The daily act of turning raw ingredients into good food not only gives me great pleasure, it gives me a sense of purpose and place. Purpose, because this daily act and the sequence of tasks that sustain it: planning, shopping, sorting, washing, soaking, prepping, tasks which can occupy a scant 30 minutes of one day and then eight hours of the next, give structure and sense to my day. Place, because good food requires good ingredients and sourcing good ingredients makes you acutely aware of where, of here and there.
This daily act can also leave me floundering, frantic and furious! When this is the case it’s almost always because I’ve mislayed my sense of purpose, that is structure, common sense and good taste, or my sense of place. By place I don’t just mean my physical place, that is Rome in early December (quince, potatoes, pumpkins, celery root, artichokes, kale, carrots, porcini, olives, grapes, winter melon) but my place as a cook. A home cook with strengths but also limits, a small child and a propensity for mess, tears and very bad language when things go squew-wiff.
I get most pleasure and have the greatest sense of purpose and when I’m turning raw ingredients into the habitual dishes that sustain me, my family and my friends week after week, year after year. I am – as you’ve probably noticed – extremely habitual. The bean soups, sauces, pastas and risottos that are the cornerstones of my diet. The roasts, pans of beans, trusted cakes, jams, salads (usually green) and vegetables (often boiled until unfashionably soft) that nourish me so often and so well.
I love the familiar and reassuring sequence of movements required for these dishes. Pasta and beans comes to mind: podding, chopping, the execution of the soffritto – a task repaid with both deep flavour and a glorious smell wisping around the kitchen, the reassuring rumble and occasional burp from the simmering beans and then the thick bean soup, the engaging and amusing stir-squeeze-squelch-stir as you pass some of the soup through the food mill. Or roast chicken, which I talked about the other week! The mere thought of cold hands and colder water, patting dry, slathering butter recklessly all over a good bird, shoving a lemon up its bottom and then roasting it’s until burnished makes me feel sanguine. Or salad: green leaves swirling in cold water, the spinning, tearing and dressing (with my hands.) Eating it with my hands too, but only when I’m alone. And then there’s tomato sauce.
I make six different types of tomato sauce all of which have numerous variations. The sauce I make depends on the time of year, wether I’m using fresh or tinned tomatoes, what type of pasta I fancy eating, who I am cooking for and my (wholly unpredictable) state of mind. Today’s panful is a stout but handsome winter sauce made with a deeply flavored soffritto of onion, carrot and celery, tinned plum tomatoes and a glug of red wine. A rich, thick and almost burgundy coloured sauce which can be served with just about any shape of pasta or with a gently poached egg and some bread.
This sauce is decidedly Italian, but I learned to make it in decidedly unItalian circumstances. That is in the old kitchen in my parents house in Harpenden (a suffocating provincial town in the home counties.) I imagine my mum drew original inspiration from a recipe by Elizabeth David or Jane Grigson but the need for the printed page had long passed. I’d love to tell you that as a little girl I stood on a stool and stirred the sauce with a battered and charred wooden spoon! But I didn’t. I watched keenly though, as my Mum chopped the vegetables, then sautéed the harlequin heap in an ungodly quantity of olive oil, added a big tin of imported plum tomatoes and slug of wine and then let the sauce bubble away on the cooler plate of the AGA for a good long while.
I spurned this sauce when I first came to Italy, enchanted by simpler, fresher ways and sheepish about my anglicized Italian cooking. It took a few years and much obsessive questioning about how Italians make their tomato sauce to discover this sort of hearty tomato sauce made with a soffritto is typical all over Italy in these darker months. One difference though, Italians (at least the ones I know) nearly always pass this sort of sauce through a food mill so the texture is smooth. I rather like it chunky – you could say that makes it more of a ragù than a sauce – but I’m extremely happy to go smooth if that’s the general consensus.
I imagine you know the routine as well as I do: peel and chop, the long slow sauté in as much oil as you dare, the sizzle as the tomatoes hit the pan and the deep glug as the wine meets the tomatoes. The slow, burping simmer. Stir from time to time and don’t be afraid to add a little more wine or plain water if the sauce is looking dense but still needs cooking a little longer. If you prefer a smoother sauce (all the Italians in my life prefer a smoother sauce) pass it through a food mill or a sieve.
Rich Tomato sauce
4 generous portions
- 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- a small white onion.
- stick of celery
- 1 small carrot
- 500 g / ml / 1lb 2 oz tinned plum tomatoes, chopped.
- red wine (optional)
- a pinch of sugar (optional if the sauce is very acidic)
Peel and then very small dice the onion, celery and carrot. In a heavy based pan over a medium/low flame warm the oil. Saute the onion until it’s soft and translucent then add the celery, carrot and a pinch of salt. Stir well so all the vegetables are well coated with oil. Reduce the heat and keep sautéing, stirring every now and then, until the vegetables are soft, lightly golden and – with much of the water evaporated away – richly flavored. This should take about 8- 10 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and a healthy glug of wine if you are using it, stir and then raise the heat so the sauce comes to a gentle boil. Then reduce the heat and leave the sauce to simmer very gently uncovered for 30 – 40 minutes or until it is dense (but still saucy) and dark red. Taste and season as you see fit. Pass the sauce through a food mill you prefer a smoother texture.
We had the sauce with spaghetti and parmesan. Then broccolo romanesco cooked until unfashionably soft dressed with grassy new season extra virgin olive oil and fat anchovies. To finish, an apple and more parmesan. Pleasure, purpose and place.