christmas Hangover). Kathy and Kris usually bring the appetizers. (Kris brought a brie in puffed pastry with jam this year, and Kathy brought salmon dip. Dee-li-cious!) I round out the meal with homemade red velvet cupcakes for dessert.
Both the gnocchi and the clams are pretty much cooked to order, so there’s not much you can do in advance beyond a little prep work. You’d think I wouldn’t enjoy making big meals in my kitchen because it’s on the small side and has limited counter space. But I find this brings people together by forcing a closeness you can’t get in a bigger kitchen. And we usually end up using the grill, so there are people wandering in and outside, catching up with each other and crowding around. It’s fun.
My gnocchi has gradually improved over the years. They used to be on the lumpy side, but Mike got me a ricer one Christmas, so now there’s no chance of a stray potato bit. There are two things that haven’t changed:
- Gigi and Mae always cut the gnocchi for me. I roll it out into a doughy log, and they slice it with my dough cutter. This usually involves more flour than it should, but that’s half the fun.
- For Christsake, I don’t roll each gnocchi on a fork before throwing it in the pot. That would be all together too time consuming. They end up looking more like funky pillows than the ridged ovals they’re supposed to look like, but at least we get to eat before midnight.
This year was particularly hilarious because we got such a late start getting dinner together. We can get chatty, and when the wine is flowing, any semblance of a cooking schedule gets thrown out the window. Getting the clams together took longer than expected, which pushed back the gnocchi, which pushed back the mushrooms. Plus, our grill ran out of propane midway through the clams cooking (second time this summer!). By the time Mike changed the tank, we had to finish grilling the clams by flashlight!
Oh, but what a happy accident. We ended up eating by candle light outside on a beautiful warm night, swapping stories about summers when we were young. A breeze danced over the table and crickets sang in the background. It was lovely.
But summer has come to an end for us. My daughter started high school this week. I truly can’t believe it. As emotional as I get watching her pass into the next phase of her life, I am equally comforted knowing she is entering it with a group of misfit artists, comedians, actors, writers, cooks, no-bullshit-takers, holiday loving, business running, chicken raising, laugh-til-you-cry goofballs known as her family. We stand behind her and love her and will support her as she finds her way. If we celebrate like this when she comes home from camp, can you imagine what we’ll celebrate in the future? I can’t wait!
This recipe is from France: The Beautiful Cookbook
2 lbs baking potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
About 2 cups of all purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Scrub the potatoes under running water and place in a sauce pot (I peel them at this point). Cover with plenty of cold salted water. Bring to a boil and cook for about 25 minutes or until the potatoes are very tender and easily pierced with a knife.
Drain the potatoes and refresh under running water. Peel them and puree through the finest holes of a food mill or ricer. Add the egg, oil, flour, salt and pepper and stir with a wooden spoon until well blended, then work the mixture with your hands to produce a smooth dough that comes away from the fingers. (You may need more or less than 2 cups of flour.)
Roll the dough into sausage shapes 3/8 inch in diameter, then cut into ¾ inch chunks. Dip a fork in flour. Place the rounded side of the fork on a work surface and roll each chunk of dough over the fork, from the tips of the tines towards the handle, using a floured finger. (Yeah right. I totally skip this step!) Place each gnocchi on a tea towel. (I put them on a dinner plate.)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the gnocchi. As soon as they float to the surface, in about 2 to 3 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a serving dish. Serve with tomato sauce and grated pecorino romano cheese.