sip and sauce

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A story that isn’t about sauce.

Last night a new friend invited me over for dinner. She had also invited another mutual friend who now lives in the US so I’d taken a bottle of sparkling wine chosen from the scant selection in the fridge in my local wine shop before grabbing a taxi. Not a bottle I would have usually picked, but I hoped it would be good. My friend’s husband opened the bottle as we stood on their balcony on a sultry and still July evening in Rome, he poured, we raised glasses and drank.

The wine was odd, not terrible, just odd, sort of sour! Or was it the fact I had cleaned my teeth not long before? I took another sip hoping it would taste different, which it didn’t. I tried combining it with a toasted almond, then tasted again.

As I said, they are new friends with whom I feel comfortable, but not enough to say ‘I think this is a bit odd, lets ditch it and open another bottle.‘ I took another sip, hoping my persistence would improve things (it didn’t) by which point it felt too late to comment as everyone else was drinking so to do so would question their taste buds. Or where they merely drinking politely thinking this is odd and wondering why the person who brought the bottle isn’t saying anything? Then again maybe it was the particularly minty toothpaste?  In short, in the shortest time I completed a half marathon of anxiety and ate almost the entire bowl of almonds.

We sat down and my anxiety and the taste of the sparking wine ebbed away with each sip of nice red in easy company. The smell of dinner was as enticing as you’d hope, ‘It’s beef braised in red wine’ said my friend. ‘Made with meat from a new butcher’ so she hoped it was good. It was, especially with the pilaf of rice and mushroom and slender green beans. My friend however, picking up the anxiety baton I had dropped, was disappointed. ‘It was tough‘. Everyone was too busy eating to reply. ‘It’s tough‘ she said again, this time posed as a question. ‘It was firm’ was the answer.’ ‘But extremely tasty.‘ Plates were handed back for seconds but even that didn’t convince the cook who was quiet until eventually conversation and wine drew her back in. Salad, pudding, coffee, amaro and more conversation followed. It was a good night and I left late liking my new friend even more than when I’d arrived.

This morning as I waited for the coffee to gurgle out of the moka, my phone beeped with a message asking me about the name of book I’d mentioned and apologizing for the beef again. First I drank my coffee, each sip chipping away at my not unpleasant amaro head, then I wrote back to tell her the beef was firm but damn tasty and that the name of the book – a favorite – was Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking.

Possibly the ideal book given the circumstances and our short relay of anxiety the night before. ‘Home Cooking’ is the antidote to most food writing malarkey that tells us things should be perfect and effortless and the hostesses unflappable, a funny and wise collection of kitchen essays that touch on the human, therefore imperfect, nature of home cooking. It is a book about ordinary delights, but also fiascos and disappointments; ingredients that don’t behave, dishes that don’t turn out as they should, dinners we cook for friends that we wish were different, the sour and the tough if you like, which others might not have thought was sour or tough at all.

As I tapped the old grounds out of the coffee pot into the bin and watched most of them fall on the floor, refilled the pot and put it back on the stove, I had another wave of anxiety about the wine (I hold onto anxiety in the way some people hold grudges: I still cringe about the homemade humus with a hair in it I took to a dinner in about 1998). There was only one thing for it; have a gin and tonic! Unfortunateley it was nine in the morning! So I did the next best thing, I planted my son in front of a video, poured my third coffee and sat on the sofa to read Laurie Colwin.

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The sauce that has nothing to do with the story.

A summer sauce for when good flavoursome tomatoes are plentiful and cheap (ish). Peeling the tomatoes might sound a bit of a faff, which it is, but only for a few minutes and it is undoubtedly worth it. Having peeled and roughly chopped the tomatoes you cook them in lots of garlic scented olive oil until any extra water has evaporated away and you have rich, sauce that clings insistently to the pasta and your child’s face. It is one of my hands down favorite things to eat.

Fresh tomato sauce for with spaghetti or penne

Peel a kilogram of flavoursome tomatoes by plunging them into boiling water for a minute, then cold water for another 30 seconds at which point the skins should slip away easily. Cut away any hard-core or hard white flesh, then chop the tomatoes into rough pieces, ideally over a plate to catch any juices.

