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.