There was a time, long, long ago, when calories, fat, carbohydrates, sugar and salt were regarded as the enemy. Dirty words almost. Words that kept me from truly enjoying food and kept me overly focused on its nutritonal content. Not that I no longer regard good nutrition as important. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Believe it or not, in the past, my diet consisted of mostly processed food masked as 'healthy'. I was a sucker for things labeled 'fat free', 'low carb' or 'sugar free' and could care less about reading labels to see what I was actually putting into my body. I remember a time when I started my day with a huge cup of coffee sweetened with a few of those pink 'fake sugar' packets. Perhaps some fat free waffles sprayed with a certain butter replacement which was so good (not) that it was hard to believe it wasn't butter (not, again). I shudder at the thought now.
The changes slowly started to take place when I moved to Europe in the autumn of 1997. From Hudson County, New Jersey to the countryside of Borger- a town in the north of the Netherlands. My mother-in-law was the one who introduced me to real food- I saw how she cooked simple, good meals- while Hans was the one who actually pulled me into the kitchen to cook. I'll never forget the first time I peeled a clove of garlic. I was nineteen and it was Hans who showed me how to do it. It was at that point that the transformation from city health freak to country home cook started to take place.
Our trips to France opened up my eyes even more. I saw how many of the French had their own fruit and vegetable gardens. Markets were a big deal and freshness and regionality of great importance. I've always regarded France as my cooking school. It was there that I truly discovered a great passion for food, simply by observing, tasting and cooking.
The other day I came across an interesting wine columnist for The Globe and Mail, Beppi Crosariol. I really liked the way he talked and wrote about wine-informatively and unpretentiously. There was a particular video that caught my attention and that video is actually the reason why I am writing this post. In the video, Beppi is in his Italian father's garden and they are discussing wines to go with tomato based dishes. What I loved most about the video was his dad's enthusiasm and love of food and wine. He made a wonderful pasta sauce and mentioned that he had picked the tomatoes from the garden that same morning. He also talked about his love of wine and expressed an opinion I wholeheartedly agree with: "Listen, I always said, first France maybe, but then Italy and Spain, and then come all the others." He went on to make a pasta sauce (one I knew I had to recreate) and he commented about how much he loved the moment of breaking bread with his son. His passion for life really touched me. It reminded me of how far I've come and how lucky I've been. Real food has become so important to me. My idea of good nutrition evolved from a media brainwashed perception of 'healthy' to a pure way of eating, living and most of all, enjoying.
But that pasta sauce! I could almost taste its freshness, the homegrown tomatoes and the gently sweated onions and garlic, the good olive oil! Yum! This is my version. I had no recipe to go by. Just pure inspiration and a quest for utter enjoyment and palatable gratification. Buon appetito!
1 kilo of the best vine-ripe tomatoes you can get your hands on
2 tsps dried oregano
2 tbsps sherry vinegar
3 tsps sugar (I used my rosemary infused sugar)
3 tbsps mild olive oil
a few beautiful sprigs of thyme
2 small onions, finely chopped
2 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped
a small bunch of fresh basil, roughly chopped
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
good pasta, to serve
excellent extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling over the pasta
The first thing you need to keep in mind is the simplicity of this dish. There's no room for inferiority here. Get yourself the best tomatoes, herbs, olive oil and pasta you can get your hands on. First, you'll need to blanch your tomatoes. Using a sharp knife, make a cross on the underside of each tomato. Submerge them under boiling water for 3-4 minutes or until their skins begin to curl. Put them in a cold water bath and start to remove their skins, coring them and de-seeding them as you go. Chop the tomatoes roughly and put them in a large bowl along with the oregano, sherry vinegar, 2 tsps of the sugar, 1 tbsp of the olive oil, thyme and plenty of salt and pepper to taste. Give everything a good stir and let this sit in the fridge for about three hours. A little longer will do no harm. In fact, the longer the better.
About an hour before you are going to eat, heat up the remaining two tbsps of the oil and gently sweat the onions and the garlic for about 5 minutes. Increase the heat and throw in your beautifully marinated tomatoes. Allow everything to cook at a high temperature for about 2-3 minutes and then immediately reduce the heat to a low-medium temperature. Cook in a covered pan for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining tsp of sugar, taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. take the sauce off of the heat, add in the chopped basil and serve with some freshly-cooked pasta. Don't forget a drizzle of good olive oil, a loaf of wonderful bread and a bottle of Chianti. Salute!