I feel I rarely cook anymore. Oh, I don’t mean that I buy loads of take
away or use processed or packet meals. No. I chop and peel, boil and
simmer, pan fry and grill every day. Sometimes even a combination of
many of these at once. I am just that good. Thrilling stuff as it is,
it’s not really cooking. Not to me. It’s meal preparation at best. At
worst it’s an exercise to facilitate refuelling - one of the many steps
of an evening ritual that must be completed.
I have been wondering lately if this is how my mother felt when I was a
small child. How my father, a Scottish man of vastly dull tastes when it
came to food, would prefer chops with HP sauce and three veg or a ham
steak with pineapple and cheese to any wondrous Italian fare my mother
might have produced.
I remember he would often bemoan my lack of cutlery skills, as if
manners were the most important part of sharing the family table. I used
my hands to pick up my lamb chops. I was 4. My mother was just happy
that I was eating; so very like her. Culinarily speaking, I am curious
as to whether she ever felt stifled, though I suspect she was more
selfless than I and would never have lamented as openly as I am at this
In an extended family where in general, the men are the gardeners and
the women the cooks, it may come as a surprise that I learnt to make my
first red sauce not with the usual female suspects; my Nonna, mother or
godmother, but my then perhaps 65 year old Nonno. The memory of that
lesson still fills me with pride and fondness for him.
I’m not much for weights and quantities. All my recipes are done by eye,
taste and memory. But it goes something like this:
Saute off chopped onions and garlic in good olive oil until soft and
translucent (watch that the heat is moderate), add a tin or two of
tomatoes with a couple of pinches of salt. Once this begins to bubble
then add the bottled sauce (I just use a couple of bottles of passata
now, unless I can get my hands on homemade sauce from my godparents - I
remember regularly taking a bottle or two back with me to Perth after
visits home. The airport beagles would be most intrigued). Then a bottle
or two of water to top up the pot.
Once this boils you can add browned sausage or pork ribs (use the
browning oil for the onions for more flavour; the tomatoes will deglaze
all the good crunchy bits off the pan), cotechini, or if you were
feeling wealthy, meatballs or breosola. A vegetarian twist could easily
be eggplant roulades, or stuffed artichokes. Bring to the boil again,
then turn down to a simmer.
As is often the case with things that have been passed down, I have
perfected this sauce as my own recipe now. When available, I like to add
a few leaves of basil, or a little dried oregano and always a small
amount of fresh garlic during the final half of cooking time. A good
dose of organic black pepper and any extra seasoning finishes the dish.
Sea salt flakes, of course.
I like to put this on at around 2pm to simmer the afternoon away and eat
at around 6pm. Perfection tossed through a wide, ridged tube pasta such
as rigatoni (with only a small dollop of sauce on top, never swimming in
the stuff), showered in a pillow soft trio of grated Parmesan, Pecorino
and Romano cheeses and a sprinkling of chilli flakes. The meat is eaten
as a separate course. The children prefer what they refer to as
“ribbons” of pasta. Better to slurp and more chance of sauce landing on the ceiling, or the neighbours’ letterbox I suppose.
I am only realising now that I haven’t made this for months. Partly
because I am one of those weirdos who rarely eats bread and pasta
anymore, but also because small children get wearily, skirt-tuggingly
impatient with staying at home while you cook all day. And yes, I do
cook with my children. I even bake, though the results of these efforts
are sometimes better utilised as pontoons with which to negotiate a
flooded backyard. But this; my sauce; and in fact anything that
requires loving treatment, the preparation of ingredients and regular
tasting and adjusting, needs to be something that I indulge in alone.
Sorry about that.
So yes. I’m cooking that this weekend now. With ribs I think, if I can
find free range ones.
I do love a pile of plain steamed veg on my plate and I enjoy watching
my children eat simply and heartily just as I still prefer the five
fingered approach to a lamb loin chop. I just need to find a balance
between cooking healthy food, quickly, after all the driving, picking
up, dropping off, cleaning and errand running is said and done, and
remembering the pleasures of cooking slowly, honouring my family and
heritage by finding the time and passion to rediscover it.