Italian food

Recipes for Writing

I make a pretty mean gnocchi. 

By which I mean really nice gnocchi. The only thing it’s mean to is your waistline, because everyone grabs seconds. There are plenty foods I make that people say are good but then politely push the plate aside when they’re finished. What, you don’t even want some for leftovers? That’s tantamount to those idiots who stand for the entire bow line at the end of the play. They think they’re supporting all the actors, but in reality, they’re giving equal feedback to the chorus line and Jean Valjean. 

Come on, people, I’m an aspiring writer. Show, don’t tell.

Not so with the gnocchi, however. 

I’ve got three solid “outside the norm” dishes. I mean, I’m no slouch when it comes to staples like hamburgers and barbecue chicken, and with a seven-year-old in the house, I’ve perfected every mac & cheese this side of the Andromeda Galaxy. But nobody asks how I make my hamburgers. People don’t rush back to the table to split the last drumstick.

My ravioli, jambalaya, and gnocchi, however, bring ALL the milkshakes to the yard. Yet every time I make them, somewhere halfway through dishes I’ve made countless times, I think they’re fubared. 

In the writing world, they call that imposter syndrome. 

Starting with the Jan Brady of the three, I discovered my jambalaya recipe in my mid-twenties when I became obsessed with New Orleans and all things creole. I went to Mardi Gras at the age of 25 and spent the next couple years hunting down the secrets of gumbo, etouffee, and various colored beans and rices. It seemed an easier experience to transport home than random women flashing me in return for cheap plastic trinkets.

Please note, I wrote creole, not Cajun. Creole food is a wonderful fusion of textures and flavors, foods and spices, into a rib-sticking umami. Cajun, by contrast, is crappy food, like catfish, they mask by drenching in spice and charring the shit out of. All the nuance of a ball-pein hammer.

Of all those NOLA recipes I tinkered with in my twenties, the jambalaya stuck out. Other than that one time I tweaked crawfish bread into scallop bread because, even though crawfish are readily available in Sacramento, they’re a pain in the ass to get the good stuff out of. Scallops accomplish many of the same profiles with much less hassle. If anything, they’re juicier, and scallop bread was fucking divine. Even better than crawfish bread, if I dare say. But I never made it again because it was messy as hell and scallops have become friggin’ expensive.

Damn, I might need to bust out that scallop bread again.

But yeah, other than scallop bread, jambalaya’s become my jam. I’ve probably only made it ten times or so, although more often in my thirties than more forties.  Having a child lessens the likelihood I’m having drunk friends over for Mardi Gras. Add to that the fact that Wife doesn’t care for red peppers or Andouille, plus shellfish inflames my gout like a motherfucker, and it’s much easier to just throw a pork roast in the oven or something.

Jambalaya isn’t tough to make, but it’s easy to mess up. You basically make a broth and then cook rice in it. It’s sometimes confused with gumbo, which is also rice in a broth. But the gumbo retains soup form, with the cooked rice being added at the last minute, whereas with jambalaya, the rice absorbs the broth, so it’s a rice dish, not a soup. 

Unlike other rice dishes, you don’t just throw a cup of rice into two cups of water then walk away for twenty minutes, it takes a few hour, stirring regularly, to absorb at a low simmer. The first time I made it, I burnt the shit out of the rice. It’s not a dish you can adjust on the fly. One of the recipes I based mine on tells you to taste the liquid before you add the rice with the caveat, “If it doesn’t taste right, it’s too late to do anything about it. Taste it anyway.”

Cooking jambalaya runs in the same lane as the “pantsing” method of writing. For those unfamiliar, with pantsing (meaning “seat of your pants” writing), you have no particular story in mind. You think up characters, throw them into a setting, and see what happens. Maybe the writer is a step or two ahead of the characters, but not always. Sometimes you write yourself into a corner. Sometimes a plot point simmers too long without stirring, and end up with some stale char. But the good news is that you can taste of the broth from time to time and adjust as necessary. Just don’t drop the rice in until all the characters have arrived at the dead man’s mansion. 

I wrote one of my books using the pantsing method. Most of my flash fictions are written in the pantsing model, and plenty of them end up burnt to shit. Blog posts, too. I know, who woulda guessed these bits of brilliance are nothing more than, “Fucked up on the gnocchi again, this reminds me of my writing” somehow morphing into 3000 words of drivel. 

The problem with pantsing is figuring out where to go with it, when to make stuff happen. You’ve got a premise and a hook, but if you don’t know when to add the rice, you spend five hundred pages circling the drain and never coming in for a landing. Allegedly Stephen King is a huge pantser. Most of the time he pulls it off, but he has a few books where the premise is way cooler than the payoff. I’m looking at you, Under the Dome.

