Monday, November 21, 2005
And then there's Hanukkah: Michael's grandmother's menorah, lit with great sentiment and ceremony--and only slight fumbling over the prayers and their difficult tune--every night. I just looked it up on Wikipedia to read that "the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE." Oh! I always explain it to the kids as a kind of loaves-and-fishes situation: a day's worth of oil burns for eight; through faith and gratitude, something expands to become enough. That so perfectly describes how I want to live that it takes my breath away. An attitude of abundance. The miracle of gratitude.
And yes, I'm perfectly happy to sit in the candle-lit house of our friends, who've recently become pig farmers, and eat latkes fried in lard. Because this is part of our belief too: not just pig fat (which could be a religion unto itself), but the spirit of resourcefulness, an absence of waste, food shared in happy community with ceremony and warmth and absurdity and laughter.
But that's not the recipe I'm giving you. Not just because the treyf quotient is detonatingly high (even my late atheist grandmother had to be cringing a little over the "lardkes," as we called them), but also because, well, canola oil is really a more practical option. I also make a mess-free and greaseless oven-baked potato-pancake recipe, but it's wrong to make them that way when what we're celebrating is oil--it feels too much like fretting about the carbs in your Eucharist wafer.
Make these, even if you're not Jewish, and eat them in quiet appreciation of their deliciousness or accompanied by the Hanukkah story of magic oil, of spiritual illumination, of the light of human kindness shining through these dark and holy nights.
serves 4 as a meal, 8 as appetizers
Total time: 45 minutes
These are crispy and tender and salty and delicious. A pinch of baking soda keeps the potatoes from turning their creepy blue-grey color; whirring the batter in the blender makes it smooth enough to spread thin and cook through quickly; small pancakes maximize crisp edges.
3 fist-size baking potatoes or Yukon golds, peeled (enough to make 3 cups grated)
1/2 a small onion
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup flour
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1/2 cup (or so) vegetable oil
Sour cream and applesauce for serving
Grate the potatoes and onion: I do this with the grating disk of my food processor, but it's fine to do it on the large holes of a hand-held grater. Stir in the eggs, flour, baking soda, and salt, then pulse the mixture briefly in the food processor, now fitted with the steel blade. If you didn't use the food processor to begin with, then your potatoes were probably more mushily grated (in a good way), and you can skip this step--or else whir the mixture briefly in a blender.
Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large, non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat, then drop in heaping teaspoons of the batter and flatten them a bit with the back of the spoon. Fry the latkes until they're nicely browned, then flip them and fry another 2 minutes until the undersides are browned too. Drain them on a paper-towel-covered wire rack and, if absolutely necessary, keep them warm (sans paper towel) in a 250 oven until they're all fried. But it's really better just to take turns frying and eat them while they're fresh and hot. Sprinkle with salt, and serve with sour cream and applesauce.
Bonus Applesauce Recipe
I make applesauce two different ways: if I'm lazy, I just chop up the apples, cores skins and all, and cook them until their tender, then put them through a food mill to fish out the skins and seeds and make a smooth sauce; if I peel and core them first, then I leave the sauce chunky.
Apples (I used 6)
Maple Syrup (I used around 3 tablespoons)
Chop the apples and add them to a medium-sized pot with a splash of water. Simmer them on low heat, covered, stirring occasionally, until they are tender (from 15-30 minutes), then stir in maple syrup to taste, and put the sauce through a food mill (or don't).
Sunday, November 20, 2005
So, here’s this: a way to start the meal on a lovely, light note; a way to be sure that you won’t be stuffed before you even begin; a way to give your kids lots of pleasant little jobs while they’re milling around; a way to get a few veggies into your kids nice and early, while they’re hungrily milling around; and a way to forget about serving salad with dinner because you’re going to forget about serving it anyways. I can’t tell you how many Thanksgivings we wobbled late to the fridge to look for another bottle of wine—only to see in there the poor, forgotten salad still covered in a damp dish towel. Nobody wants salad after pie. Not even Michael’s brother Keith, who is famous in our house for once hiding an entire quart of gravy during the meal so there would be plenty for his leftovers the next morning. “I could have sworn there was more gravy,” I said, while our guests ate nude seconds of mashed potatoes, and Keith shrugged and said cheerfully, “Oh well!”
