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Start with tomato sauce

I don’t know if it’s good to admit this sort of thing, but until three days ago, I had never made tomato sauce. Oh, I’ve eaten plenty of it, of course – with garlic, with basil, with capers; on gnocchi, on pizza, on pappardelle; really, that part is easy – but until Friday, I had never made one. No marinara, no Amatriciana, no nothing.

This is not the kind of information, I know, that one should offer freely in some circles. It doesn’t exactly build credibility, especially when matters of the oven and stove are supposed to be my bread and butter. But friends, because I like you a lot, and because I don’t want to lie, here I am, doing it anyway. Because I don’t want you to make the same mistake. Because I want to give you the recipe. Because I want to tell you about the guy who got the ball finally, blessedly, rolling.

Some of you may have heard of this guy. His name is Adam. You may know him better, actually, as the Amateur Gourmet. Adam and I met a couple of years ago, on a blustery winter afternoon in New York, where he lives. He’s a very hard guy not to like, no matter how bad the weather. He’s all smiles and smart jokes, easygoing and inquisitive. So when he came to Seattle last winter with his boyfriend Craig - who, in case you were wondering, is utterly charming and funny and eminently worthy - Brandon and I cooked them a New Year’s lunch of pan-seared chicken and yogurt cake. I overbaked the cake a little, and it was kind of dry and sad, but they didn’t say a peep, and though I liked them plenty already, I liked them even more after that.

Well, a couple of months ago, Adam came back to Seattle to visit Craig, who was shooting a movie in town this summer, and he called to ask, quite out of the blue, if I might like to go for a horseback ride. (He always has a surprise up his sleeve; don’t say I didn’t warn you.) I said yes, and so it was that on a hot July day, on a trail on the side of Tiger Mountain, astride our steeds Chick and Friday Night Girl, Adam told me about his book The Amateur Gourmet: How to Shop, Chop, and Table-Hop like a Pro (Almost), thereby setting into motion a chain of events that would lead, only a little circuitously, to a tomato sauce that I believe, oh my, may be the most perfect one ever invented.

(Adam, I owe you one.)

If you haven’t yet seen Adam’s book, I sincerely suggest that you make it your business to do so immediately. And I don’t just say that because I like the guy. His book, part-memoir and part-how-to, is pure pleasure, a sweet, fresh, effortless story whose pages almost turn themselves. Food lovers can be a tough, know-it-all crowd, but Adam makes being a beginner - at cooking, at dining out, at learning about food - feel inspiring and appealing and, once and for all, okay. I’m not usually the type to laugh aloud while reading, or even, really, to break a smile - I’m focused, people, focused - but Adam got a good half-dozen grins out of me. (To wit, page 152: “Dining by myself . . . is a scary prospect. It’s not a coincidence, perhaps, that ‘dining alone’ sounds so much like ‘dying alone.’ For many, the fear of dining alone is the same fear that causes them to marry the wrong person, to maintain destructive friendships, and to participate in group suicide.”) He also got me to make tomato sauce, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

It only took a dozen pages. (I’m very susceptible to suggestion.) His first chapter, titled “Start with Spaghetti,” tells the funny, bittersweet story of a meal his mother once cooked for his father, a plate of spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce that went terribly awry. As chance would have it, some twenty-odd years and many TV dinners later, it would be a tomato sauce, made alone in his apartment kitchen, that would send Adam head over heels in love with cooking. I read this late one night, and it sounded so lovely and so right, and though half-asleep in my pink striped pajama pants, I thought, Tomato sauce! TOMATO SAUCE, Molly! How can you have toddled along all this time - writing this silly so-called food blog, marrying a man who lives and breathes for pizza, writing a cookbook, for crying out loud - if youve never made tomato sauce? It was an important night.

Needless to say, I got right on it. Though Adam offers a recipe in his book - a sure winner, in fact, Mario Batali’s from The Babbo Cookbook - I remembered hearing very persuasive things about a tomato sauce with onion and butter by Marcella Hazan, the venerable Italian cookbook author whose sturdy, no-nonsense, nonna-like tone always puts me right at ease. (And, as I soon discovered, Adam himself deemed her sauce “brilliant.” I trusted, then, he wouldn’t mind if saved Mario’s for later.) So Friday night, I pulled out a can of San Marzano tomatoes, an onion, and our stash of butter, and I made tomato sauce. Having now done so, I strongly advise you to do the same - only preferably even sooner than Friday.