The staple I’ve cooked for the longest is my ravioli. This is a family recipe that the kids “assist” on as early as five or six. I was in college the first time I made them on my own. You know you’re a badass when you’re asking for grooved rolling pins for Christmas at the age of twenty. In my defense, video games were at a low ebb in the mid-1990s. 

The problem with ravioli is the prep work. If I get a good groove going, and don’t get distracted by the television or the family, I can finish in a weekend. Yes, a full weekend. Including Friday night, when I cook the twenty or so ingredients that go into the stuffing. Then I need most of it to cool before I put it together into the food processor. Then back to the fridge to ensure it’s coalesced enough to hold some sense of form when I put it in the dough the next day. 

The dough takes all day Saturday and Sunday. Make a big ol’ batch, cut off one slice at a time and then roll, roll, roll, stuff, fill and fold, roll with the other pin, then slice. Layer them with wax paper in a Pyrex dis and throw them in the freezer, because they’re still liable to stick to each other at this point. Then start on the next Pyrex and by the time it’s full, you can take the other one out of the freezer and transfer all those frozen ravs into a freezer-safe Ziplock. Repeat the process for 36 hours or so. Ugh.

And yeah, my family recipe that’s been “passed down for generations” requires food processors, Pyrex, and freezers. Not sure how it was done back in Piedmont. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that the most important ingredient in my grandma’s “timeless” pasta sauce recipe was a packet of Lawry’s seasoning. 

Don’t scoff. It’s still my secret recipe.

Note you don’t actually EAT the ravioli the weekend you make them. This is a “make in October to have at Christmas” kind of meal.

In that way, they’re similar to the “planning” writing style, the opposite of pantsing. Should be self-explanatory, but planning entails plotting the whole thing out, knowing all the nooks and crannies, the pitfalls and prat falls, long pen hits paper. Or fingers hit keyboard, since we’re living in the age of Pyrex. 

The good news with planning is, if you do it right, there’s less danger of writing yourself into that corner. Spackle the plot holes before they turn into cervices.  Some people even plot specific conversations ahead of time and, allegedly, if you do it right, the book is easier to write by the time you get around to it. Sounds boring to me. 

That’s the problem with my ravioli, too. Who the hell wants to work on food all weekend, sending their back into apoplectic quivering, and douse the entire kitchen (and living room and bedroom and shower drain) with flour, so they can just drop it in a pot of water three months later? Not me. Especially when the accolades I receive as reward are about the same, possible a skosh less, than I get for my gnocchi, which only take a few hours.

I was well into my thirties by the time I started making gnocchi. I don’t even remember gnocchi existing in my youth. Nowadays, every Italian restaurant has them on the menu, but I was close to twenty years old, on a family trip to Italy, before I discovered these scrumptious pillows. My grandma was damn lucky I let her back on the plane after she shrugged and said she used to make it a lot but didn’t anymore. 

At least that meant she had a recipe somewhere. 

I still didn’t make my first gnocchi until close to a decade later. I assumed it was difficult, and ravioli was the Official Family Recipe(tm), so why waste time on something becoming more and more ubiquitous at every Italian joint? 

Turns out they’re pretty simple. Sure, you still need to spend a few hours doing the never-ending roll, slice, shape, freeze cycle, but the first part of the process only requires a couple mashed potatoes. It’s not like I’m going to bust it out on a weeknight or anything, but I can bust out a batch on a Saturday afternoon and still have time for college football. So much nicer than sirloin steak in a food processor.

Somewhere in the middle of pantsing and planning lies “plantsing,” which seems to me to just be how 80% of normal humans write. Or really, do just about anything. How do you put up Christmas lights? Do you draw out a bunch of schematics ahead of time? Do you randomly go up the ladder, hang some lights, then go to the opposite side of the house for one inflatable? Or do you pull all the shit out, inventory the basic things that need to happen, then try to figure out the most logical course, all the while ready to adjust the plan if, say, this string of lights needs a replacement bulb or that character needs a better back story? 

There’s always a spot in my gnocchi making, and in my writing, where I think I’ve fucked the whole thing, that I don’t know what I’m doing. Even when I know it’s coming, I still convince myself that no, this time is far worse, there’s no way to return from the sticky morass I’ve gotten myself into. 