Now if you’re a friend or family member, well, you’ve already passed out with boredom because yes, you know, you have been served this exact platter of vegetables at every holiday meal you’ve ever eaten in our company, whether or not I was actually hosting it myself, and I’m sorry. This is what I make at home; it’s what I bring whenever we’ve been invited anywhere. And it’s always more or less like this. Though, that said, there have been many variations over the years, and you should feel free to experiment. Here, the dip is kind of like an Italian green sauce with mayo mixed in—a little pungent, a little spunky—but I’ve made a milder version using lemon juice, lemon zest, and dill instead of the vinegar and parsley, and I’ve added other herbs (marjoram, say, or chives) or lightened it with a bit of sour cream. It’s not mandatory that you trouble yourself with the whole high-concept shades-of-green thing I’ve got going on with the veggies here; you could do lots of one single vegetable (I’ve done all green beans), which makes this very quick and easy to put together, or you could do a fancy rainbow of veggies (radishes, cherry tomatoes, carrots, yellow peppers, broccoli), or you could do raw carrots, roasted cauliflower, boiled new potatoes, or steamed asparagus. Yum.
I am partial to the white backdrop of dishes here, though when I complain about the fact that the platter wobbles, Michael says, “I can’t believe that! The quality has really gone downhill, over at the town dump’s free table.” Good point.
Crudités with the best-ever Green Dip
preparation time: 1 hour; all the prep can be done the day before.
Two things. One, even though the “cru” in crudités means raw, in France, where they pronounce it croo-dights (okay, they don’t, they pronounce it croo-di-tay), many dip vegetables benefit from a bit of cooking. And two, yes, there’s fish sauce in the dip, and yes you can leave it out, though then you will be missing what our friend Pengyew calls “a little something funky.” Nobody will notice it, I swear, not even the people who always have a heart attack about anchovies, even though they love Caesar salad, which has anchovies in it, I’m just saying.
Vegetables for dipping (shown here: radishes, broccoli, green beans, celery, Brussels sprouts, fennel, cucumbers, endive)
1 bunch fresh parsley (I use flat leaf) to make something like 1-2 packed cups of leaves
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (or red or white wine vinegar, or distilled vinegar)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 glove garlic, smashed and peeled
¾ teaspoon kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
1 teaspoon capers (optional)
½ teaspoon fish sauce or an anchovy or two (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Hellman’s or Best Foods Mayonnaise (not low-fat)
Begin by preparing the vegetables (below). Now make the dip: wash the parsley in a large sink of water, spin it dry, then pull the leaves from their stems, without deranging yourself over the smaller stems, which are fine to include; this is a wonderful job for a seated child or an adult with a glass of wine. In a food processor, whir together the parsley, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, salt, capers, fish sauce, black pepper, and ¼ cup of the mayo. Stop the motor to scrape down the sides every now and then, and when it’s quite finely ground together, add the rest of the mayo and process until smooth and green. Can you do this in a blender? I’m not sure. I once—once—made pesto in a blender, and after I tried to cram the basil while the machine was still running, we ended up calling it “wooden spoon pesto,” so I’m the wrong person to ask. Taste the dip for seasoning—it should be quite tangy and salty, so add more salt or vinegar as you need to—then scrape it into a small bowl, cover, and chill until you’re ready to eat it.
Veggie Prep School:
All veggies can be prepped, then wrapped with their own kind in paper towels or clean dishtowels and stored all together in a big Ziploc in the fridge until you’re ready to arrange them on a platter.