Tomato sauce made with the usual suspects - olive oil and garlic, generally - is a very worthy classic. But with a little (or a lot of) butter, it’s another thing entirely. It tastes pure: rich, round, and deeply reassuring, like tomato sauce is supposed to taste. The first words that spring to mind, actually, are va-va-voom, which are hardly words at all, really, and are probably better suited to a young Sophia Loren, but still, I mean it: this is a show-stopping, voluptuous sauce. The butter bolsters the sweetness of the tomatoes and rounds off their acidic edges, while the onion - which is halved, simmered slowly in the sauce, and then discarded - lends just a subtle, savory backdrop. Brandon and I ate it on spaghetti, along with a good grating of Parmigiano, and we scraped our plates as though starved. (Which, come to think of it, I guess we were, given the dearth of homemade tomato sauce around here.) Brandon even let loose a few wows, which I heartily seconded.

Adam, the next time you’re in town, please stop by. I’ll have a pot of tomato sauce on the stove.

Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan*

Hazan calls for imported Italian plum tomatoes, such as San Marzano, but mine were domestically grown, and the sauce still tasted like Italy to me. The key is that the tomatoes taste good, dense and full of flavor, whatever type you use.

2 cups whole, peeled, canned plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juices (about one 28-oz. can)
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
Salt, to taste

Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter, and the onion halves in a medium saucepan. Add a pinch or two of salt. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, at a very slow but steady simmer, adjusting the heat as necessary, for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free from the tomato. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and salt as needed.

Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta.

Yield: Enough sauce for about 1 pound of pasta, or 4 servings

* With cheers and kisses to Ms. Luisa Weiss, the esteemed Wednesday Chef, who bought us this book as a wedding present and wisely suggested that we make this sauce.


The last hurrah, II

Alright, world. Today I have just three words for you, and I hope you’ll remember them, because it’s important. They are brown, and buttered, and corn. They’re what you’ll be having for dinner tonight, if you know what’s good for you. I certainly hope you do.

Of course, now that I’ve said that, I should admit that I won’t be having any, I fear, but you shouldn’t let that stop you. It’s just that I’ve got some sort of stomach bug, the kind that feels best when I’m either a) in the bathtub, b) in the fetal position, or c) chewing Pepto Bismol tablets. But I couldn’t let that stop me from limping out here to tell you about this truly lovely stuff. That’s how good it is. I got out of bed today just to tell you about it, and that’s really saying something.

I made this corn on Saturday night for our birthday dinner party - I seems that I forgot to mention it, but Brandon’s birthday was a week ago today, and mine was last Friday - and between six of us, we made quick work of a double batch. We also roasted a chicken, tossed some Romano beans with lemon and olive oil, and ate an entire plum crumble with vanilla ice cream. My mother flew out for the occasion and, I should add, did a bang-up job of browning a saucepan full of butter without ever putting down her champagne glass. One of us even wound up drinking red wine straight from the bottle, but I won’t say who. I will just say this: that you really should try that brown buttered corn.

The recipe, which is as simple as can possibly be, comes from the New York Times, from an article by Melissa Clark that ran a couple of weeks ago, on September 5th. As soon as I saw it, I printed it out and plunked it on the countertop, and boy oh boy, am I ever glad I did. All it takes is a few ears of corn, shucked and kernels cut free, and a half stick of butter, some herbs, and some salt. You toss the butter into a saucepan and let it simmer until it darkens to a deep golden hue and smells like those toasted nuts that they sell out of steel drums on the sidewalk in Paris. Then you add the corn and the salt and stir it around a bit, and five minutes later, you’ve got a stunner of a side dish, the sweetness of corn cloaked in dark, nutty butter and brightened with palm’s worth of parsley. It’s nobody’s diet fare, sure, but corn season is almost over, and do you really think, come mid-winter, that you’ll regret having spent these last moments of summer in a sea of caramelly butter? I don’t think so. It’s a real lip-licker of a last hurrah.

In fact, as soon as I work my way back up from toast, I’m going straight to the market for some more corn.

