semolina dumpling ring with roasted butternut, butter beans and spinach-almond-asparagus pesto

Semolina dumplings with roasted butternut and butter beans

Semolina dumplings with roasted butternut and butter beans

“I doe now publish my Essayes; which, of all my other works, have been most Currant: For that, as it seems, they come home, to Mens Businesse, and Bosomes.” This is how Francis Bacon prefaces The Essays: or Counsels, Civil and Moral. I have a beautiful copy of this book, and I love the form of it. It is, simply, a series of short essays: Of Truth, Of Death, Of Unity in Religion, Of Revenge, Of Adversity, Of Simulation and Dissimulation, Of Parents and Children, Of Marriage and Single Life, Of Envy, Of Love and so on and on it goes. And I love the tone of it. It’s quite matter-of-fact, he’s stating truths as he believes them, and he makes the truths sound incontrovertible, but we also feel that he hasn’t arrived at them lightly. He’s thought and thought on these subjects, and considered all of the facets and vagaries of them. And though he sounds sure of himself, he hasn’t sealed his mind on any of these ideas. He’s thinking on them still. We feel that he would agree with James Baldwin and with me that “…all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright.” My favorite essay is the first, On Truth. You can tell that he loves truth as a thing, almost as a person. He loves the search for truth, “…yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.” And just as a hope is a place, so is truth, “It is a pleasure, to stand upon the shore, and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure, to stand in the window of a castle, and to see a battle, and the adventures thereof below: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors, and wanderings, and mists, and tempests, in the vale below; so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling, or pride. Certainly, it is heaven upon earth, to have a man’s mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth.” He talks about poetry being the shadow of a lie, which adds some beauty to the truth, and he talks about lies such as “vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like,” as saving men’s minds from becoming “poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition.” In just this way he mixes wild, poetical language with the more staid and scholarly, and helps us to see not just the matter of his text, but his passion for it as well. I’d like to write a book of essays like this. I’d like to see everybody do it! We could pick the topics, of course, according to our interests, but we’d keep the essays short and fierce and thoughtful, like these are. We’d look at the world around us and decide what questions are important to ask, and then we’d spend time thinking about these questions, and then we’d write it all down. Not the answers to the questions, because there are no answers, but we’d write all of the ways we’ve been thinking about it, the truths that we have wooed. We’d share our truths with each other, and see that our truths aren’t the only ones, and that would make us seek not just the truth of our own little world, but of the great and common world, the whole round world.

"IF ONE COULD BUT PAINT HIS MIND."

“IF ONE COULD BUT PAINT HIS MIND.”

Semolina dumpling ring with roasted butternut squash, butter beans and asparagus almond pesto

Semolina dumpling ring with roasted butternut squash, butter beans and asparagus almond pesto

Speaking of round! I made this ring of semolina dumplings, which are puffy and soft and comforting. Then I filled the center with butternut squash roasted with herbs, butter beans and mozzarella…all soft and creamy and sweet and roasty. And I topped the whole thing off with a bright, green, vegetal, lemony pesto of spinach, almonds and asparagus. This meal has layers. It didn’t take long to make, and it was a nice complex but comforting winter meal.

Here’s some more Gary Davis for you.

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Tomato steaks au poivre; Semolina dumpling baked in tomatoes; roasted red salad stuffed heirloom

Giant heirloom

It’s hard not to become defensive when you grow up in New Jersey. From an early age, you’re aware that you’re the butt of jokes – not just the jokes of snarky Manhattanites, but of pretty much everybody, everywhere. You hear stereotypes about New Jersey accents, New Jersey styles of dress, New Jersey music. You know, of course, that those accents and styles of dress actually originate in certain boroughs of Manhattan, and the attribution is false, but you grow tired of explaining that. People drive from New York to Philly and see the ugliest part of New Jersey – the Strip malls and refineries. You think about telling them that where you live, there’s nothing but vast expanses of beautiful countryside, but you don’t want everybody moving here, so you keep quiet. You know that Jersey is overpopulated, but that population is incredibly diverse, which means that we have a rich culture of languages, art, and food. We have mountains and beaches and meadows. We have a sense of humor about ourselves – we have to – it’s a survival instinct. We’re adaptable and tolerant – living so close to your neighbors (as you do in much of the state) you learn to respect them and care for them.