In a large frying pan, warm 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a peeled squashed garlic clove over a modest flame until the smell of the garlic rises up from the pan (do not let it burn). Add the tomatoes and a big pinch of salt and stir. Let sauce simmer for 10 – 20 minutes or until – with some of the water evaporated – the sauce is thick and saucy. Add a few torn basil leaves, stir and then remove from the heat.

For four people, cook 500 g of spaghetti in fast boiling well-salted water until al dente, drain and mix with the sauce (which you can warm gently if a significant amount of time has passed since you made it) and serve immediately.

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I am, as many of you know, writing a book, which is why I am here so intermittently. We are about to start the editing process and work on design, by October I should be back each week. Meanwhile I am posting on Instagram and continue to miss you more than you miss me. Rachel.

75 Comments

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75 responses to “sip and sauce

  1. I can’t wait to read your book. Do you know when it will be published/available for preorder? I love your blog.

    • rachel

      Hi Kaja, the publishing date is next summer, so I imagine the pre-order will begin in the autumn and thank you, so glad you enjoy reading, I love having you here R

  2. Michael

    A wise post, the sentiments of which I heartily concur and that should cheer any home cook. I live in a village on the coast in Galicia, north west Spain where we a blessed with bountiful local produce. I make this sauce every summer, perhaps adding more garlic, more than my English family would permit. Thank you.

    • rachel

      More garlic is clearly the right way, especially with those stupendous northern spanish tomatoes. Happy to have you reading along Rx

  3. I can’t wait to make your tomato sauce when I return home to California with all those wonderful tomatoes available at the local farmer’s market. Good luck with your book.

    • rachel

      Thanks so much Gerlinde, I am collecting luck et the moment as I go into editing and more editing and then design. happy sauce making to you x

  4. I can’t wait for the book, and also for your weekly blog posts, as promised. Until then, I will continue to avidly read whatever, whenever you post. Good luck with the book editing, by the way, I hear it can be gruesome work!

    • rachel

      Thanks Helena…and yes the editing is pretty messy, more so though for my lovely patient editor dealing with my writing…..

  5. One of the most wonderful things about your blog Rachel is the simplicity, and I always feel that I’m getting ‘the real deal’ with your recipies. I can’t wait to get a copy of your book – your blog has deepened my love for Italian food!!

  6. I miss you more!! Can’t wait for the book. If I could write 1% as well as you do I would be a happy lady

  7. R,
    I love that the sauce has nothing to do with the story. Sometimes theres a story and then you make sauce? I just love you Rachel. t

  8. GARETH JONES

    A delightful read.

    Reminds me of so many similar true tales – try just these:

    1) My brother-in-law passes away – he was a true gastronome and cook from Valencia. His family decide to open three bottles of his favourite wine from his cellar as we gathered before the funeral. It was sad and tense. I was given the honour of opening and tasting the bottles. Two of the three were corked. I said a prayer and said no more.

    2) I was cooking a stew in a London flat for 8-10 people. A bird flew in through the window and plopped into the hot dish I was stirring. Money was short. I fished around and could find nothing. Again a short prayer and no more said. We never did find that little bird, feathers, beak and all.

    3) Another time in Paris (Bastille) with artist friends. I was again the cook. I prepared three wild Garenne rabbits – and as is best, added the skinned heads into pot for depth. One guest, a tall and tough Belgian who worked with the likes of FF Coppola, Michael Herr, etc, literally passed out at table when I went to serve him first – and out on my large ladle came a head, complete with grinning teeth.

    Enough for now. Love to little Luca. I look forward to be stabbed sometime soon.

    Gareth X 

    ________________________________

    • rachel

      Gareth you are extraordinary and I could listen to your stories all night long… and I owe you and Hew and E mail…it is coming xox

  9. MICHELA

    There’s no WAY that you could miss us more than I look forward to your posts. Whenever I see a new one in my mailbox, I beam – causing my husband to believe I’m hallucinating.
    In Bocc’al Lupo with your book project.
    La Ciocciara in Malibu

  10. “food writing malarkey” – officially my favorite phrase! I like to follow Melissa Clark’s advice and should a dish fail in some way, just reinvent it. burnt cake becomes a base for trifle or parfait – or crumbs!🙂

  11. i am a huge Laurie Colwin fan. I love everything she ever wrote. Home Cooking begat More Home Cooking, the whole a collection of her columns for the late, lamented Gourmet magazine. But her novels and short stories are also wonderful. So worth reading – all of it.