Brown Buttered Corn
Adapted from The New York Times

This recipe doubles beautifully. We had six people for dinner, and a double batch was just right.

3 ears corn, shucked
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
4 sprigs thyme, preferably lemon thyme
Kosher salt
Finely chopped Italian parsley, for serving

Stand one ear of corn vertically on a cutting board or inside a large, shallow wooden bowl. (Using a bowl helps to keep kernels from darting all over the countertop, and using a wooden bowl – such as a salad bowl – is much better for your knife than a metal one.) Using a sawing motion, run a large knife down the ear, between the cob and kernels, to remove the kernels. Using the back of the knife, scrape the bare cob to release the corn’s juices. Repeat with remaining ears of corn. Set kernels and their juices aside.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the thyme sprigs, and cook, stirring frequently, until the butter turns a deep shade of amber and smells nutty. Add the corn kernels, their juices, and a large pinch of salt, and stir well. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the corn is tender, about 5 minutes.

Remove and discard the thyme sprigs, and season to taste with salt. Serve hot, with a smattering of chopped parsley.

Yield: 4 servings


The last hurrah

I love the idea of a last hurrah. I know it’s really just a fancy way of saying that something is about to end, but it sounds so much better than that. Really, think about it: last hurrah! I mean, if something’s got to end, it might as well go out like that, with a loud, rousing cheer. I like the idea of a big blow-out, a big to-do, a triumphant one-last-time before something is through. Most of the time, when we celebrate something, it’s a beginning - like a baby shower, or New Year’s Eve - or a milestone, like a birthday. I think endings deserve a little attention too, or some of them, anyway.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and mainly because of tomatoes. I’ve been eating them almost daily for a couple of months now, and though it scares me to say it out loud, I know the end is near. Today is September 10th, and that means, what, maybe three more weeks before they’re gone: the good ones, the plump ones, the local ones, the real ones. You could almost smell the fear at the farmers’ market yesterday morning, with each person jostling for just the right tomato, the one whose memory will warm them through the winter. The end is nigh, and we all know it.

But I have to admit, I’m kind of ready. The tomatoes have been good this year. They’ve been plentiful, fat and full of sweet, jellied seeds. I ate a Caprese salad for lunch nearly every day in July, and for half of August too. I know it’s sacrilege to say this, and you’re probably going to line up to stone me right now, but I’m almost kind of tired of tomatoes. I keep buying them and eating them, but it’s mainly by reflex, not because I really need another. I keep buying them because they’re summer itself, summer on a stem, and when they’re gone, I won’t taste them again for a whole year. I keep buying them in the hopes that when winter comes, I might not miss them so much. It’s the last hurrah for tomatoes, and I’m going to make sure it’s extra loud.

Which brings me to what we’ll be eating around here this week, a sweet little dish called tomates tapenade. It’s a simple combination - just sliced fresh tomatoes with oil and vinegar, with a spoonful of tapenade on top - but I hadn’t thought of it until this past Friday, when my friend Austin (Hi, Austin! You blushing?) and I met for an after-work unwind at Cafe Presse, little sister to Le Pichet, one of my favorite spots in town. We sat down at the bar and ordered glasses of rosé - is there anything better to drink right now? - along with two salads and an order of fries. The Bibb lettuce with hazelnut vinaigrette was only so-so, and the fries were okay - though they were nicely browned, which usually bodes well - but the tomates tapenade, oh yes, the tomates, they were something else entirely.

It was nothing much to look at, really: just four slices from a big, ripe, ruby beefsteak, drizzled with a mild vinaigrette and capped with a quenelle of briny tapenade. We divided them between our bread plates, smearing a little of the earthy olive mash onto each slice, and then, between breaths - we had a lot to catch up on - we lifted them, sloppy, drippy, devil-may-care, into our mouths. I didn’t make a fuss about them at the time - like I said, we had a lot to catch up on - but they got under my skin, and second to plain old olive oil and salt, I can hardly think of a better way to hoist up the humble tomato. Later that night, when I came home, I dug out an old tapenade recipe from my accordion file, and yesterday, well, you know what we had for lunch.