Green beans: Snap off the stem ends, then drop them in a large pot of boiling water (steam them if you prefer), scoop them out after a few minutes, when they’re tender and bright green, and rinse them well in cold water before wrapping them up in a dishtowel to dry.
Broccoli: Cut off the big stem, peel it, and slice it into narrow sticks. Cut the rest into elegant florets. Blanch it all in the boiling bean water for 2-3 minutes until just crisp-tender and bright green, then drain, chill, and wrap as for the beans.
Fennel: Trim off the feathery top, any damaged looking outer leaves, and the very bottom, then cut the bulb into vertical slices and cut each of these in half. The core will keep them largely intact. Toss the slices with a bit of olive oil and salt, then roast these on a foil-lined baking sheet at 450 for around 10 minutes until they’re browning and tender.
Do the Brussels sprouts the same way: trim them, cut them in half, toss with oil and salt, and roast alongside the fennel, on the same sheet even (cauliflower is also good this way too).
Celery is simply cut into sticks; radishes are washed and trimmed; cukes are cut into wedges or slices; endive is separated into leaves that only I will eat.
This is a great DIY gift that's fairly inexpensive and also really easy, and it’s something the kids can make all on their own for lucky teachers and grandparents. (If you happen to be a teacher or grandparent of anyone in my house, please practice feigning surprise thus: “Ooh, vanilla! How lovely!”) Plus, homemade vanilla extract is significantly more festive than the equally thrifty idea I had of handing everyone a bag of grubby turnips with a red velvet bow tied around it. Merry Christmas!
|Would it have been cheating to start with vanilla vodka? Because I considered it. But then Michael said, "I know! Why not just start with vanilla extract?" Oh.|
However, if you’re in a rush, then the supplies can likely be found at stores nearby (plus, it’s the winter, so you can shop happily braless beneath your down jacket and nobody will even know, unless you run into a friend who invites you back to her house for cocoa, which you’ll sip awkwardly with your arms crossed in front of your chest). The problem with buying ingredients locally is that the vanilla may become prohibitively expensive to make, since a single pair of vanilla beans goes for something like $10 at Whole Foods. Buy them in bulk online. I bought mine from the ebay seller “organic-vanilla,” who sells 21 beans for $9.75 (free shipping), here. And I got my bottles from the ebay seller “candlechem,” who sells 12 4-ounce glass bottles for $12.95 ($12.52 shipping), here.
This is the moment when I must confess that I have always heard the expression “Bourbon Vanilla,” and so used to make vanilla extract with Jack Daniels. Don’t get me wrong—it’s delicious. But it turns out that “bourbon” all along referred to a particular kind of vanilla, and not to my favorite sour mash whiskey! Aha! And so now I make it with vodka.
The vanilla will, ideally, steep for a month—it gets stronger the longer it sits—but don’t be put off at all by the timing: you could simply put a little tag on each bottle with a date of first use; or you could do what the kids and I are doing, which is to use paint chips for labels, and tell the recipients to wait until the vanilla is the darkest shade on the chip before using it. Plus, paint chips may just be the world’s greatest freebies.
And if this whole vanilla thing isn’t your cup of tea, you could always make Salted Caramel Popcorn. Make it anyways, in fact, because it is so insanely good and your kids will love you for ever and ever, and if they can ever stop joking about how the ballet should really be called “The Buttcracker,” they might even tell you this themselves. I packaged the popcorn in plastic bags inside new, empty gallon-sized paint cans (I got mine for $3 each at the hardware store). I was thinking of sticking a mailing label right on the can and shipping it that way. Does anybody know if that will work?
active time: 10 minutes; steeping time: 1 month
For each 4-ounce bottle of vanilla extract, you will need 2 or 3 vanilla beans (we used 2 ½ beans per bottle) and ½ cup of vodka. Give your kids a clean pair of scissors, and have them cut each vanilla bean in half lengthwise and then again crosswise, and stuff all the pieces into the bottle. Now they can use a funnel to pour the vodka in. This is easiest to do if you have first measured it into a small, spouted measuring cup, which is why I like to have Ben pour it straight from the ginormous vodka jug so that every single bottle fills up and spills over because it’s like filling a thimble with a hose. Oh well.
