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.
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 â€“ 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.