Start with Spaghetti
The story goes that Mom, recently married, prepared a spaghetti dinner for Dad to enjoy upon coming home from work. According to her, she spent the day shopping for ingredients, rolling the meatballs, simmering the sauce. Dad, an ambitious young dentist, spent the day drilling holes in people's mouths and wiping saliva off their chins. He came home very hungry.
I suppose Mom welcomed him home with open arms and then declared that there was a feast to be had on the kitchen table: spaghetti and meatballs. Come, darling, have a seat.
If one were to observe my father at any meal—including the meals he enjoys to this day—one might make the false assumption that he was raised in abject poverty, one of thirteen siblings who all had to fight for small slivers of government cheese at a table made of cardboard boxes. And while he didn't grow up at the Waldorf Astoria, his Brooklyn childhood provides little evidence to justify the furious way he scarfs down food.
"How is it honey?" asked Mom. "I worked all day on it."
"Good," said Dad, scarfing and slurping.
"Do you like the sauce? I used special tomatoes."
"It's good," said Dad, halfway done at fourteen seconds.
"Do you want cheese on it? Or maybe some bread with it?"
"No, thanks, it's fine. Very good. Thank you."
Were we to counsel Mom at this moment in her life, sitting on her shoulder like a good guardian angel, we might suggest that she stop asking questions now. "I think he likes it," we'd say. "You can quit pestering him."
Mom, however, had no sage marital guru—no Dr. Phil flapping around her cranium—so she persisted.
"Do you like the way the sauce clings to the spaghetti? Do you like the way the onions are translucent? Do you like how the tines of the fork spell out ITALY?"
There are no witnesses to corroborate what happened next, but according to my mother, Dad took a fistful of spaghetti and flung it at her, streaking her overeager face with tomato sauce. My dad is not a violent person, so the mere act must have surprised him as much as it surprised her. Anticipating fireworks, he fled to the bathroom, locked the door, and quivered, terrified of what Mom—already a tempestuous spirit—might do.
But Mom didn't chase him into the bathroom. She didn't put cyanide in his toothpaste or slash the tires on his car. Mom didn't even curse his name as she wiped the translucent onions off her eyebrows. She simply chose the best revenge she could—a revenge worthy of Clytemnestra. As Dad came home from work day after day, exhausted and emaciated, Mom would greet him at the door with a warm welcome and then snatch away his car keys.
"What's for dinner, honey?" Dad would ask.
"Depends," Mom would say.
"Depends on what?"
"It depends," said Mom, halfway out the door, "on where we're going."
You see, Mom, with little exception, never cooked for him again.
If Mom's culinary career ended with spaghetti, mine began where hers lefts off. Two and a half decades later, in the kitchen of my one-bedroom Atlanta apartment, I made—for the very first time—a sauce that's become a staple in my repertoire. It's the sauce that made me fall in love with cooking, a simple assemblage of ingredients that within thirty minutes becomes something entirely new. Upon tasting the concoction, I had all the enthusiasm of my young mother and no one there to throw it, quite literally, back in my face. The recipe comes from chef Mario Batali's Babbo Cookbook and that's where our adventure begins.
Basic Tomato Sauce
From The Babbo Cookbook
Makes 4 cups
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, or 1 tablespoon dried
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
2 28-ounce cans peeled whole tomatoes
In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot and cook for 5 minutes more, or until the carrot is quite soft. With your hands, crush the tomatoes and add them with their juices. Bring to a boil, stirring often, and then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the sauce is as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt and serve. This sauce keeps for 1 week in the refrigerator or for up to 6 months in the freezer.
"Okay, I'm at Whole Foods," says Lauren. "And I can't find a Spanish onion."
I have requested that Lauren, my friend and former roommate who now lives in Washington, D.C., make tomato sauce along with me over the phone. The point of this project is to prove that making tomato sauce is so easy and so pleasurable that even a self-confessed noncook can make magic in her kitchen.
"I see yellow onions and I see white onions," she says. "But I don't see Spanish onions. What's a Spanish onion?"