If your children are very particular about which bottles they personally filled, then you can mark the lids with tape, like I had to. Otherwise, just be nice and regular and communal about the whole thing. Settle your vanilla in a nice darkish spot, and leave it for as long as you can, shaking it when you think to. When you’re ready to give it, attach labeled paint chips with clear packing tape, and tie on a festive ribbon. And wouldn’t it be nice to give with it your favorite vanilla-flavored recipe? Oooh, that’s a good idea.
I want you to know that I only run a recipe here if it's excellent enough to actually buy the ingredients for. And I'm mentioning that because I'm self-conscious about our winter farm share. We have a basement full of the guilty evidence of our crime--the crime of not using enough root vegetables--with grubby parsnips and rutabagas stashed everywhere like dead bodies. But just because I have 50 pounds of turnips to use by Tuesday doesn't mean that you need to be making turnip stew this week. I understand that, I do. Nor do you need to be making Special Mixed Root Vegetable Soup or Special Mixed Root Vegetable Puree. You may, actually, need to make Special Roasted Mixed Root Vegetables, so stay tuned, but I really do try to spare you the worst of it.
The squash, though, is a different thing. It's true that I am cramming them everywhere--"Mama, what's this orange thing in my tamale pie?"--but it's also true that I can still get excited about a fantastic squash recipe, one that shows off their sweetness and substance. A designation recipe. And this is just that kind of recipe: it's creamy and cheesy, simple and rich, like the mac and cheese of the squash world. While it's baking, your house will fill with the aroma of rosemary and toasting parmesan--a smell that is somehow enticingly green and brown, despite the obvious orangeness of the actual dish--and then the squash will taste exactly the way you thought it was going to, and a chorus of tiny angels will fly in a halo around your head, singing about Vitamin A and what a great cook you are and good for you to use the squash before it rotted.
It's also such an easy dish that it's kind of ridiculous: you spend about 1 second assembling it (after you've wrestled the squash into cubes), and then it just manages itself in the oven with spectacular results. I made it for a potluck, and everybody loved it. I forgot about it in the oven for an hour, and all the cream cooked completely away and the squash melted and the top got deeply browned, and everybody loved it. We joked about how, with Anni gone (her sister's having her own baby!), we would never finish it. And then we finished it. I served the gratin with a simple, sharply dressed spinach salad and bacon that we'd just gotten from our pig-farming friends, and it was such an exquisite, balanced, honest meal that we sat at the table afterwards patting our bellies and sighing. You'll see
Parmesan-Rosemary Butternut Gratin
Active time: 15 minutes; total time: 1 hour
If you're squash is a little bigger or smaller, don't fret--just adjust the cream and salt accordingly.
1 butternut squash (2 1/2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch chunks
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1/2 teaspoon freshly chopped rosemary (or dried, if that's what you've got)
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan
Heat the oven to 400 and grease a casserole dish.
Arrange the squash in the casserole. Combine the cream, salt, rosemary, and black pepper, whisk it with a fork, then pour it over the squash. Toss the squash a bit to coat each piece with the cream mixture (I use my hands for this), then cover tightly with foil and bake in the middle of the oven for half an hour.
Uncover the squash, gently stir in half the cheese (I use a rubber spatula for this), sprinkle on the remaining cheese, and bake, uncovered, another 15 minutes or so, until the top is browned and the squash is tender when you pierce it with a knife. Allow the casserole to stand for 5 minutes before serving so that the cream can thicken up.