I hope you do too, and soon. And while you’re at it, pick up an avocado. It’s good with the tapenade too. Don’t forget that. Or this: that once all the tomato slices are gone, you should use a hunk of bread to mop up the late-summer “soup” that’s left on the plate, the delicious slurry of tomato juice, dressing, and olive bits. It’s the best part.

It’ll be a very good last hurrah, I think. For at least a few more days.

Tomates Tapenade

This tapenade recipe is adapted from Simple to Spectacular, which, if you haven’t yet seen it, is a book with a very nifty premise. It’s worth checking out. Of course, you’re welcome to use any tapenade you want, really. If you’ve got a favorite recipe, have at it. You could even buy you tapenade ready-made, if you like. It doesn’t much matter. This dish is essentially a formula, so fill in the variables as you choose. The most important thing is that you like the flavor of the tapenade on its own, toute seule, and that the tomatoes you pair it with are plump, ripe, and totally delicious.

For the tapenade:
4 ounces pitted Niçoise olives (about 1 cup)
1 Tbsp. capers, rinsed to remove excess brine and drained
1 tsp. sherry vinegar
2 Tbsp. olive oil
8 large basil leaves
Salt, to taste

For the vinaigrette:
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. white wine or champagne vinegar
¼ tsp. salt

Ripe tomatoes, preferably heirloom
Crusty bread, for serving

First, make the tapenade. Combine the olives, capers, vinegar, olive oil, basil leaves, and 1 tablespoon water in a blender or small food processor. Process to puree, but don’t let the mixture get too fine. You want a little texture, some tiny nubs of olive or basil here and there. Taste, and salt if needed. (I usually think it’s salty enough as is.) Set aside.

To prepare the vinaigrette, whisk the oil, vinegar, and salt together in a small bowl. Set aside.

Cut the tomatoes however you like, into wedges or slices. Arrange on a platter.

Serve the tomatoes with bowls of tapenade and vinaigrette on the side, so that each eater can dress them to their liking. (I take mine with a moderate drizzle of vinaigrette and a good-size dollop of tapenade.) Be sure to keep a hunk of bread on hand to mop up the juices on the plate. That’s very important.

Note: This recipe has no real “yield,” but amounts of tapenade and vinaigrette are enough for about four servings.


The old switcheroo

Alright, people. That’s it. Enough of this wedding hoo-hah. Enough gushy, gloppy, lovey-dovey stuff. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s September. Like, end-of-summer September. Back-to-school September. Early-season-apples September. The calendar said it was coming, but still. It’s something we should talk about.

As a kid, I always loved September. It meant a reprieve from the pounding heat, for one, and in Oklahoma, that was no small potatoes. It also happens that September is my birth month, which meant balloons and cake and a slumber party. It was also the time of year when my mother would take me out for school supplies, protractors and compasses and other crap that I would never really use, but that made me feel right somehow, and ready - the way superheroes feel, I imagine, about their special capes and costumes. Of course, September also meant school, and getting up early, and spelling tests, but the blow was soft and measured, never more than I could take.

These days, it’s not always so easy. I miss summer already. It rained last night on Seattle - a sure sign if ever there was one - and I sighed this morning, when I opened the front door, to find the yard matted with yellow leaves. Soon, I’ll bet, the grass will be completely covered with them, and then there will be more rain, and more rain, and maybe even snow, and oh wow, OH NOOOO. But then, you know, that old September feeling comes again, and from my safe perch inside the house, with the door closed, I can almost love the puddles and the leaves and the cars splish-splashing past, each one whooshing September! September! SepTEMberrr!

Oh, I don’t know what to say. I guess September is kind of great, in its way. It keeps you occupied with pretty, shiny things so that you won’t really feel the pinch. It’s a kindly old doctor with a quick syringe. It’s a wise magician, a master at sleight of hand. It’s the old switcheroo. Sure, September means the return of real life, the nitty-gritties. There are no two ways around it. But it seems to want to please, and that makes it pretty hard to dislike.

Plus, it’s a perfect time to talk about Brandon’s favorite soba noodles, a dish that doesn’t give a flying hoot what the season is.

