Tight on the Belt, Easy on the Tongue

Gnocchi from bibberche.com

One of the most important lessons I learned in my childhood is the lesson on frugality. My parents were born just before World War II erupted and had to live through the years of scarcity and food shortages during the war and for several years after. The country was destroyed, having met with the destructive might of both Axis and Allied forces, and it took a couple of decades for the population at large to stop feeling the hunger pangs.

In the seventies and eighties, while the three of us were emerging from childhood into adolescence,  life in ex-Yugoslavia was pretty idyllic for  most people (at least from our young perspective). Mother stayed at home with us, forsaking her career as a teacher, while Father was mostly absent, delivering babies, performing surgeries, and celebrating happy outcomes with numerous friends and acquaintances in restaurants and taverns all over the province.

We were not lacking anything, yet our parents insisted on keeping a tight budget on everyday expenditures. We didn’t go to the yearly clothes-buying pilgrimages to Trieste in Italy in the early 80s, like most of our friends, or later to Istanbul, Turkey, when Italy became too expensive. We learned how to sew in grade school, and most of the clothes we wore we made ourselves using an old foot-controlled Singer machine. We labored under the hawk-eyed criticism of  our Mother, who had learned to sew at age five, taught by a stern German hausfrau obsessed with the tiny details on the road to an elusive perfection.

All the sweaters Mother knitted were unravelled after we outgrew them, the yarn washed gently, and wound again into tight balls, ready to be transformed into another thing of beauty (as an Art teacher, she enjoyed the craft, and her unique creativity is unsurpassed).

The couches were reupholstered into something completely different and new. The tables and chairs were stripped and re-stained. The curtains and drapes Mother made herself, moving from the bright orange and brown hues of the seventies, through the Miami Vice pastels of the eighties, to the earth tones of the nineties.

We repurposed everything: supermarket plastic bags lined the trash cans; small glass jars holding mustard were turned into serving glasses for the family; emptied whiskey and vodka bottles held Mother’s special tomato and vegetable sauces; smallish, 250gr or 500gr jars were used to house those rare and hard to make homemade jams and preserves, like wild strawberry, rose, or  fig; yogurt and sour cream containers were for storing the daily leftovers.

We learned domestic alchemy from Mother… how to make something out of nothing. We developed a healthy approach to not wasting food. We grew up to be creative, imaginative, and frugal adults.

I arrived to my new home in the U.S., armed with this knowledge. In the land of plenty, I still reuse plastic containers, glass jars , and supermarket bags. Leftovers are transformed into meals of a completely different nature, the refrigerator is always full, and the box freezer is entering its tenth anniversary (we had to make an emergency trip to BestBuy to get it when a Serbian friend gifted us out of the blue with half of a freshly butchered Amish pig and plopped it on the kitchen counter).

I do a weekly inventory of the refrigerator, pantry, and the freezer, and make a meal plan for the week based on work and school schedules, and children’s activities and parties. College Kritter usually e-mails her special culinary requests several days prior to arrival at home for the weekend. I also research the weather forecast and take advantage of any cloudy, or less then 75F day (a winter wonderland in Southern California) to make a stew, a braised dish, or anything with sauerkraut. Based on all of these variables, we will go grocery shopping.

I try to include different foods and various cuisines, utilizing fresh produce and  healthy ingredients (yes, lard is healthy!). Mother was willing to accommodate all of our preferences, wishes, and cravings as long as they fit her master plan. I try to follow the same trend. The menu is not set in stone. Sometimes I don’t feel like cooking what I planned. Sometimes the chosen fresh produce does not look that fresh, and substitutions have to be made. Sometimes nobody feels hungry, and we just graze.

The finances are tight, and we do not eat out. But I pride myself on offering my family the freshest and finest ingredients so that they do not notice the budget. It gives me enormous satisfaction to expand their horizons, to introduce them to the unusual, to let them taste something wonderfully different. The gifts from Nature (you can tell I am digging life in California with that capital N in Nature!) transformed by my hands, leave every morsel as good as it can be. I try. I really do.  My parents had it worse in those uncertain war years, but as we cope with this recession, I hope to instill the same love of good food in my children as my parents instilled in us, always remembering that frugality is the basis of it all.