A few notes on children. A sinkful of water, with a bag of cranberries dumped in? Oh, it’s good. Do this, even if you’re not making the cake. It’s worth the cost of the berries just to watch your kids’ ecstatic relationship to those tiny bobbing orbs. Give them a small sieve, spoons, funnels, whatever—and then ask them to please do you a big favor and wash the berries for you, and fish them out into a colander when they’re done. Then run yourself a bubble bath, pour yourself a glass of wine, and read the Boden catalogue cover to cover, because the kids will be happy for an hour. Then put the Boden catalogue straight into the recycling, because why torture yourself, and go bake a cake.
Cranberry Upside-Down Cake
1/2 stick butter (4 tablespoons)
3/4 cup plus packed light brown sugar
1 12-ounce bag cranberries (if using frozen, don’t thaw them first)
1 1/2 cups flour (I use half spelt)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon grated orange zest (1 large orange)
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup milk
Heat the oven to 350. Now begin with the topping. I prepare and bake this cake in a very well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet; if you’re going to be using a cake pan, then you will need to do the butter and brown sugar part in the oven, and you may want to line the pan with parchment first, but I’m not entirely sure. For skillet-users: melt the butter over medium heat, then stir in the brown sugar and cook, stirring, for a minute or two. Spread the mixture out as best you can, and leave it to cool while you prepare the cake batter.
Sift (or, hello lazy friend, whisk) together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Meanwhile, in an electric mixer, you are beating together the butter and sugar until they are very fluffy—stopping to scrape down the bowl if there’s a dead spot down there, below the beater, like there is with mine. Add the vanilla, the orange zest, and the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. With the mixer on low speed add the flour alternately with the buttermilk and milk, which you’ve sensibly mixed together in the measuring cup. Do you know how to do this alternating thing? A third of the flour goes in, you mix it until it just disappears, then add half the milk and mix briefly, then more flour, etc, ending with flour (three lots of flour, two lots of milk, alternate side of the street parking Wednesdays and Fridays). Beat until just combined, or risk overbeating and baking something with the delicate texture of an anvil.
Now pour your clean berries (I rub them dry in a clean dish towel) into the prepared pan, shake to even them out, and spoon the batter over them in large blobs which you will smooth and spread together very gently with a spatula so as not to disturb the berries which are, shhhh, sleeping at the bottom of the pan. Bake the cake in the middle of the oven until golden, about 40-45 minutes (you can use the clean-tester method here, though I always just eyeball it). Now—this is important—cool the cake in its skillet on a rack for exactly 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake, then place a large plate over the pan with one hand while your other hand is busy having an oven mitt on it and holding the skillet’s handle, and then use the toes of one foot to light a few votive candles prayingly while you invert the cake, holding skillet and plate tightly together and then removing the skillet with an optimistic flourish. Serve warm with—what else?—whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Makes 1 loaf
Active time: 20 minutes; total time 1 1/2 hours
Cranberry sauce is one of the leftovers we can count on in our house (even if there's not a single drop of gravy left)--maybe because I make such a huge batch every year. But the nice thing about this delicious, cakey quick-bread is that you can use any kind of cranberry sauce: jellied or whole berry, canned or home-made. You can even cheat and buy cranberry sauce just to make this--and you won't regret it.
2 cups flour (I use half spelt)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon grated orange zest (from 1 large orange)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (from 1 large orange)
1/2 cup pecans, toasted at 350 for 7 minutes and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups cranberry sauce (or 1 14-ounce can)
Heat the oven to 350. Grease and flour a loaf pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Use an electric mixer to beat together the butter, sugar, and baking soda until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, orange zest, and vanilla. Add the flour mixture alternately with the orange juice, beating between each addition and beginning and ending with the flour. Beat in the nuts and cranberry sauce until just combined.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, tk minutes. Cool in pan 5 minutes, then invert onto rack to cool completely.