Baked semolina dumpling tomatoes

And we have tomatoes! Jersey tomatoes – pride of the garden state! At the moment I have a bewildering number of tomatoes! But I’ve had a lot of fun thinking of ways to prepare them. We had some big, beautiful heirloom tomatoes. I scooped out some of the flesh and replaced it with semolina dumpling batter. I baked the tomatoes, and made the flesh into a sauce with chard and basil.

Tomato chard sauce

The semolina has a lovely, soft texture that absorbs the tomato-y juices. Then I thought about giant slices of tomatoes that feel like steaks, and I decided to coat them in pepper, fry them in a little butter, and then use the juices to make a sauce, with shallots, garlic, and wine. It made a nice side dish, and I think it would be nice over angel hair pasta. Finally, we had an heirloom tomato the size of a small pumpkin. I decided to open it in thick slices, and stuff a flavorful salad into the spaces – roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, capers, olives, and fresh basil. Fresh and delicious!

Tomato steaks au poivre

Here’s Tom Waits with Jersey Girl
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Roman gnocchi “pizza” with chard and roasted mushrooms

Roman gnocchi pizza

The power went out for about an hour this morning. It was the crucial coffee-making hour. I panicked, and bought two large coffees after taking Isaac to school. ($5.30? Really?) By the time I got back home, the power was on and all was right with the world. Well, that coffee must have been stronger than our usual coffee, cause I feel a little odd! I’m wired, my heart is racing, and I feel on the verge of seeing spots or possibly experiencing tunnel vision. But I’m strangely tired, too. I could take a nap, in fact. Except that I can’t take a nap, because I’ve had too much coffee!! And I feel like I’ve got too much to do to take a nap, but we all know that’s not true, because I’m a lady of leisure. A roustabout, a ne’er-do-well.

I would like to tell you about my roman gnocchi pizza, though. I’m a big fan of roman gnocchi. Basically, roman gnocchi involves applying a cream puff technique (one of my very favorite cooking techniques) to semolina flour. It’s baked rather than boiled. It doesn’t call for potatoes, but it does call for eggs. So it’s light and fluffy. Dense and soft on the inside, cripsy on the outside. Very comforting and delicious. You can add all sorts of things to the batter – herbs and cheese being the most likely (I was going to make a joke about adding nails and pennies, and legos and other small household objects, but I thought you might think the coffee had made me crazy!). I like to make a big plate of roman gnocchi in the summer, and then have lots of little dishes along with it – fresh tomatoes and basil, chard and raisins and pinenuts, basil pesto, crispy eggplant, a good salad. It’s one of my favorite meals! This time of year I thought it would be nice with chard and roasted mushrooms. And I further thought that it would be nice to combine them before I bake the roman gnocchi, and to make it in a sort of pizza shape. So that’s what I did. It was quite simple to make. Generally, when you make roman gnocchi, you make the dough and then let it sit, so that you can cut it into shapes before you bake it. The sitting step was eliminated in this version, because I just scooped it onto a baking tray and arranged it with a spoon.

Here’s Mississippi John Hurt with Coffee Blues. This song kills me, because it’s so beautiful, but it’s actually an advertisement for a particular brand of coffee!
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Herbed semolina dumplings

Semolina dumplings

It’s quite a dreary day, today, grey and damp-cold, but not raining. You know what’s perfect on a day like this? Soup and dumplings, that’s what! I like to bake dumplings, so they get a little crispy on the outside, before you surrender them to the depths of your soup or stew. I like that contrast in texture, and the sense of immediacy in eating them before they lose their crispness, and in enjoying their transformation. These dumplings, made with semolina flour and eggs, are crispy outside, but they’re dense and soft on the inside. They’re a lot like Roman gnocchi, as it happens, and you could certainly eat them with a sauce of some sort, rather than dunking them in a soup. They’re quick-as-can-be to make, and you can have them hot out of the oven by the time your soup is warmed up.

Bouillabaisse photographed in the company of a semolina dumpling

Here’s Sam Cooke with Sugar Dumpling.
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