Weather or Not

Mentally battered by an assault of inclement weather warnings, you’d think the general public would have staged a revolt against all forecasters at this point. The anxiety and stress piles up faster than the foretold falling flakes, thanks to the added hype that always comes with incessant social media repetition. Nine times out of ten, expectations don’t match the reality of the climate outside, but the hysteria is sure real. So much as suggest that there might be anything less than blue skies and people will turn out from all corners of the earth to wrestle that last roll of toilet paper out of your hands at the grocery store. It’s like a battle of life and death, to secure a stockpile before the world ends, regardless of the pitifully low probability of even flurries.

This is a phenomenon I’ve become somewhat immune to in the generally mild atmosphere of the bay area, but that same illogical impulse still grips me when I’m least expecting it. Rain is the new snow around here, since it appears so rarely and thus cripples unsteady drivers and fragile public transit systems that don’t know how to cope. I still feel the pain of all those back east, hunkering down for a brutal nor’easter right now, undoubtedly hurtling through their local markets as if their shopping carts were assault weapons.

As darkening skies approach, what’s going into your basket? What are the staples that immediately make the cut as sustenance to hold you through those difficult times (maybe even hours!) when the roads are too intimidating to traverse? Practicality is not my strong suit, and so the parade of groceries marching down the conveyor belt at checkout is typically laughable. Peanut butter, bread, frozen peas; sure, those are wise investments. But the random assortment of chocolates, half-priced hummus, and impulse buy mini gnocchi? Those are perhaps a bit less crucial for long-term survival. I would not fare well if ever faced with a real lock-down emergency.

Luckily, my unreasonable yet well-meaning instincts have led me to create some incredible combinations out of those curiously assembled ingredients. Those mini gnocchi, for example, caught my eye as ideal comfort food when the going got rough, and they didn’t disappoint even when the forecast did. There’s never been a better time to indulge in such a recipe, although I can’t say that there would ever come a bad time, either.

Lavished with a buttery cream sauce made of typical pantry staples, it could very well be the new face of emergency rations, despite its less urgent origins. Dauphinoise potatoes typically layers thinly sliced spuds in a casserole concoction, but since pasta keeps longer and is almost always on hand, gnocchi struck me as a natural extension of the concept. In more dire times, or healthier mindsets, I realized that swapping out the dumplings for simple legumes like chickpeas could make for an equally satisfying, comforting side dish, too. It’s all the same starchy, savory, subtly salty flavors which meld into an effortless indulgence in the end.

If you haven’t already gone through the throes of panic-induced grocery shopping, may I make three quick suggestions? 1) Make a list. 2) Avoid the candy aisle. 3) Write in mini gnocchi as a necessity, no matter how silly it may appear at first glance. You’ll thank me for this later.

Gnocchi Dauphinoise

1 Pound Mini Potato Gnocchi
1/3 Cup Raw Cashews
1 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/3 Cup Vegetable Stock
2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground White Pepper

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.

Gently separate the mini gnocchi and toss them into a 1 1/2 quart baking dish. They’re so small that they don’t need to be parboiled before baking.

Toss all of the remaining ingredients into a high-speed blender and pulverize on the highest setting until perfectly silky smooth. If you’re using a machine that has a bit less torque, soak the cashews for at least 4 hours in advance before blender, to make them a bit softer and easier to emulsify. Blend for a full 6 – 8 minutes, until the mixture is steaming hot.

Pour the cashew cream all over the waiting gnocchi before easing the dish into the oven. Bake for 1 – 1 1/2 hours, until the gnocchi are fork-tender and the liquid is thick and rich. Top with freshly chopped parsley, if desired, and serve bubbling hot.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings as a Side; 2 – 3 Servings as an Entree with Salad

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Alone in the Kitchen

Eating alone is one thing- The act of scarfing down a sloppy assemblage of discordant ingredients while on the run, a quiet moment stolen away from a hectic schedule, shared only with a soothing bowl of soup and sandwich- Just a small, acceptable aspect of the modern world we must make peace with. Whether these meals are a respite or a terribly lonely hour are all in the eye of the beholder, or should I say, mouth of the eater. Cooking alone, in my opinion is an entirely different subject though. When you make the conscious effort to cook something from scratch, taking into consideration exactly what you want to feed yourself with, it’s a far more meditative, nourishing experience than merely grabbing a solo bite between meetings.

It looks different for everyone, but eating alone for me means a bowl of cereal for dinner or reheated leftovers. Cooking alone, at least in the winter, means rich curries packed full of vegetables, hearty soups enriched with miso and nutritional yeast (vegan catnip, from my point of view), or red sauce, enriched with thick, creamy coconut milk and vodka.

A perfectly balanced dinner, it is not, but sometimes it’s the less healthy option that’s better for your soul. Rather than mope over previously picked over scraps, while away the night time hours by myself, I poured myself into making a simple vodka sauce, tending the pot while listening to music and allowing the savory scent of stewed tomatoes fill the entire house. Smooth, with a few chunks of diced tomatoes for a more satisfying texture, vodka sauce is a favorite that isn’t indulged in very often around here. More than anything else, this recipe is an effort in self-editing. Resist the urge to throw in garlic (Yes, must fight the temptation, at least the first time you try it!), keep the fancy herbs at bay, and stick to the basics. Time is the best seasoning in this case, so approach this sauce with plenty of patience in stock. Top it all off with a fine chiffonade of fresh basil if you absolutely must, but that’s it!

Pasta, that simple, starchy comfort food, naturally makes the best sort of base. Go for something tube-shaped to catch and hold on to all that creamy crimson goodness, and if you must pretend like you’re eating healthily, go ahead and toss in some chickpeas or baked tofu for protein.

With the scent of my carefully tended vodka sauce wrapping around me like a thick, soft blanket on a cold night, just like that, I didn’t feel so alone when it came time to eat.

Coconut Vodka Sauce

1/2 Cup Coconut Oil, Melted
1 Large Onion, Finely Minced
1 Cup Vodka
2 28-Ounce Cans Diced Tomatoes
1 14-Ounce Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

In a large saucepan over medium heat, saute the onion in the melted coconut oil until softened and just beginning to take on a brown color. De-glaze with the vodka, stir well, and let cook for 10 minutes. Mix in canned tomatoes, juice and all, and bring the mixture up to a rapid bubble. Reduce the heat to medium-low to keep the sauce at a steady, low simmer, and cook for another 30 minutes. Pour in coconut milk and cook for a final 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, but be generous with both. Transfer half of the sauce to a blender and puree, or hit it with the immersion blender until it reaches your desired consistency. Be sure to leave it slightly chunky.

Serve while hot, or store in an air-tight container in the fridge after cooling, for up to a week.

Makes About 2 Quarts

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