  12. Dolores

    I too, love Laurie, and if you are ever looking for ( to me) the best gingerbread cake recipe, you’ll find it in the chaper titled” How to Make Gingerbread”.It is our firm standard, plain or iced- always pleases.
    She died way to young!!

  13. Eha

    What a delightful Sunday smile on my face!! You write about something with which everyone of us is familiar in your usual eloquent way . . . and then we are able to ‘double the dose’ with the delightful comments from Gareth Jones!! Thanks to both of you and heaps of good vibes for no writer’s block as far as you book is concerned🙂 !

  14. victoria2nyc

    I love Laurie Colwin too, re-reading Happy All the Time, Shine on Bright and Dangerous Object, Home Cooking, and More Home Cooking every year – my favorites of her books, every one of which lives on my bookshelf.

    If you have not seen this, you will enjoy it, even though it will make you sad. And glad.

    http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2001/08/with_passion_and_affect?currentPage=1

  15. You’re wrong. I miss you much more than you miss me! I’m going to get acquainted with Laurie Colwin though. Any friend of yours is a friend of mine.

  16. Oh My.. this looks very delicious.. I’m seriously craving for spag right now and I really wanna have this!

  17. I too hold onto anxiety like that. Then I remind myself of the moment again and again, cringing every time like some sort of self inflicted psychological torture.
    Also I love a good, simple tomato sauce.

  18. Bringing wine is one of those things that makes me shiver every time, too. But then again, cooking for others makes me even more anxious, so there. I should find that book.

    It’s always lovely to read you on Sundays, we truly miss you here! Good luck with the book and see you very soon. x

  19. Amber

    Thank the Lord for someone else who holds on to anxiety! I cannot shake off the habit and have given up trying.
    Pasta with a simple (and simply delicious) tomato sauce is one of life’s great pleasures.
    I look forward to your book.

    • rachel

      Again I am glad to be in such good anxiety company and thanks A, I really do feel lucky to have such great people around me x

  20. Christine Wevill

    wonderful as always- i am an illustrator/artist and would like to send you drawings done last time visit to Rome- and plan to do more very soon!……would love to do some regarding food for your book ! would you like to see ? CW.

    • rachel

      Hello Christine and lovely to meet….I actually have an illustrator on board for the book, but thank you so much for the offer….. but I would one to see some pictures though, Do you have a website ….maybe you could share a link here Rx

  21. When cooking for others and disappointed in my endeavours, I have to remind myself that only I know what the end result ought to have been like.

  22. Take care of yourself Rachel. X

  23. Hilary

    I think the consensus here is that you are, indeed, missed, Rachel!! Still, all for the greater good. Your! Book!! xx

  24. Oh yes, that angst and worry. I feel it too. And, like your friend, I am too familiar with those apologies given to guests when I feel like I’ve let them down somehow. I try to remember that nights like this are about the company and the conversation though, that’s what really counts (although it doesn’t always help much!).

    • rachel

      It is good to remind ourselves though, about the company…even though in my case if the anxiety sets in (which it sometimes doesn’t) it wins…i can still have a nice time though. x

  25. I think I miss you more than you miss me. Nice sauce. Sophie x

  26. I am reminded of a scene from ‘northern exposure’ where someone finds a hair in their soup at the local tavern/restaurant, and the barkeep says something like “now everyone’s gonna want one”. And then there was the time Roberto and I went for chocolate croissants and coffee at a nearby french bakery. There was a curly black hair stuck to the bottom of mine. The baker in the back had curly black hair, so surely it must be his…but needless to say the croissant was never eaten and as we walked away we both had the same thought…’thank goodness it wasn’t a pubic hair.” To this day we laugh about it, but I digress. Yes, Laurie Colwin, for whenever I need a dose of humble down to earth home cooking goodness. I look forward to the day your book is sitting next to hers. Hope you are well.

  27. terri

    Hi from Umbria, this is my husband’s (Pugliese) and my absolute favorite summer sauce. A glass of Trebbiano dell’Umbria or two usually cures my cringe-worthy culinary moments!….that and fun always win out, all the best for your book, I like your writing and recipes!