Sparkling Cranberry Centerpiece
Active time: 30 minutes
Total time: overnight, plus 30 minutes, plus 3 hours
This is based on a recipe from 101 Cookbooks, a recipe blog I love, but I added the orange peel and the cloves for flavor. (I will have you know that only upon a second reading did I realize I had typed "gloves." But that's really not the flavor you're going for. In the ingredients list too: "ground gloves." I lost my head for a minute there.) She recommends serving these with a cheese course, which would be lovely, if I ever served a cheese course. As it is, I always swear I'm going to use the leftovers in cake or muffins--but there are never any leftovers. Start these the night before. Also, give yourself some extra time to clean up the sugar when it's all over.
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
The peel from half a scrubbed orange, in large strips (use a vegetable peeler)
1 12-ounce bag cranberries, washed, picked through, and drained
More sugar: a mix of larger-grain (I use Trader Joe's organic sugar) and regular
Bring the 2 cups of sugar, the water, cloves, and orange peel just to a simmer in a small pot, stirring, then cool it for a minute before pouring it over the cranberries, which you've put into a bowl. Cool briefly, then cover the bowl and refrigerate the cranberries overnight.
Now it's the morning, and you're assembling what you'll need to sugar the berries: a sieve, another bowl, a rimmed baking sheet, and the coarse sugar. Drain the berries (I saved the syrup because I have plans to make either rock candy or a gelatin dessert with it--not that I have done anything yet but feel vaguely guilty when I see it in the fridge. We did stir some into seltzer, which was delicious). Now dump the berries back into the bowl, and wash and dry the sieve.
What you're going to do is scoop some of the berries (I probably do this in 6 batches--you can't do them all at once or the sugar gets to wet) into the empty bowl with a large spoonful of sugar and toss them together, either by flipping the bowl a little, or with your hands. Add more sugar, if there's not some still loose in the bowl, and flip them some more, then scoop them into the sieve and shake the loose sugar back in the bowl and spread the berries out on the baking sheet. Repeat until you've done all the berries. Note: you'll have some leftover sugar, and also there will still be loose sugar on the sheet with the berries, ad this is all fine. Leave the berries to dry for 2 hours or longer.
Now sprinkle regular granulated sugar over the berries, and roll them around on the sheet so that all the sticky spots get well coated, then pour them back into the sieve and gently shake off the extra sugar before putting the berries back on the tray to dry for another hour. Now pour them into your serving vehicle, ideally a clear glass one that can show them off in all their sparkling prettiness. (I use an old fish-bowl type vase.)
|Is it weird to serve it from a cheap florist's vase? So?|
I am a great admirer of gelled and gelatinous things--gummy worms, Jello salad, even yucky aspic--so believe me, I love the sight of that can-shaped jiggle of ridged ruby tartness unmolded onto a plate. I like the way it slices up into firm, cloudy-red disks; I like the way the flavor is always exactly how you remembered it; I like its absolute lack of pretension and its generous offer of ease: "Get the can opener!" it beckons. "There. Cross one thing off your list."
However, I come from a family whose sole religious practice seems to involve Thanksgiving recipes. All of a sudden, my secular people go all orthodox, and everything has to be exactly the same as it always has been, since perhaps the time that the Jews were staggering across the desert in flight, schlepping sacks not of Ocean Spray cans, no no, but of this exact recipe for this exact homemade cranberry sauce. It's the same with the stuffing. The mashed potatoes. The pecan pie. The mandatory absence of pumpkin pie (which is sad, since I love it). In fact, a friend just called to ask what she could bring to dinner, and I said, "Oh great! Well not the turkey, of course. Or the cranberry sauce. Or the mashed potatoes. Or the pecan pie. Or the stuffing. Or the crudites. But really, anything you like!" "A salad?" she said, and I said, "Perfect!" My family has no especial opinions about salad.
