I have been thinking about the word “sustenance”.

In my early training in survival techniques, sustenance means Shelter, Heat, Food, Water, then orientation to find help. When one is poor, the meaning of sustenance is one of basic needs: a place to sleep, food to eat, a place to bathe. When one is wealthy sustenance might mean something on the opposite end of the spectrum: beauty, art, music, all of the things to sustain the soul since the bodily needs are not an issue.

Ideally one doesn’t need to concern one’s self with basic sustenance, but when this is the case one tends to turn to what is on hand for sustenance.  I don’t know about you but to me it can feel quite difficult to be creative  and feel fulfilled while eating down the pantry.  When times are financially flush I tend to overshop and fill my pantry with random things that I like or think I will need “later”.  Then, when times are lean or when I splurged a little too much before the next check comes in, the pantry is not only a source of sustenance but a source of solace as well.

To me though, sustenance concerns a more esoteric definition.  My friends and family offer my sustenance.  Their kind words, thoughtful acts and consideration fill my “life pantry” with the most filling and nutritious things for my soul and heart.  My dearest friends and family have been sending me cards and emails just at the moment when I feel bereft, and this buoys me up like a cork out of a champagne bottle.  When my pantry door was swinging widely showing empty shelves, my phone chirped with an incoming call to say that a friend was “just around the corner” and had leftover homemade pad thai and sticky mango coconut rice for me, just in case I was feeling peckish. Or a call early in the morning saying that she had just made steel cut oatmeal with cream and Demerara sugar on top, would I like some? Or a dear friend who offers a safe haven and refuge, over and over, including dinner and lots of wine and bourbon. Years ago, I would come home from a harrowing day of work and find a packet of Twinkies in my mailbox, an offering from a friend’s son who seemed psychically to know when I needed a dose of sugar and fat and whatever else is in a Twinkie that makes one feel somehow better. To me, this is the definition of sustenance, just knowing that people are out there who really care and seem to know when you feel a little down.  It’s awfully lovely to be on the giving end of this kind of sustenance too, sending a note for no reason in particular, making an extra loaf of bread and hanging it on the door of a friend’s home or bringing along extra cookies for an impromptu visit.

Recently, I have been feeling more in need of sustenance than usual.  It is really disheartening to be looking for a job along with the masses of other talented and slightly (mostly) desperate people. The constant rejection and straining of ones ears hoping the phone will ring wears on the cheeriest of dispositions.  Materially, being a person with a culinary bent it is especially hard not to be able to run down to the good butcher and buy a fat chicken to roast whenever I feel like it, and to contemplate the dwindling supplies in the crisper bin knowing it’s another week plus before I can shop again.

It was my distinct pleasure the other day to be perusing the pantry, which I had fortuitously refilled with some nice things, and to discover a flat of potato gnocci, a can of San Marzano whole tomatoes and a can of artichoke hearts packed in water.  I had a good two inches left on a hunk of Pecorino cheese and half of an onion in the fridge, and a gift bottle of Viogner chilled down as well.

I set to work.  Ringing up my best friend on the phone for an extended chat while I cooked, I chopped the onion and sauteed it a little with a pinch of dried chile flakes.  Naturally, the wine was opened and a glass poured for general purposes, not the least for sipping while I cooked, and a little found its way into the saute pan.  The tomatoes were opened and I broke them into little pieces with my fingers.  There is a great satisfaction in life to smell onions and wine cooking away while squeezing and tearing spurting scarlet tomatoes into shreds with ones fingers, I highly recommend you try this and soon. The artichokes were next, I drained them into a colander and gave them a good rinse of cool water and shook them dry.  Then, into the onions they went along with the juice from the tomatoes, a bay leaf and a good grind of pepper from my Turkish coffee grinder.  The impromptu sauce simmered slowly on the back burner while I preheated my little convection oven.   I put a dab of butter and a slosh of olive oil in a small pottery casserole pan and added the gnocci, and grated a goodly amount of Pecorino cheese on top and tossed them in the oven while I relaxed with the remaining glass of wine and laughed and chatted away while tickling the cat’s fat belly with my toes while he lolled at my feet.

When the oven’s timer dinged, I dislodged the cat from around my ankles, refilled the wineglass, pulled the golden and cheesy melted gnocci out of the oven and poured the fragrant and chunky artichoke sauce over the top.  A little more cheese was grated on top and my supper was ready.  It felt healthy and tasted delicious and not at all like “rations”.  My fun chat with my friend continued while I dined, making “nummy” noises over the phone, and even though she lives far away I felt as if we had just cooked and eaten dinner together.  Sustenance achieved on all fronts.

Quick Artichoke Marinara with Gnocci

1 packet of potato gnocci
1 T butter
2 T olive oil, divided
1/2 c grated Pecorino cheese, divided
1/2 onion, diced
29 oz can San Marzano whole tomatoes
14.5 oz can artichoke hearts in water, drained and rinsed
1/4 tsp dried chile flakes
1/2 c dry white wine
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375.

In a medium saute pan over medium heat, saute onions in 1 T olive oil with a sprinkling of salt until softened, ~ 10 minutes.  Add the wine and simmer for 5 minutes.  Add tomatoes and their juice, breaking tomatoes apart with your fingers or scissors, and the artichoke hearts and chile flakes.  Add more salt to taste and a few grinds of pepper.  Cover and simmer 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, butter a small casserole dish and add the gnocci, drizzle 1 T olive oil on top and sprinkle with 1/4 c of cheese.  Bake uncovered for 15-20 minutes or until the gnocci are golden brown but not dry and the cheese is melted.

Remove from oven, top with sauce and the remaining cheese and dish out into pasta plates for serving.

Serves 2.

(Sorry, I didn’t take a picture of this, my hands were full from cooking and from holding the phone!)


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