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October 28, 2003

Small Time Cooks

I was out on a job, making friends with some new alley cats. I knew they weren't so happy to see me, but they didn't have to say as much. My ribs knew I wasn't happy to see them either. After getting away from my new pals, I got out of the cold and into a quiet diner for a warm bowl of soup.

My fingers felt like broken icicles. Cold weather and I get along about as well as mustard and jellybeans. Winter food is great, but most of it is slow-cooking. Maria and I weren't about to go quietly into wintertime. Italian cooking contains some of the best warm weather recipes. It uses the freshest ingredients to make the most comforting food.

A friend told me to rub my hands on stainless steel to get rid of the smell of garlic. Now I keep something with stainless steel handy whenever I cook Italian. Maria and I picked out the freshest ingredients to make a sauce for gnocchi, a pasta dumpling made from potatoes instead of wheat. The side dish was vegetables, but instead of grilling, we pan-seared them.

These dishes serve 2.

Creamy Tomato and Basil Gnocchi

1 pound potato gnocchi

4 vine ripened tomatoes

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon minced onion

or 1 minced shallot

2 cloves minced garlic

1 cup heavy whipping cream

crushed red pepper to taste

salt and pepper to taste

You can find gnocchi at Hyde Park Produce with the frozen pastas. Cook by following the directions on the bag. The tomatoes should be peeled, seeded, and finely chopped. To peel a tomato, cut an ‘X' in the bottom and dunk it in boiling water until you see the skin start to peel—about 15 seconds. Then just pull the skin off. Heat up some olive oil in a pan, and sauté the garlic and onion. Add the tomato and basil, and cook for about five minutes on medium-high heat or until the tomatoes release a lot of juices. Add the crushed red pepper, salt, and pepper. If the pan is large enough, simply add the cream into the pan; otherwise, transfer to a pot. Reduce the heat to medium and gently stir. The sauce should soon start bubbling rapidly and slowly reduce. Continue stirring for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the sauce reduces to about half. Add a dash of white wine as it is reducing, if you like. You can tell it is ready by taste—the flavor will go from somewhat bland to very rich as the sauce reduces. Serve the sauce over the gnocchi, and top with Parmesan cheese, if you wish.

Pan Seared Fresh Vegetables

1 zucchini

1 summer squash

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1 cup fresh green beans

Wash all the vegetables well, then slice the zucchini and squash into small sticks. Drip a little olive oil into a pan and smooth the oil over the surface of the pan with a paper towel, so that only a thin film coats the cooking surface. Heat up the pan until very hot, and toss on the zucchini and squash. They should sear and singe on the edges before being turned. Once they are cooked, remove and add the green beans and mushrooms. Let them sear as well, turning after the edges become singed. Serve on the side of the gnocchi.

For vegans: The pan-seared veggies are vegan. Replace the gnocchi with vegan pasta. If you want to do a creamy sauce without the cream, use a cup of pureed silk tofu instead. To keep up the flavor, use more tomatoes, as well as more garlic, and about a quarter cup of white wine. Taste and add as you go. You may not get as much reduction as with the cream. Skip the Parmesan.