I first mentioned these noodles a while back, in the process of telling you about another one of Brandon’s standby meals, a very simple chickpea salad. This soba is something that Brandon devised when he was living in New York, in the months before I came along. He used to make it for breakfast because “it was fast and easy,” he says, and then he would pack up the leftovers and tote them out to Brooklyn, where he was in school at the time, and eat them for lunch. He made this soba for me on one of my first trips to visit him, in June of 2005, and we ate it one hot, sticky morning, straight from a dented aluminum mixing bowl. There was a box fan propped in the window, and I had my bare feet perched on the edge of his chair, and our chopsticks made a faint plink! against the bowl, and I remember thinking how very Brandon those noodles were, messy and delicious, spiked with two hot sauces.

When he moved to Seattle, he brought that dented bowl with him, and he keeps using it, even though we have better ones. Sometimes he even digs all the way to the bottom of the stack to get it. I like that.

Several of you have written to ask for this recipe, but until now, there really wasn’t one. Brandon makes these noodles by eye and by taste, and the first time we tried to quantify the ingredients, it came out all wrong. Plus, it’s not a terribly attractive dish - brown-on-brown, with some pink and orange - so I was reluctant to share it with you.

But those seem like silly excuses, really, when I think about what a perfect lunch it is. Especially now, in this back-to-real-life season. For one thing, it’s quick to make. It’s also filling, but not too much so. Best of all, it uses somewhat seasonless vegetables, the sort of neutral roots and greens you might already have lolling about, biding their time in the crisper drawer. Just bang ‘em all together, chuck it in your bag, and with a piece of fruit to finish, you’re all set. You’ll be so well occupied, you won’t even feel the pinch.

Soba with Peanut-Citrus Sauce

When Brandon makes the sauce for these noodles, he almost never measures. As a result, they taste a little different each time. What you see below are the amounts he used on his most recent go, and a pretty delicious one at that. Really, so long as you taste and tweak, it’s hard to go wrong.

Here are a few variations to play with:
  • Instead of peanut butter, try almond butter. Or even cashew butter.
  • Instead of lime juice, try it with lemon.
  • Or, try it with fresh orange juice or grapefruit juice. Because they’re less acidic, though, than lime or lemon, you’ll need to bolster them with some rice vinegar.
  • Instead of baby bok choy, try slivers of raw spinach, scallions, or asparagus.

For the sauce:
½ cup well-stirred natural peanut butter, such as Adams 100% Natural Creamy
1 ½ tsp. soy sauce
¼ tsp. pressed garlic (about 1 small clove)
½ cup fresh lime juice
½ tsp. sriracha or a similar hot sauce, or more to taste
½ tsp. chili garlic sauce or sambal oelek, or more to taste
2 tsp. olive oil
1 tsp. water

For the noodles:
½ to ¾ lb. soba noodles (see note below)
3 red radishes, very thinly sliced with a knife or mandolin
2 small (or 1 large) carrots, very thinly sliced with a knife or mandolin
1 medium baby bok choy, sliced from tip to root into ¼-inch-thick ribbons
Fresh cilantro or basil leaves, for serving

First, make the sauce. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, and whisk to blend well. It may look clumpy and funny at first, but keep whisking. It will come together into a smooth, light brown sauce. Taste, and adjust to your liking. Set aside.

Meanwhile, put a large pot of water over high heat, and set a colander in the sink. When the water boils, add the soba noodles, and cook at a gently simmer – they’re fragile, so don’t boil them hard – until they are al dente. They cook pretty fast, so be careful. Do not overcook.

Drain the noodles into the colander in the sink. Then, immediately, wash them in cool water. Turn on the faucet and, using your hands, pick up small handfuls of soba and separate them between your fingers, taking care that each noodle is rinsed. “Washing” the noodles like this is a trick we learned from Tea. It helps to remove any starchy residues and keeps the noodles from clumping. (Plus, it’s kind of fun.)

Shake any excess water from the noodles, and turn them into the bowl of sauce. Using two forks, gently toss until the noodles are evenly coated. Add the radishes, carrots, and baby bok choy, and serve, topped with cilantro leaves and additional hot sauce, if you like.

Note: This quantity of sauce is a bit much for ½ pound soba. That’s how much we used, and we found it a bit too heavily dressed. Brandon worries, though, that this amount of sauce might be a little skimpy for ¾ pound. You might want to try something in the middle - maybe 10 ounces?

Yield: Two servings, plus leftovers