Earlier in the day, I sent Lauren the ingredients from the Babbo Cookbook recipe. I didn't send her the recipe itself—I was going to take her through it step-by-step. The ingredients, I figured, she could get on her own without any trouble.
Flash forward to Lauren at Whole Foods stuck in the onion section needing my help. When I'd gone to the Whole Foods in my neighborhood earlier in the day, there was a clearly labeled stack of Spanish onions. I assume the one in D.C. is the same, so I ask Lauren: "Do you see the labels above the onions? Does one of them say Spanish onions?"
She pauses and says: "I'm not an idiot! If it said Spanish onions I would've just taken one and I wouldn't have called."
What Lauren is expressing here is the anxiety we all experience the first time we shop for a recipe. "
Lauren," I say calmly, "a Spanish onion is larger and sweeter than a yellow onion, but a yellow onion will work fine."
A pause and then, "Okay, got it. I'll call you if I get stuck again."
Tomato sauce represents everything I like about cooking. First of all, I like the infinite variations on a theme—if you simmer tomatoes in a pot for thirty minutes you'll have a sauce. You can make that sauce with butter or olive oil or pork fat; you can make it with onions or garlic or shallots; you can make it with fresh tomatoes or canned tomatoes; you can use fresh basil and thyme or dried basil and thyme or any combination thereof. In my cookbook collection alone there are at least thirty recipes for tomato sauce.
Second, making tomato sauce rewards attention to detail. The more you make it, the better you'll get at it. The first time you might, say, add the garlic too soon and it may turn too brown; next time you'll know to add it a little while after the onion. You'll discover that squeezing the tomatoes submerged in their own liquid will prevent you from squirting yourself in the eye. You'll know precisely when the sauce is done and how much salt to add.
Finally, making tomato sauce is like meditating Italian style: you stand there over the stove, stirring softly and fanning the smells toward your face, and you feel a deep sense of inner peace. That is, until the phone rings.
"Okay," says Lauren. "I have my ingredients. I have water boiling for the pasta. Now tell me: how do I chop an onion?"
You'll discover as you cook more and more that the tasks you once found difficult you now take for granted. Lauren's inexperience reminds me of where I was just three years ago. Chopping an onion is one of the easiest things to do and should be a cinch to explain over the phone.
"Take your onion," I say. "Put it on the cutting board and cut the top and bottom off."
I wait to hear the appropriate chopping sounds and when I do I say, "Okay, good. Now then, I want you to cut the onion in half, north to south."
"North to south?" asks Lauren. "What does that mean?"
"It means," I explain, "you should cut it through the root end."
"Through the root end," she repeats and I wait again for another noise, hear it, and congratulate her.
"Very good," I say. "Now peel the skin off."
Crinkly noises echo over the line and then Lauren says, "Done."
"Now," I press on, "place the onion cut-side down on the cutting board with the root end pointing away from you. Make slits in the onion east to west, parallel to the lines in the onion toward the root end without cutting all the way through."
Another pause and then: "Huh?"
I take a deep breath. "Look at your hand, okay? Point your fingers at your face. You want to make slits in the onion the way there are lines between your fingers, not cutting all the way through to the knuckles but cutting all the way down between the spaces in your fingers. Got it?"
"I think so," says Lauren nervously and I hear the knife hit the board several times.
"Excellent," I say. "And now we're going to make cuts along the z-axis. You remember the z-axis from algebra?"
"Okay, imagine a globe. There are the longitudinal lines and latitudinal lines. You just made cuts along the longitudinal lines, eventually you'll make cuts on the latitudinal lines, but right now you're going to make cuts into the globe."
"Into the globe?"
Lauren sounds tired.
"Let me put it another way," I offer. "The onion is flat on the board now, right?"
"Turn it so the slit end is facing the right and the root end is to your left. You are going to glide your knife, parallel to the board, into the onion at the slit end about half an inch up and then half an inch higher, and that's it. It's just two cuts."
A pause and then, "Okay, I made the cuts." Did she make the cuts? I didn't hear any noise.
"Very well," I conclude. "Now slice the onion north-south with the slit end facing to the right."
"Like a paper cutter," suggests Lauren.
