Appetites go further than food. We have an appetite for success, for dreams, for growth, for most anything that we can have more of. Growing up, I had a strong appetite for horses and horseback riding. I was lucky enough to receive an education in riding and training based on the concepts of classical equitation. By the end of high school, my self-trained horse and I were jumping beans and performing “haute ecole” moves. College loomed over my head, and I and my parents weren’t willing to give up on the years of hard work I had put in to my extra curricular activities.
Enter Camelot and 4-H T.R.A.I.L. This wonderful ranch and hippotherapy program was just 15 miles north of my school, Humboldt State University. To top it off, they were looking for a second caretaker right then. This entailed caring for between ten and twenty horses during the week by seeing to their safety and nutrition, and assisting in leading the Saturday volunteer based program. And in exchange, a place to live in the quiet country with the animals I loved and like-minded people.
But, it got even better.
Those volunteers I mentioned that arrived on Saturdays came to work. They mended fences and painted stalls and mucked and groomed and mucked and pruned blackberries and nettles and mucked some more. They put riders on horses and lead them around and ensured their safety. All volunteer work.
Did I mention the mucking?
All that work brought about a healthy appetite for food. Besides the horses, the camaraderie, and the good deeds done, volunteers came for the potluck. Every week, while most were up working and mucking, a couple of volunteers would stay at the tack room and set up a smorgasbord of delights brought by those same volunteers. Sometimes this was the average potluck fare: five kinds of potato salad, a lone soup, three things of chips and dip, and a vegetable tray. But among those five kinds of potato salad were five long-kept family recipes, each different from the next. The chips and dip may have been store bought, but at least one of them was usually a locally made variety bursting with flavor. And the soups weren’t a couple of cans tossed together and called delicious: they came from the garden on the ranch run by the same wonderful women who managed the potluck. Swiss chard and beans and all manner of a variety of vegetables burst forth to become food.
And the bounty from the garden was shared.
This potluck was the driving force behind some of our favorite meals now. Including this one. A mystery squash was grown my first year there. It was a winter squash: hard on the outside, meaty and orange and sweet and fiberous on the inside. Not as flavorful as pumpkin or butternut squash, and a little bit bitter, and more plentiful than zucchini. We were all looking for new things to do.
I wanted to make a pasta salad for the potluck. I had grown bored with the sourdough and French breads I had grown accustomed to baking. And I wanted to try my hand at fresh pasta. So the squash was split in half, gutted, and tossed in the oven with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper for an hour and a half or so, then pulled out and allowed to cool. The next morning, I got up, fed the horses and rode my own, then came back inside, washed up, and pureed my squash. A mountain of flour was poured on my kitchen table, a well made, a half-dozen eggs cracked in to it. With a pitcher of water at my side, I mixed the eggs and flour with enough water to come to a dough, just like the celebrity chefs on the TV told me to do.
Then I stopped listening.
And I kneaded in the mystery squash.
I rolled out the dough, cut it into squares, and dropped it in to boiling, salted water, drained it, dressed it with a balsamic vinaigrette, and marched out to muck stalls and mend fences, my bowl of pasta goodness in my hand. It was a giant bowl of pasta (gnocchi). No leftovers survived, and it was requested many times over.
I’ve since made it with all variety of winter squashes, and it’s always come out quite delicious. It’s rather forgiving. Serve it with a side of chicken or pork, a side salad, or a fried egg. Adjust the vinaigrette to suit the squash you use: a sweeter vinegar for a more sour squash like pumpkin. Brighten it up by using a champagne vinegar. Apple cider vinegar and nutmeg bring this into the fall that much more. And, of course, tossing the gnocchi in a sauce of butter and homemade chicken stock is always a great addition. Garnish with a bit of something green (green onion, parsley, and cilantro have all made an appearance a time or two). Experiment and make it yours!
- 3 cups flour
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup freshly roasted winter squash such as butternut or pumpkin (I’ve used canned pumpkin as well – it works, but is a bit “flat” in flavor.)
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 shallot, finely minced
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- fresh tarragon
- 1 bunch parsley
- 1 – 3 handfuls chopped walnuts
- salt & pepper to taste
If you haven’t already, roast the squash in the oven with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Allow to cool completely (I often go for “enough”), and mash or puree until fairly smooth and “workable.”
The best fresh-made pasta is messy. Mound the flour on your table, and make a well in it. Crack your eggs into the well, add salt, and begin to beat with your fingers. Start bringing in the flour, and slowly add more flour until about half is added in. Bring the squash to the party in the well. Continue mixing, folding, and kneading until everything is well integrated. Roll out the dough as thin as you can manage, and cut into small squares. Drop into well-salted, boiling water 3 to 5 minutes, or untill cooked. Drain, but do not rinse.
Combine the shallot, garlic, vinegar, tarragon, salt, and pepper in a bowl. Wisk well, and slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking. You could saute your onions and garlic first to soften and temper them. Dress the gnocci with the vinegerette, toss in the walnuts and parsley, and serve.