But this sauce is truly easy to make, and it's absolutely gorgeous and delicious, and it fills the house with the most tantalizing aroma of tart berries and warm spices and sweetness. Unless you let it boil over, like I just did, and then it fills the house with a burning-sugar odor that smells not unlike getting your teeth drilled. Ack. It's a recipe my mum read to me over the phone when Michael and I were first making Thanksgiving dinner for ourselves and our friends in California nearly 20 years ago. Written out at the same time, on the same 3-ring notebook paper, are the recipes for the rest of the meal. (We must have been on the phone for hours! My poor mum.) The pages are dotted with grease and gravy and batter, like topographical maps of feasting and celebration, and there are dozens of my notes from various years. The ambiguously enthusiastic "Pan drippings!" for instance (pan drippings indeed!), or the more straightforward "1995: 20 pounds done in 4 hours." But this sauce recipe is so straightforward that all I did was change the measurements slightly, since the original recipe called for a pound of cranberries. Maybe back in biblical times cranberries didn't come in 12-ounce bags. Ah, modernity.
I hope you are feeling all you have to be thankful for this week. I am, I am, I am.
My Mom's Cranberry Sauce
2 (12-ounce) bags of cranberries, washed and picked over
3 cups sugar
3 apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
scant 1/4 teaspoon allspice
scant 1/4 teaspoon cloves
- Place the cranberries, sugar, and apples in a large pot, covered, over medium heat. Stir occasionally until it comes to a full simmer, then turn the heat down to low and cook, covered, for ten minutes.
- Turn off the heat, stir in the spices, and cool to room temperature before refrigerating.
|Didn't plan your photo shoot well? Just cut stuff out of magazines!|
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
When Michael and I were graduate students in Santa Cruz, our best friends were living in Oakland and many weekends we drove the hour and a half up to visit with them. They were broke and we were broke, but still sometimes we would take ourselves out for a meal at a restaurant near them called Spettro, where we would split some small number of salads and pastas and bowls of mussels from their exciting menu. This is my version of one of their dishes which, given that I haven't actually eaten their version since Ben was a baby, is only loosely interpreted here and has changed somewhat over the years. But holy moly it is so good--packed with a profound flavorfulness that simply cannot be captured photographically: bright with lime zest, sweet with corn, richly creamy, super herbally green-tasting, and with just a bit of mouth-warming heat from the jalapenos. In short: insanity. But you know what? I just looked at their menu and see that it is shrimp, not zucchini, that they use. Aha! If I had shrimp languishing in my vegetable drawer, believe me, I'd use them instead. But I don't. So I always make this as a way to thrill everybody with zukes. And believe me--it does. I want to mention the obvious, too: with less herbage and no jalapenos, this could be a more approachable dish for little ones, and one that you can tinker with as they grow into it. Call it "Creamy Corn Pasta" so they're sure to recognize their three favorite food groups.
And I was just going to write a short little introduction here. I thought: this time, I'll just get right to the recipe and not waffle on and on about my feelings and memories and feelings. But guess what? I have to waffle a little. Because looking at the Spettro menu? It was like a sledgehammer of nostalgia to my poor self. Our friends live in Providence now which is, comically, almost an identical-lengthed drive from Amherst as Oakland was from Santa Cruz. They are no longer together, and the children are no longer babies (in fact, they just joined us on our camping trip and I couldn't help noticing their leggy tween-ness), but oh I have my memories. It's not that I want it back. I don't. I am so happy to sit and eat a meal without nursing somebody under the table or walking somebody up the stairs and down the stairs and up the stairs and down the stairs or jiggling them around the block hoping they'll nod off before my half-order of Booberry Salad arrives. I love these people who read menus and sit happily in their seats and make fascinating conversation about capitalism or deserted islands. But in retrospect, it all feels so sweetly fleeting. And I look at Anni, this burstingly ripe young almost-mama who is living here under our roof, whose baby is due in September, and yes, her eyes fill constantly with tears, and yes, while she's talking about something beautiful or sad she puts a protective hand on her belly, but-- But. I look at her, and I think, as kindly as possible: "You have no idea."
