It should come as no surprise that the day after I finished The Fault in Our Stars, the New York Times bestseller written by John Green and given to us as a gift New Year’s Day by Sonja and Alex, Tim and I were in the kitchen mixing and rolling homemade gnocchi dough, he with the camera, me with flour-covered fingers, watching the sunlight streak across our dining room table and the giant bamboo cutting board I gave Tim as a gift two years ago.
It should come as no surprise because, at least according to Instagram, most of you already know about this book, one of those classic star-crossed love stories that, at the end, leaves you looking at life in a different way from when you’d started, which in my case meant grabbing Tim and sobbing about how thankful I am to have him and about how I hope he knows, like really knows, that I feel so remarkably blessed and happy to share his life.
There’s this one line in particular, towards the end of the story, that’s stayed with me since I turned the last page Friday night, one that sort of echoes a theme reoccurring in the book:
“The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.”
I know I’m giving you the quote without much context, but for some reason it’s the quote I keep thinking about when I scroll through the photos in this post—the balls of dough, the nine-inch logs, the rows of sliced gnocchi ready to be cooked. Even without knowing the 16-year-old cancer patient Hazel Grace Lancaster who narrates Green’s book, even without knowing the character who loves her and says this line about her, even without any of that or with all of that, I like to think you can read that quote and, in our world of do-do-doing, go-go-going, checking stats, keeping on task, still read those words and sense the freedom in thinking, wait, actually, it’s not how many recipes you make this week or how many Facebook friends you have or what long list of accomplishments you can say you’ve achieved in your life. It’s not your scope of followers or sphere of influence or money in the bank account. No. It’s looking, stopping and looking, at the task you’re doing today. It’s considering the thing in front of you this moment. It’s plopping one sweet potato gnocchi after another into water, watching the liquid turn cloudy, waiting for the dough to float.
I have this growing need in my heart for this. I have this growing need to tune out everything around me—the iPhone, the to-do list, the relationship drama—and to focus totally on one thing, just one thing, so I can pay attention to it. It’s stunning how infrequently this happens. I’d like to blame our multitasking culture with its plugged-in, tuned-in, connected lifestyle that makes so many of us operate at half-speed most of the time, half-interacting and half-remembering what’s going on around us, but on a deeper level I know it’s my own heart that’s at work. Nobody forces me to check my Facebook while I’m working. I don’t have to keep my phone out while I’m driving in the car. I could clear more space for reading and for quiet, but it takes intention, and intention doesn’t happen on its own.
So here’s what I’d like to move towards, intentionally, more and more in our life: To sit with Tim at dinner and give him my full attention, no laptop or TV allowed. To read a book in bed and put my phone in the other room. To go for a walk and just be there, really there, on the walk, looking at the waving branches and smelling the crisp air, quieting my soul. A lot of times, I feel I have a noisy soul, to be honest with you, one that is restless and hurried. I’m constantly jumping to the next task, even if just in my mind, and it sort of sucks the life away from living to be always rushing like that.
I’d also like to be more thankful, to take moments to stop and think about how good the good things are. I’d like the people around me to know I appreciate them because I say so. I’d like to notice every time something is sweet or kind or lovely and call it out, like habit, like breathing, like it’s something I can’t stop myself from doing as I do.
And along with that, I’d like to fight fiercely for the joy in food, for the raw pleasure of combining pureed sweet potatoes and flour and forming that mixture into a dough, for seeing something entirely new come into being before your eyes. You who read here understand this; you know the way that moving to the kitchen with a recipe and ingredients can be so comforting and calming and rewarding, especially when you finish with a plateful of sweet potato gnocchi swimming in a brown butter sauce, a meal you made with your two hands while you mixed and heated and created and cooked. I know you know it. Sometimes people say things like they cook to save money or they cook to be healthy or because it’s something they know they can do well; but along with all those things, can I just submit? I think one of the best parts of cooking is the fun you can have while you do.
Sweet Potato Gnocchi in Brown Butter Sage Sauce
Inspired by a vegan version at Made Just Right
Makes about 48 gnocchi; Serves two to three large portions
In lieu of the butter sauce, you could just drizzle the boiled gnocchi with olive oil and Pecorino—my in-laws gave us a bottle of rosemary olive oil for Christmas that was practically made for this—but it’s hard to beat the nutty taste of browned butter.
2 cups sweet potato puree*
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 to 3 cups flour (we used einkorn), plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves, chopped
About a cup of shredded Pecorino cheese
Combine sweet potato puree with salt, nutmeg, and pepper. Add flour by the 1/2 cup, mixing well after each addition, until the dough comes together to resemble a pasta dough. I found working it with my hands was the best way to gage this. Once you have a soft, elastic-ish dough, divide it into six equal portions.
Set a large stockpot on the stove and fill it with water and a bunch of salt, and bring the water to a boil while you keep working.
On a floured surface and with floured hands, roll each of the six portions into logs about 1/2 inch in diameter and seven to nine inches in length. Use a floured knife to slice the logs into one-inch-long pillows and press them with a fork for decoration if you like.
By this point, the water should be boiling. Once it is, reduce the heat so the water’s at a simmer and drop half of the gnocchi (about two dozen) inside. You can expect them to sink to the bottom, but run a spoon through the water to keep them from sticking to the pan. In about five minutes, once the gnocchi float to the top of the water, give them another minute and, using a slotted spoon, remove them to a plate. Repeat the process with the second half of gnocchi.
Meanwhile, heat the butter in a saucepan on another burner, melting it and adding the chopped sage. Keep heating it until the mixture darkens and smells nutty; then lower the heat. Place the first batch of gnocchi inside, rolling them around for a minute or two and removing to a plate; repeat with the second batch.
Top gnocchi with grated Pecorino and serve warm. Enjoy!
*How I make my sweet potato puree: Preheat oven to 375F. Slice sweet potatoes in half and rub cut side and outer skins with oil. Place on baking sheet, cut side down, and baking until potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork. Let cool and scoop out inside flesh to a food processor; puree. All set!