"Yes, like a paper cutter."
Another pause, loud cutting noises, and then: "Hey, it's falling into little pieces! I'm dicing an onion!"
When it comes to cooking, techniques matter more than recipes. It's like playing the piano: knowing one song may impress your friends and neighbors for a brief spell at parties, but it won't get you a job as an accompanist for an opera diva. When she puts down the sheet music for "Queen of the Night" and expects you to play, you can't stammer and sweat and say: "But I only know 'Puff the Magic Dragon.' "
We start with tomato sauce because it's as much about technique as it's about anything else. You have to chop the onion, you have to mince the garlic, you have to squeeze the tomatoes, you have to control the heat, and you have to salt it properly.
"Okay," I tell Lauren, who, after long discussions about peeling, smashing, and chopping garlic, and squeezing tomatoes properly, seems to be at her wit's end. "Now let's start our sauce."
"It's 9:15," cries Lauren. "I haven't eaten since lunch."
"Don't worry," I say. "Now that everything's chopped and ready to go, you have your mise in place—"
"Meez en plahs," she corrects. Lauren speaks French. The phrase mise en place translates literally to "setting in place."
"Well, now that you have your meez en plahs," I continue, "all you have to do is add it to the heat."
And for the most part that's true. She adds the olive oil, then the onion, then the garlic, and cooks them for ten minutes. She adds the thyme (she loves the smell of thyme, she's discovered) and the carrot and then, finally, the tomatoes. She brings it to a boil then lowers the heat, as instructed.
"Now," I say, "let it simmer for thirty minutes."
I can hear her stomach growl in response.
"In the meantime, let's cook our pasta."
Cooking pasta is as much an art as making sauce. There's nothing worse, in my opinion, than overcooked pasta. To get that perfect al dente texture you have to add the pasta to rapidly boiling, salted water, preferably in a large pot.
"I don't have a large pot," pleads Lauren who, as you'll remember, started boiling water an hour earlier when we started. That water has since evaporated.
"Fine," I say. "Just use the pot you were using."
Once her water is at a rapid boil, I have her add salt and then half the box of pasta.
"Now stir it around so it doesn't stick."
"How's that sauce looking?"
"It looks good," she says.
"How's the texture? Does it look like oatmeal? Mario Batali says it should look like oatmeal."
"It doesn't look like oatmeal yet."
"How long has it been?"
"Twenty-five minutes," she reports.
"Now we should salt it. Take a handful of kosher salt and sprinkle it over the top to start. Stir it around and taste." When you add salt at the beginning it contributes to the breaking down of the tomatoes; when you add it at the end it flavors the sauce but allows the tomatoes to retain their texture. So if you want a more broken-down sauce, add salt at the start; if you want a chunky sauce like I do, add it at the end.
She adds the salt and says it tastes good.
"Good or properly seasoned? The mark of a great chef is how well they salt their food. I think you need more salt—add another sprinkling."
A pause and then I continue with my line of questioning. "How long has your pasta been cooking? Seven minutes? Take a noodle out and taste it. Is it super al dente? That's how you avoid overcooking your pasta."
Lauren tastes a noodle and reports that it's almost cooked through.
"Perfect!" I cheer. "Drain that in the sink, but don't rinse it!"
I hear the swish of water.
"Rinsing your pasta is a big no-no—it washes away all the starch that will help the sauce to stick. Now we're going to add the almost cooked pasta to the sauce and let it finish cooking in there." I learned this technique from Mario Batali on TV. "But first go back to the sauce. Taste it. If you taste the salt, there's too much of it, but if you don't taste it and all the flavors taste bright and lively, then it's perfectly seasoned. Are you tasting mostly tomatoes or are you tasting mostly garlic? Do you think it needs red pepper flakes?"
"Ahhhh!" she screams. "I am a starving woman. I am adding this pasta to the sauce and I am eating it and I don't care how much salt there is, how much sauce there is, I'm just eating it and you're going to leave me alone. Don't call me back!"
She hangs up the phone and even though she's two hundred miles away, I can feel flung tomato sauce gliding down my forehead.