Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cooking Lessons

Last night my husband made something for dinner that reminded me of one of the first meals I tried to make when I was about 12. When the smell started wafting out from the kitchen, I was reminded of the small, brown and white galley kitchen in our house in Washington, D.C. My mother had been on her sausage-and-tomatoes-with-pasta kick, and I had begged to be allowed to make it for Saturday night dinner. I was left unsupervised, and I think I can safely describe the outcome as a total disaster.

The actual recipe goes like this: Italian sausages (sweet, hot, or a combination, which is what my mother used, and at the time turkey sausage was unheard of—it was pork all the way, baby) are cooked in boiling water for about 10-12 minutes. They’re then drained, and the casings removed, and they’re sliced into approximately ¼” rounds. Penne pasta (or ziti, or any tubular shape, or yes, dammit, if you insist, bowties) is cooked in the usual way.

Chop one or two onions (depending on their size), and in a pan large enough to ultimately hold the pasta and sausage and still have room to stir, sauté the onion in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add the sausage and let it brown up a little bit (for purely aesthetic reasons, since you’ve already cooked it in the water), then add a couple of cans of diced peeled tomatoes. Salt and pepper can be added at this point, and while ground pepper adds to the dish, the sausage is often salty enough to negate the need for additional salt. This is purely a personal choice. This should be allowed to cook down a bit, until it’s no longer soupy, but not dry either. What you’re after is something just shy of a true sauce; it should still need to be spooned, but shouldn’t actually require a ladle.

Once the desired consistency is achieved, the pasta is stirred in (because the way my mother always made this, by the time the sausage and tomatoes were ready, the pasta was cold; this step heats up the pasta, as well as ensuring that it gets well coated with the other ingredients), and then a couple of tablespoons of chopped parsley get sprinkled over everything, and it gets served. If, once the pasta is stirred in, it seems too dry, a little water or broth could be added to loosen it up, and then the parsley stirred in.

Two packages of sausage (one hot, one sweet), two medium onions, a one pound box of pasta, and two 14oz. cans of diced peeled tomatoes makes enough of this for six people with reasonable appetites, or four very hungry (or very piggy) people. Amounts can be adjusted to make more or less as desired. Although not part of my mother's original rendition of this dish, some chopped garlic could be added about the time the onions get soft and translucent. I think when I was young she skipped the garlic for my sake. Either that or she used it and I never noticed, so that when I attempted to make it, I didn't realize there was supposed to be any garlic in it.

Actually, in thinking about it, this would make kind of a nice dinner party dish. I’ve never made it for that, but it could be largely done ahead, and heated up just before serving. The parsley would have to be added at the last minute, or it would suffer, but everything else would be fine. The water-or-broth strategy would probably need to be employed, but it would be doable.

Anyway, that’s the ideal series of steps, which at almost 40 years old, I’ve now obviously mastered. At 12 I think what I had firmly in mind were the ingredients, but I was a little hazy on the execution piece of it. And I was, as I say, left unsupervised to do this.

What I did was this:

* Cook, remove casings from, and slice sausage
* Cook pasta
* Chop and sauté onion
* Stir pasta, sausage, and tomatoes into pot with sautéed onion

The result didn’t quite look like my mother’s, but i wasn’t totally sure why. Clearly I had done something wrong, but in the way of 12 year olds, I figured it was good enough, and maybe no one would notice the difference between my version and my mother’s version. I called my mother to the kitchen to have a look.

She frowned, peered more closely into the pan, and asked if I had browned the sausage, and cooked down the tomatoes. Reply in the negative. She frowned harder and tasted a spoonful (I’m not really sure why—my recollection of what the finished product looked like at that point is that it was pretty obviously a far cry from the intended, so why she felt the need to actually taste it is a little beyond my comprehension; perhaps she felt she was giving me the benefit of the doubt).

“But this isn’t even good!” she cried.

Thanks for your sensitivity, Mother.

Somehow she managed to separate out the ingredients—I think she took out the sausage, and then just rinsed off the noodles. She remade the onion and tomatoes, and stirred it all back together and we had it for dinner half an hour or so later than originally intended.

It was a long time before I was allowed to make dinner without being monitored.

I did, however, learn a valuable lesson about the layering of flavors, and increasing depth throughout the entire process. The experience also planted the seed for the lesson that some things just can’t be rushed. It took awhile for the latter to really sink in. For many years after that, my strategy when I got impatient with something that I was making was to just crank up the heat. I was teased by a college friend for doing this (my roommate and I both did it, and she mocked us both for the smoke filled kitchen that always seemed to result in any effort on our part to make something cook more quickly than was really reasonable).

Now I’ve developed much more patience as a cook. But the smell of sautéing onions and sausage still reminds me of the image of that pan of pale flabby pasta with raw canned tomatoes clinging desperately to it like survivors of a shipwreck clutching at splinters of the sunken ship, awaiting rescue from the cold dark ocean.

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