Gnocchi ingredients from bibberche.com

We had two baked potatoes left from the day before which were not enough to turn into twice-baked potatoes for a family of four. The cream of potato soup, as much as I love it, did not really fit with my plans to lose a few extra pounds. They were definitely destined to become gnocchi, these wonderfully soft potato pillows that give themselves thoroughly and with abandon to various sauces, transforming with each additional layer of flavor, leaving you content in the most wonderful carbohydrate daze.

As I had dinner already planned, I left the gnocchi in the freezer to await their chance to shine.



  • 2 large Idaho potatoes
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • ¾ cups all-purpose flour


Preheat the oven to 425F.

Wash and dry the potatoes. Wrap them in aluminum foil and place directly on the grate in the oven. Bake for 45 minute until fork-tender. (If you have leftover baked potatoes, just warm them up in the oven for 5 minutes, as the gnocchi are much softer if the potatoes are warm.)

Remove the foil and allow potatoes to cool slightly, just enough so you can peel them without burning your fingers. Pass them through potato rice if you have one. If not gently press them with a fork until mashed.

Place the mash on a counter and make an indentation in the middle. Break the egg in the hole and beat it slightly with a fork. Sprinkle the flour and salt on top and gently fold the potatoes outside in, over the egg and flour, mixing gently. Knead lightly just until incorporated. You should not overwork the dough, as the gnocchi will be tough.

Cut the dough in four pieces and roll each piece  into a snake about ¾ inch thick (I find it  easier to roll it on a counter that is barely dusted with flour – just enough so that it does not stick to the surface.)

Using a knife, a pizza cutter, or a mezzaluna, cut pieces an inch in length and place them on a flour-dusted tray.

When all four pieces of the dough are rolled and cut, press each little piece against the fork tines with your thumb lightly, so the get ridges and curl inward. Place the gnocchi back on the flour-dusted tray.

(You can freeze them at this point by placing the tray in the freezer until they are completely frozen. Remove them from the tray and put them in a Ziploc bag.)

How to cook the gnocchi:

Heat a big pot of salted water until it boils. Once the water is vigorously boiling, put about 20 gnocchi in. They will sink to the bottom, and as they cook, they will float to the top. Once they are all the way to the surface, take them out using the slotted spoon and place them into the prepared sauce of your choice.

15 Responses to Tight on the Belt, Easy on the Tongue

  1. LiztheChef says:

    A beautifully written post – how I love reading your family stories, past and present!

  2. My parents were born in 1928 and 1930 and grew up on farms during the Great Depression. It may have been a different culture and a different world, but I was raised in the same way. Waste not, want not. And I “inherited” the same traits my parents had. Thanks for showing in such a well-written way how we all can eat well–and live well–on very little money.

    Dan @ Casual Kitchen

  3. My parents married after WWII; my father was an Air Force pilot who came home from the war and went to college before he met my mother. While I have 5 siblings, one wasn’t born until I was sixteen so more more of our childhood there were five kids. My dad had a good job with the government as a retired Major and college grad but still…5 kids is a lot of kids.

    I don’t recall us ever feeling without but I also don’t recall us ever feeling ‘with.’ We had a meal on the table, a few presents for Christmas and a new outfit each year before the beginning of school.

    I do know I started babysitting at a young age (all those sibs made me VERY desirable to the neighborhood moms) and I started saving my own money and buying most of my own clothes from the time I was 12 or 13.

    Fast forward many years and I appreciate that I knew from a young age how to be frugal; having a husband walk out one day and leave myself and two young girls fighting for survival was a test of that ability and really nothing has changed. Whether I ‘can’ pay for it or not, I actually love that I am a Do It Yourself type. That I will always use it up and wear it out before replacing something old with something new just because. That I learned to cook and care for my family and offer them meals at home and avoid the expense of restaurants through all the years of single parenting has instilled some of those same values in my own children and I take some pride in that.

