Jessica Tacka

In Your Kitchen

The family’s cookbook, sent by her mom, is a treasured part of Jessica Tacka’s kitchen and includes photos of a trio of culinary matriarchs. Photo: Annette Nielsen

Jessica Tacka grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs with a huge Italian contingent representing her mom’s side of the family. “Most people refer to their second or third cousins – in my family, they were all just cousins.” While Tacka understands Italian, she’s excited to try to learn to speak this “gentle, floral language.”

Tacka originally came to DC to attend American University. She has a love of travel and adventure, and teaches yoga around the District. She recently moved to Anacostia, where she spends free time cooking for her friends. Tacka expertly prepares gnocchi, little pillows of pasta, while talking about her Italian heritage. Some of her great grandparents came from Lucca and others from Abruzzo.

Family traditions are strong back home in Pittsburgh. “We still prepare and serve the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. I never knew that it was considered by others as exotic,” Tacka says of the celebration that commemorates the birth of Jesus with seven fish and seafood dishes. “We travel to Wholey’s Fish Market in Pittsburgh to get all the fish. We might have crab cakes, shrimp, smelts, and if we happen to make a mistake with one of the fish dishes, we always have Goldfish crackers on hand.” Sometimes the younger children who aren’t fond of the fish dishes have an alternative dish: “They’re served Holy Cheese Pizza.”

Another food tradition she prepares is one her grandfather made for many of their family gatherings, “fixed tomatoes” (see recipe below). “It’s always been on the table and it’s always been served in the metal bowl that he used for preparing the dish,” says Tacka.

Tacka’s mom, Denise Yarussi Tacka has given her a copy of the family cookbook, “Specialita della Famiglia.” Her mom also served on the cookbook committee, made up of about a dozen relatives. “They would ask Marfisa, my great-grandmother, about her recipes when they were putting the cookbook together. She never measured anything but would say, ‘Asmuchayoulike’ – really making her creations by sight, touch, and smell.”

As Tacka prepares the gnocchi, with a fork she creates a well to draw in the dry ingredients and then rolls the prepared mixture into a long, rope-like shape, cuts it into “pillows,” and draws the fork across each one to make grooves. “The grooves in the gnocchi are to give you more flavor in each bite, as the groove holds the sauce.” She drops the gnocchi into a pan of softly boiling water, waiting for each one to float back to the top, signaling they’re done.

“Mom is happy that I’m carrying on family traditions and cooking these recipes,” remarks Tacka. “It means they’ll be continued to be handed down from generation to generation. Food and cooking keeps the memories of our family gatherings alive.”

Ricotta Gnocchi

Adapted by Jessica Tacka
½ cup plus up to 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup ricotta cheese (8 ounces)
1 egg
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt

Make a well with 1½ to 2 cups flour and salt. Add wet ingredient to the well, using a fork to gradually mix wet ingredients with the dry, with only as much flour as needed to form a sticky dough.

Knead the dough over a floured surface and cut into workable sections. Roll into “snakes” and cut into tiny pillows (they will expand, so allow for that).

With fork gently press into top of pillow and roll back toward you, slightly curling the pillow and leaving grooves from the fork tines.

Heavily salt a pot of water and bring to a rolling boil. Add the dumplings a few at a time. They are done when they rise from the bottom and float.

Gently toss in your favorite warmed sauce.

Variations:

 

(1)  Use pumpkin or squash (canned or cooked from scratch) instead of some of the ricotta, in the proportion of half to half or one-quarter to three-quarters. If you don’t have access to ricotta you may substitute cottage cheese (small curd works best).

(2)  Brown butter sage sauce: Heat a few tablespoons of butter in a small skillet over medium heat and after it is melted add six to seven full sage leaves. After a minute or so add cooked gnocchi to warm butter and pan fry or toss to coat.

(3)  Garnish: Put wide sage leaf in a skillet with a pat of butter for 60 to 90 seconds or until crisp, and add a few grindings of freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Grandpa Yarussi’s Fixed Tomatoes

Cut tomatoes into one-inch pieces. Add to a bowl with torn basil, chopped garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste. Toss to coat.

Store overnight, traditionally in Grandpa Yarussi’s large metal mixing bowl.

Serve straight out of the bowl with fresh, crusty Italian bread.