  28. Always ahead of us. We won’t get local tomatoes for another few weeks. Until then, I dream of fresh tomato sauce. Regarding your wine experience–just a shot in the dark–I’ve had a fair amount of old school Chianti that tastes unpalatably sour until it’s paired with food, especially something with fat in it. One minute your choking it down, the next (after a mouthful of roasted red peppers in olive oil) and it’s a lovely sensuous thing. On the other hand, the older I get the more I treat wine like books I’m reading. Once upon a time I felt like once I started reading, I had to finish the thing (I should have killed the woman who insisted I read Beckett’s MALONE DIES). So with wine. No more. After a glass or fifty pages, time to open another bottle or book. Ken

  29. laura

    Spaghetti al pomodoro … always the best ever in my book, though I know I will find many “bests” in your book. SO looking forward to it and so grateful to you for all the work you’re doing to produce it for us.
    Lovely to see your post this morning. Was in a bit of withdrawal pain so getting a dose of your exquisite writing (“the anxiety baton” … you hit the mark every time) was a wonderful treat. Thank you!

    • laura

      PS 1 … I meant to comment on how much I am also looking forward to seeing the photos accompanying your writing and recipes in the book … you take GREAT photos, imho.
      PS 2 … there is NO way you could miss us as much as we miss you!

  30. Oh but no, Rachel, you are wrong. The story and sauce are indeed the same thing. Both, well-simmered bouts of perfection.

    xo,
    M

    ps: Your nine a.m. next best thing and mine are, for the record, identical.

  31. Oh goodness don’t talk to me about hostess worries! I love cooking for people but never believe their compliments. You know how much I am looking forward to the book. x

    • rachel

      Kath I was thinking about you use the other day (oak tree cake) Hope you are all well and I am glad to know I am not the only one xoxox

  32. Oh what fraught territory it is to give and receive hospitality – I loved reading this, and will celebrate the summer’s bounty by making this sauce. I feel that everything is simmering in the heat of the summer right now, but for some reason that’s just perfect. Sending warm, sunny thoughts!

  33. Brady

    You so perfectly captured the non-perfectness that can occur with dinner gatherings….I chalk it up to my continued evolution as a cook, and then we add more wine and laughs…and remember that perfect can be so dull and boring….pphhttttt…and who wants that? Love your writing…..best wishes on the book work!!!

    • rachel

      thanks Brady…and I like the idea of more wine and more laughs…and the book is nearly there, well the first stage anyway. best RX

  34. Hey Rachel!! After about 7 years of dreaming of returning to Italy, I’ll finally be back in August! Will be in Rome for a couple of days, and was wondering which places you’d recommend good Italian food? Thanks so much!!

  35. I tend to hold on to anxiety more than I should too. And it is good to know that we all have moments like that, so thank you for writing about them. I feel that once people know you have a food blog, the anxiety levels go way up because people have expectations… which is why many of my friends don’t know I have one. I already always tend to perform worse for people who come over for dinner than my little family, because of the anxiety. But I strongly feel, and am trying to teach myself, that if something goes wrong, you mention it once and laugh it off and THAT IS ALL. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go buy the book you mentioned!

  36. What a great post. I think you really captured the anxiety that comes along with entertaining. It’s like, obviously the hosting and cooking and enjoying food and wine with friends is worth it, but there’s no magical perfect hostess who doesn’t feel ashamed about (possibly?) tough meat from time to time. Can’t wait to read your book!

    • rachel

      Hi Randle, I have a few friends who never seem to get flustered, they are clearly as tough as there meat. Thank you….I can’t wait to finsih my book, best R

  37. Rachel, you are as reassuring as a cup of tea. That is the highest praise I can give. That you feel the same anxieties and express them so well… Now all I want to do is go home, dig out Laurie Colwin. And maybe eat raw tomatoes (hob broken!) Good luck with book xx

  38. I must have missed your latest post when I was head down in a never-ending project. Thankfully I have now come up for air and, even better, there is a new (to me) post of yours waiting for me!

    I know that anxiety you describe all too well – it tends to either mean I am deeply unsatisfied with whatever I have prepared or can in fact go as far as leading me to messing up tried and tested dishes, neither of which is great but both of which can be fixed with a lot of wine. Also, Laurie Colwin! A new friend pointed me in her direction and I read Home Cooking cover to cover twice in one week as I enjoyed it so much.

    Best of luck with the editing process – hopefully that means the end is getting nearer! xx

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