With gnocchi, it happens when I add the egg and butter to the potato and flour dough. Grandma’s recipe says to add “most of the flour” to the mashed potatoes before this step, then add the rest to dry it out after this step. When I make it, there’s not enough flour on Earth to return the flour to a dry enough texture to roll. So I add a quarter cup, then another quarter cup, then fuck it, throw the other half in. Okay, one more cup. Another? Why is it still the consistency of pudding? I can’t even get it unstuck from the cutting board,  much less able to be cut and rolled. Wife, can you go to the grocery store for another bag of flour? I can’t touch anything.

I keep telling myself that Grandma’s measurements originated before GMO crops, so the ratio of one potato and half an egg to one cup of flour is off. Modern potatoes are one pound a piece, and I highly doubt great grandma coaxing an egg out of her Genoese chicken was opting between large, extra large, and double-x. So when I’m heading past six cups of flour to counter two eggs, yet still the dough sucks it in like a x-wing into a black hole, I’m always convinced I’ve fucked up. 

The recipe says the dough should be dry before slicing and rolling. Instead, I wait until it is barely malleable before starting the next step. Then I dust both the dough and the board before rolling it out. And dip the knife in flour before cutting. And the fork before shaping.  Yet still, every time I’m convinced this is the time, this is the batch my extended family and guests finally take a few bites and say,  “Thanks I’m stuffed. Can I have some more salad?”

I’ve recently quit two novels. The first I “temporarily put aside” to attempt a serialized story on Amazon Vella. But in reality, I knew the story was going nowhere. Two characters who had basted in my mind for years fell flat, their trials and tribulations pedestrian and predictable, once placed on paper. So if I could jump to an exciting new idea with a baked-in excuse (“Kindle Vella will make me a millionaire, but only if I’m in on the initial launch!”), then it won’t be the time-old story every writer faces at 25,000 words.

But boy, howdy, if I thought a character’s growth arc felt boring and predictable in standard format, imagine writing one as a serial! Good lord, episodic stories sure are episodic. Get in and out of a hairy situation in 2,200 words, then rinse and repeat. All the while knowing that character, not plot, is what brings people back to a series. But how much can I delve into character if I have to wrap up and restore the status quo before word number 2,500? 

I guess the good news was that I gave up the serial a little earlier. Fifteen k instead of thirty. Perhaps that means I’m growing as a writer. 

Or maybe that means I’m getting lazier. 

The bad news is that I didn’t go back to the abandoned project. Much better to go rewrite the first chapter of the finished project that I’m currently querying. Or working on the second draft for my other manuscript. And I hate editing, so that tells you something if I’d rather edit than write fresh. At any given time, I’ve usually got 2-5 completed blog posts, but I still only post twice a month. Why? Cause it’s easier to write something shitty than polish my previous turds. And by the time I get around to fixing them, I have to rewrite half of it. Shit, Obama isn’t president anymore?

But at least those completed novels are going somewhere. They were solid enough characters and stories to carry 100,000 words (which need to be edited down to 70,000). They’ve got backstories and foreshadowing, a twist nobody sees coming. Despite the fact that I was absolutely bored with them at 30,000 words and was absolutely convinced I couldn’t get them where they needed to be in that one scene.

I don’t give up on my gnocchi, despite being 100% sure, each time, that my best option is to throw the gunk into the trash and starting from scratch. All the writing advisers say don’t abandon your project. The fancy “other” story will always entice you from afar, but it’s a mirage. Once you start writing that one, you’ll bog down into the mushy middle the same as where you are right now. Ignore that siren’s call. 

Then again, all those advice people say they’ve had to abandon projects before. Whether it’s a “fatal flaw” in the story or a plot hole the size of an iceberg. Crystal clear writing advice: never give up on a project. Unless, you know, it’s worth giving up on. Kinda like four potatoes equals four cups of flower. Except usually not.

Truth be told, I should’ve abandoned my last batch of gnocchi. Even after six cups of flower, it was still as moist as the Mekong Delta. It was a pain in the ass to roll out and half the time when I tried to roll one off the fork, it remained on the fork. The end results were larger than usual, and even after an hour in the freezer, they weren’t frozen enough to transfer to a Ziplock. We transported them to Grandma’s house still in the Pyrex and rolled them straight into the water from their parchment paper.

Nobody complained, though. They still went back for seconds. And honestly, even if they weren’t up to my standards, they were still fine. Now that I think of it, I didn’t need to start the batch over. What I had was fine, it just needed more flour. I was just sick and tired of adding flour after a couple hours. But I’ve plantsed my way through this recipe enough times to know that I always reach this point. This batch might have been worse than most, but it’s all variations of the same problem. The best way through is forward, not some magical new batch that will behave better.

Maybe there’s something to be said for powering through. Not giving up on a batch or a story midway through. 

Now if only I could figure out how to add a little more flour to that plot hole.