Since the food we prepare, touching it with our hands and our feelings, will go inside the bodies of our friends and loved ones, we should be aware that we are involved in a very delicate, subtle, yet powerful alchemical process. Cooking is not a secondary activity, something you do with one hand (while the other holds a cigarette), nor something you do with one eye (while the other is watching television). No. Cooking has to be recognized for what it is: a noble, loving, caring, alchemical activity, which can determine our physical, psychological and emotional health. Once you become aware of this, your attitude is bound to change. You realize how deeply you can heal (or poison) someone with your daily cooking. You see to the well-being of the people you are feeding, and accept that existence is all about nourishing the ones you love. You will be overwhelmed with gratitude and with the responsibility of such a blessing. And you will wish that you could nourish them better and better, for this will become your greatest joy in life, and you will not wish to spend a day without cooking for them. And finally, after fifty years, I cannot keep the secret to myself any more. The greatest secret about the alchemical art of cooking is this: it′s love that is cooking.
Okay, let′s go for the sauces. Italians love to create sauces, particularly
for spaghetti or other shapes of pasta. Believe it or not, every Italian cook
has her (or his) own sauce; at least one, which is her favourite.
The one she makes "differently"; the one she thinks she has "invented"; the one her friends ask for all the time; and finally the one that will (hopefully) lend her name to posterity. So there are millions of sauces, and we′ll have to start with the very basic ones.
The Thousand Colours of Tomato Sauce
Yes, tomato sauce has thousands of colours, thousands of flavours, millions of nuances, and yet it has to follow a few basic principles. To start with I define them in this way: the starting of a male tomato sauce and the female tomato sauce.
Only when you grasp the significance of these two can you mix and match at your pleasure, or even create a bisexual tomato sauce, for that matter!
I love to use metaphorical terms, but what do I really mean when I call one male and the other female?
Simple. One is to prepare a solid body, spicy and tasty; a strong taste, a little aggressive (or more if you wish) and quite determined and imperious!
The other is to prepare a mellow body; softer, gentler, more fluid, delicate and even more creamy, if you wish!
Let′s have a close look at each of these, because if you understand the two kinds of alchemy clearly, you will be able to create and experiment with almost any vegetable.
It goes like this: for the strong body choose garlic rather than onions. Fry it in olive oil rather than butter. While frying the garlic, add the right amount (for your taste) of chilli. After so many years of making tomato sauces I have realized that it is best to use chopped dry red chillies. Please avoid powders, green chillies or anything else. Once you get your hands on a nice bunch of fresh red chillies, make a garland with a needle and thread, as if they were pearls for your kitchen, and hang it on the wall, possibly over your stove. It keeps away worms, ghosts, parasites, amoebae and a lot of creatures of that kind.
When the garlic or onions turn golden, add the pureed tomatoes. (You have to drop the tomatoes into boiling hot water and leave them for about 5 minutes, till the skins get wrinkled. Peel and puree them in a blender.)
Now you have to let the sauce cook. And I don′t mean 10 minutes as you usually do, or 15 minutes or 20 minutes. Not even half an hour. One hour is the minimum! I mean it.
What do you do in this hour? Since you have plenty of time (otherwise you′ll go to McDonald′s, we know) you can decide on how to create, improve, personalize and infuse variety into your tomato sauce.
Let′s have a look at the most common:
For 4 servings
Anna starts with a lot of butter on a low flame. She uses an incredible quantity of onions, which are chopped very, very fine. When the onions are golden she adds the pureed tomatoes with salt, and again an incredible quantity of finely chopped basil! Not just a few leaves or even a few sprigs. No! Anna really goes for it! Is she trying to make half a pesto and half a pummarola (tomato sauce)? Heck, if only I knew! I have been eating it for the past thirty-five years and it still makes me happy, along with the kids. Now, I don′t know what you foreigners to Italian cuisine usually do when the sauce is ready and the pasta had been boiled enough to be defined al dente (hard under your teeth). Do you put the drained pasta into a large, elegant serving dish, top it with the sauce, add the cheese, mix and serve? How aesthetic! But how stupid too! If I′m allowed to be that forthright. The pasta has to go into the sauce, not vice versa! It is sensible to make the sauce in a wok or a pan or anything large enough to hold both the sauce and the pasta, drain it and slip it into the sauce for the fundamental operation of mantecatura. I don′t know how to translate this one in English, what can I do? Let′s say that mantecatura means giving pasta a chance to absorb the sauce and the cheese and the butter and the basil, by cooking it for 30 seconds only. It makes such a difference that one would rather have more of this pasta, even if it is served directly from the pan, than the other shallow preparation served in a silver dish! Try it, and let me know. She drains the pasta very al dente, she slips it into the wok containing the sauce, she adds another 50 gms of butter, a few sprinkles of Parmesan (even Gouda or Cheddar will do). She stirs it gently for 30 seconds and then serves it. If there are many kids, and the tomatoes are vaguely acid, Anna adds a generous spoon of sugar to the sauce, if there are more adults amongst the guests, she tops everything at the end with extra basil, not even finely chopped!
As Anna has contributed to the creation of an easy, simple and effective feminine tomato sauce, her husband, Alberto, has contributed to the creation of an easy simple and effective masculine tomato sauce. (We are only playing with words and metaphors; don′t take me seriously!) So how does Alberto′s version go?
For 4 servings
A sprinkle of roasted, crushed dry red chillies grated Pecorino (seasoned dry goats cheese)
Alberto starts with chopping finely a lot of garlic. And I personally really love it! What do we mean by a lot? This tricky Alberto is quite capable of hiding the amount of garlic he puts into his favourite sauce. He may show you a huge quantity while he chops it, and say that he will use only half of it, but when you turn your back he will grab the lot and put it quickly into the wok. Nor will he let anyone see how many red chillies he is putting in. I can understand that each cook likes to maintain a little secrecy about his recipes! So, like Alberto, chop a lot of garlic without hiding it, and a lot of chillies. Use a large wineglass of the best olive oil you can find and sauté the garlic and chillies in a wok. When the garlic is golden add the same quantity of pureed tomatoes as for Anna′s sauce. Then you let it cook slowly, while chopping finely at least 2 large bunches of Parsley, which you add to the sauce. Carry on cooking till the sauce becomes thicker and thicker, for it shouldn′t be too liquid, while there is no need for it to be too thick either. You can, taste the sauce and feel its consistency and depth, and the salt too. Cook the pasta. Drain it and slip it into the wok containing the sauce, where you will give it a good mantecatura, adding, following Alberto′s recipe, another wineglass of the best olive oil and another bunch of finely chopped parsley. As it this is not enough, Alberto likes to provide some extra red chilli roasted on the flame, for the "real men who like real stuff" Buon appetito(Excerpts from "Food is Home". It is published by Penguin and available throughout India.)