According to Sameer, whenever I’m making a decision or weighing options in my head, I twitch my nose from side to side. This nose twitching doesn’t accompany particularly life-altering decisions, I should mention. Mostly, it’s as I’m fussing over what wine to order with dinner or whether to roast an eggplant whole or sliced. As it goes, I must not make decisions – life-changing or otherwise – in front of the mirror, since I’ve never seen said nose wiggle. But I’ll trust Sameer on this one.
Quickly: name three decisions you’ve made lately.
You listed three great big decisions, right? Changing jobs, or moving to a new city, or taking in a dachshund as a pet (that last decision is mine, and I’m still working on it, for the record). But every day is a heap of decisions, mostly unconscious. For me, it starts as I clumsily jump from bed to push 20 more minutes on my alarm – one consistent decision on weekdays.
I’m convinced the big decisions matter much less than we think. Indulge me with a (really long but really good) quote from Stephen Jay Gould:
…with contingency, we are drawn in; we become involved; we share the pain of triumph or tragedy. When we realize that the actual outcome did not have to be, that any alteration in any step along the way would have unleashed a cascade down a different channel, we grasp the causal power of individual events. We can argue, lament or exult over each detail—because each holds the power of transformation. Contingency is the affirmation of the control by immediate events over destiny, the kingdom lost for want of a horseshoe nail.
No matter that Gould was actually an evolutionary biologist and I stumbled on the quote doing some “fun reading” in university. Tiny decisions drive kingdoms lost and also many terrible romantic dramas. Heather and I became housemates and friends because I liked the colour blue she used in her flyer. I studied politics at Queen’s instead of life sciences because I hated McMaster’s drab monolith of a student centre. I’m not being glib or devaluing these “big” events. The tiny details – whether cerulean or concrete – compound to create any number of life-altering decisions.
Cooking is the most tangible reminder of how little decisions add up. Take tomato sauce. Easy stuff, right? But the difference between a bang-on and ho-hum sauce is in the little decisions. The tomatoes, to start. Do you peel them and seed them? Blanch them first? At how high of heat should you cook the onions? (Nice and low, we don’t want them to brown.) Butter or olive oil for fat, or both? Dried basil or fresh? Do the tomatoes need some sugar to balance their acidity? (If it’s winter, most likely.) And what about salt? Should I fling the spaghetti at my wall to test its doneness? Spoon the sauce over top the strands or stir the lot together? Phew. It’s enough to make a girl throw down her apron and order in.
Luckily, with a four-ingredient tomato sauce this easy and delicious, your decision is actually pretty simple. Pour a glass of wine, pull out the cutting board, call up some people you love for dinner … and begin.
Originally from the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan
Makes 4 servings
This sauce is so simple, you’ll read the recipe and be convinced it can’t possibly be so darn wonderful. I did. But when two great food writers (Molly Wizenberg of Orangette and Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet) gush this hard about a sauce, I listen. It’s been a staple in my kitchen since.
Some help with decisions: out of season, I use a jar of good tomatoes like San Marzano or Muir Glen. In the summer, whatever mixture I find at the market works. While using butter in tomato sauce sounds strange, trust me that it’s the star ingredient – softening all the acidic edges often found in homemade sauce. Resist the urge to chop the onion: halved will work magic. Finally, though it’s a tomato sauce staple, don’t add garlic here.
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes with their juice, roughly chopped (or 2c fresh tomatoes, blanched and peeled)
5 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
salt, to taste, as you go
1lb cooked pasta, to serve (I like good ol’ spaghetti with this, but anything that holds a medium-body sauce works well)
To a heavy saucepan, add tomatoes, onion halves and butter over medium heat. Taste your tomatoes for saltiness and adjust accordingly. Bring to a low simmer and cook uncovered until everything melds and deepens, about 45 minutes (you’ll see some fat come to the surface). A couple times in the cooking process, stir and test for salt. Discard the onion.
Boil your pasta in well-salted water (be generous – pasta water should taste like the sea). Drain and toss with the sauce. Ladle into deep bowls and dig in.
So about mayonnaise. There are two camps, in my estimation.
First are people like my mom, who love the stuff. Mom, bless her heart, will make a big bowl of potato salad in the morning and stick it in the fridge. She will peel off the cling-film before serving to stir in even more mayonnaise. (Rationale: the original jar she added was “absorbed” by all the potato starch as the dish sat in the fridge, making it much too dry to consume.) And she’ll save the little frilly bits of celery tops to decorate the bowl.
I’ve never figured out mayonnaise’s appeal. I don’t despise it, but really I find the whole affair kind of gloppy and unappetizing. Aioli on toasts? Sweet potato fries dunked in curried-mayo? Hellmann’s slathered on drippy tomato sandwiches? I feel an oil slick on my tongue thinking about it.
Nostalgically, though – there’s something really enticing about mayonnaise. It screams of picnic blankets and gingham dresses (like this one, yes?), the kind I might wear with a wide-brim straw hat, barefoot in the grass and my toes sinking just-barely into the cold soil. Salads piled on paper plates, and higher piles of fried chicken drumsticks on those same paper plates, followed by sweet watermelon wedges. Summer.
Is it obvious that I’ve been cheating on winter with a fairer season? I found myself, mid-February, dreaming for summer salads – mayonnaise and all. Sturdy pasta studded with crunchy nibs of vegetable and a bit of kick from the mustard jar. I thought of using tahini to approximate mayonnaise’s texture, but it seemed awfully hefty for the task. And lo – I found something even better. It’s a pasta salad almost like the kind on your paper plate, sitting in the grass, with a tall lemonade. Just without the mayo.