    Your story obviously spoke to me and I can identify with so much. These experiences are woven into the fabric of our lives and I think kids today have it too easy; are too spoiled. Maybe we could have wished for some easier moments but I’m not sure I would trade for the skills we were taught; they are a huge part of who I am and I sure they are you too…and that is good. XOXO

  4. Gloria says:

    Hi Lana. You always pull me in with your vivid family stories. Your mom sounds like a creative genius meets domestic goddess/engineer! My parents divorced and one of my parents was much more frugal than the other. I could never understand why when I was growing up. The funny thing is now that I’m all grown up (at least mostly) I have so much more appreciation for the parent’s house where things were a little tougher.

    By the way, your gnocchi look delicious. I have yet to make them at home…another thing for my cooking bucket list. ;)

  5. These look PERFECT even without the gnocchi gadget!

  6. Ok Ok, I’ll stop buying packaged gnocchi and try it myself! Great post Lana – I must say – my mom was a depression baby and in many ways is very frugal. But I think my life with its good fortune combined with its hectic nature has left me less frugal than I would like to be. Though I must admit, my favorite thing is to take all the leftover miscellaneous goodies out of the fridge and serve some sort of dinner with them – totally satisfying and usually pretty darn tasty!

    I hate when I find unused produce or leftovers that have gone bad – it just feels rotten (literally and figuratively).

  7. Maureen says:

    My parents and my in-laws were married just before or just after WWII and they all knew what living without was like. Like you everything was re-use, re-purpose or do without. My mother made our clothes, my father did the veggie garden and mum did the canning and freezing. We never felt “lack” because we always had what we needed and most of what we wanted but we knew not to be greedy.

    I love your gnocchi. I make it several times a year – sometimes with a tomato based sauce, sometimes with burnt butter and sage sauce – it’s always good.

  8. Lana, I love your nostalgic style of writing…such wonderful memories you share with us. I also saw my parents and grandparent being frugal, they valued and respected whatever they had and were always thankful! Gnocchi is one of my favorite dishes and yours look delectable!

  9. Lana says:

    @Liz, you are always so kind! Thank you, my friend:)

    @Dan, it is a pleasure to see you here:) I don’t think it matters where on Earth we are from – our ancestors fought scarcity and poverty in a very similar manner. I am grateful that my grandparents and parents left me this legacy, and I am passing it on to my kids:)

    @Barb, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Your life story is an inspiration. I am sure your girls will appreciate the gift of frugality you passed on to them:)

    @Gloria, isn’t it always the case that one parent is more frugal than the other? But in my family both of them were frugal. As kids we might not appreciate it, but now, as adults, we have a different POV and see deeper. Do try to make gnocchi, it is really not hard at all!

    @Angie, but I covet the gnocchi gadget:) Thanks!

    @Beth, lol about “rotten”:) One of my favorite kitchen games is the leftover game. It is challenging! I hope you make gnocchi – once you try to make them once, you’ll see how easy it is.

    @Maureen, it’s true – you never feel like you are lacking so much when your parents are frugal. I hope my kids are comforted in that sense, too:) Burnt butter and sage, love!

    @Thank you, Sarah:) I am always so happy when I find out my words touched another soul:) Here is to frugality!

  10. Health Tips says:

    Nostalgic Writing, Lana.. I loved the style you narrated it. Gnocchi is the best you could talk about. I love it more. It would have been more better if you had few health tips added to it.

  11. I grew up with a frugal family as my dad lost his job when I was 12, and I have never veered out of that zone, even as an urban professional (plus, I hate for anything to go to waste). And I also used to make a ricotta gnocchi, but it’s been a while. A wonderful post, as usual.

  12. Mary says:

    This is the best gnocchi tutorial I have ever seen. Have you ever tried making them with an alternative to wheat flour? Half my family is GF right now, but I would love to try this!

    • Lana says:

      Thanks, Mary:) I have tried making them with sweet potatoes instead of regular, but always used flour. I will have to do some research as no one in my family is GF (although I have a Type 1 diabetic daughter).

  13. I love gnocchi and now I can finally try making my own. Thanks for sharing.

    • Lana says:

      Thanks, JD! I have a Trader Joe’s store a few minutes away and I absolutely love shopping there! Looking forward to visiting your blog and exploring TJ inspired recipes.

Leave a reply