Almost pasta salad
makes one nice-size bowl for lunch
I like to use a large-ish pasta, with ridges and nooks and crannies, so the vegetables get caught in each bite. This version offers just some finely diced carrot and celery, but I imagine it might be nice with radishes, or a fine sprinkle of onion, and dill if you have it. If you don’t own a food processor, the avocado purees just as nicely with a good whip of the fork.
100g uncooked pasta (I like a sturdy penne, rigatoni or fusilli for this task)
1/2 very ripe avocado, pureed
1-2Tbsp spicy mustard (my go-tos are Kozlik’s and Organic Gold Orange-Ginger, both based in Toronto)
1 rib celery, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
pinch of salt, crack of pepper, dash of sweet paprika – to taste
Bring well-salted water to a boil. Prepare pasta to your preferences, and cool in a colander.
While pasta cooks, combine in a medium bowl the pureed avocado, mustard, spices and diced vegetables. Add the cooled pasta and stir well to combine, adding more salt if needed. Eat straight away, or cool and serve. Pretend it’s summer.
[top photo, with thanks, via]
I didn’t want to write anything about this at all and I’ve deleted the entry twice now. It feels a bit false and voyeuristic to mourn celebrity.
This morning, I read a piece by Penelope Trunk where she writes of her fascination with suicide. I am not fascinated with suicide. I say, perhaps simply, that we should live until we don’t and not go at our own hands. But Trunk writes poignantly and straightforwardly, she almost convinces me:
It’s true. I am fascinated by suicide: Why don’t more people kill themselves? Life is very hard. And there is no sane reason to believe it will, at some point, get easier. So why do we keep going? I don’t know. This fascinates me.
This morning, Alexander McQueen killed himself.
McQueen was my first encounter with couture – with fashion, really. His art had whimsy and it was curious. It was maniacal and fantastic and kind of strange, but never just because. His clothes made me heave and smile in one go. At his best he took me somewhere else to think and stare at my too-plain shoes.
I’m not fascinated, but I want to understand. Maybe they’re the same thing, in the end.
[all images via]
Lately I’ve been thinking about why I love to cook.
One week ago, I was waiting for a streetcar on Dundas West on what was surely the coldest and windiest Toronto night this winter. Meredith and I had enjoyed dinner at Cafe 668. She said seemingly out of nowhere, I want to come over and watch you cook one of these days. At the time I thought it was just the funniest statement I’d ever heard. We agreed to a Saturday in the kitchen sometime soon.
But lately I’ve been thinking about why I love to cook. And what Mere said actually makes a lot of sense in this context. We each hold the same wooden spoon differently. Cooking teaches other people things besides how we form or follow a recipe – about who we are, and also about who they are.
I’m one of those funny personalities who is seduced equally by the tangible and the ephemeral, the scientific and the creative, reality and the clouds. Really: I don’t see these as dichotomies at all. Cooking, more than most things, brings my world of contrast-but-not-really to one safe place. There’s a line I like by British author Jeanette Winterson: Whatever it is that pulls the pin, that hurls you past the boundaries of your own life into a brief and total beauty, even for a moment, it is enough. The basic, sturdy comfort of a knife shifts my mind out from reality ever-so-slightly as I methodically slice. There are moments: facing an intimidating green wall of lettuces and kale-bunches, rinsing carrots and hearing the whoosh of my knife through their spines, ladling soup into a sturdy bowl. These pull my pin.
Cooking also uses a part of my mind that yanked me – quite suddenly – from science to political theory. Theorists discuss lofty things in abstract terms, but most arguments root in a few key themes: the good, justice, fairness, equality. Call my comparison a stretch, but I think cooking does the same basic thing. While it takes an analytical bent and well-used palate to figure out why certain things taste good together, ultimately food is grounded in fundamentals: how do sweet, salty, bitter and sour relate in a dish? Then we layer on other questions. Should textures complement one-another or contrast? Hot or cold, satiating or refreshing? Weight, size, shape, texture, aroma, mouth-feel. The variables at play in a dish – before we even include taste buds – can make the head swim, if I bring them to the front of my mind.
But I don’t break out a matrix and calculator to make multiple permutations of pasta sauce. Mostly I just think about what I want to cook, what I have to work with, and I gather some ingredients and a rough method in my head. I stir and taste and add and stir some more until the dish in my mind and the dish in front of me match up. Everything in the previous paragraph is at work, subconsciously, in cooking, though I rarely entertain it.
I can’t discount the emotional and subjective parts of cooking and eating and feeding one-another that make it so right. To prepare a meal for another is to care for that person. There’s no better feeling than contented sighs of pleasure from someone you’ve fed, of being asked to please pass the salt. I say it so often: I find community in breaking bread and sharing my table. One day (not today, but one day) I’ll tell you the story of a little girl who saw a hog slaughtered in a dusty-hot island village. I’ll tell you about how her reaction splintered a narrative that has little to do with food and everything to do with history and family. Saying I will not eat this has initiated some difficult conversations about far more than consumption.
Why I love to cook is all these things. The theory but the tangibleness, the figuring out of up-in-my-head things by proxy of sight, taste and smell. The stories it welcomes. In my mind, when I hand each of you a pan, a wooden spoon, a tomato and some salt, the experiences and results are wild and varied. Between us, we have so many recipes.
[photo, with thanks, via]