Herby Summer Pasta with Zukes, Corn, and Lime
Total time: 30 minutes
You could use all of one of the herbs here--cilantro or mint or basil--but the combination is truly intoxicating. And while the dish works better with heavy cream, you can swap in half and half need be: just be sure to reduce it a bit in the pan before adding the lime juice, or it will be inclined to curdle slightly (which is not a big deal, but still, it's nicer to look at if it doesn't). Final notes: whole wheat pasta makes this a more wholesome dish, and if you want to boost it's main-dish status, you could certainly add some shrimp (really? did the Spettro dish always have shrimp?) or some sliced grilled chicken.
1 1/2 pounds zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1 large clove of garlic, pressed or finely chopped
3 ears of corn, sliced off the cob (or 1 1/2 cups frozen corn kernels)
1 cup of heavy cream (or half and half)
1 cup of chicken or vegetable broth (I like Rapunzel Vegan Vegetable Bouillon with Sea Salt)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon pickled jalapenos, finely chopped (optional)
The zest and juice of 1/2 a lime
12 ounces egg noodles or whole wheat pasta
1/2 cup (combined) mint, basil, and cilantro, finely chopped
In a wide skillet over medium-high heat, heat a large bloop of the olive oil (1-2 tablespoons) then add the zucchini and salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until it is starting to brown, around 3 minutes.
Add the garlic and corn and sauté for another 3 minutes, until the veggies are just starting to get tender, then stir in the cream, broth, sugar, jalapenos, and lime zest, and simmer until thickened, around (say it with me) 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in heavily salted water until just tender, then drain.
Add the lime juice to the skillet and taste for salt, then stir in the pasta and herbs and bring it all to a gentle simmer. Taste for seasoning (add more lime zest or juice or more salt if the pasta needs a lift) and serve.
I got confused about fish and mostly stopped cooking it. That's what happened. I wasn't sure about the safety guidelines, for one thing: all those cut-and-save lists from magazines and organizations, and red means eat it and you'll keel over and die and yellow means eat it and your brain will liquefy slowly, and a sad-fish icon means "over-fished" and a sad-baby icon means "more mercury than the band Queen."
Also, fish is expensive. And over the years, the children have liked it sometimes and disliked it others, and so it became simply easier to cook it rarely or not at all because nothing is more annoying than the moaning and gagging over a splurgey dinner. But, despite the creepy introduction here, I actually love fish.
|If you can find these, do put them in the sauce. They are funky and delicious.|
So: Salmon. Pacific wild-caught. On sale at Whole Foods. And, most importantly: on the Environmental Defense Fund's handy chart, this fish gets a GREEN DOT! I know, right? That means "high in omegas, low in contaminants." Yay!
So, now we have the safe and wholesome fish, there's the whole cooking it issue. I tend to soak any fish in soy sauce and then run it under the broiler with a pat of butter: the fish ends up burnished to a beautiful mahogany color, and I feel like I can pull it out when it's done just the way I like it (which is very slightly rare on the thickest end--I serve my family from the skinnier end). Plus, I cover a pan with foil so clean-up is easy.
Roasted Salmon with Ginger-Cilantro Vinaigrette
Active time: 20 minutes; total time: 30 minutes
The vinaigrette is based (somewhat loosely) on the excellent recipe for "Cold Poached Salmon Tiles with Ginger-Black Bean Vinaigrette" in the late, great Barbara Tropp's fabulous China Moon Cookbook. The salmon would be very good grilled, but I have become convinced that my bosom gets in the way of grilling and am forced to leave it to Michael (Hel-lo, gender stereotype!). Try moderate heat at around 5 minutes per side.
A note about ingredients: "Seasoned Rice Vinegar" is rice vinegar to which sugar and salt have been added, as for sushi. If you are using unseasoned rice vinegar, then add another teaspoon of salt and two teaspoons of sugar to the recipe, and taste the finished dressing to make sure it's balanced. Also, you will see "Fermented Black Beans" on the ingredients list, and you should feel fully free to pretend you didn't: they look like turds and they smell funny, and the sauce is actually fresher-tasting without them. But they're like the anchovies of the legume world, and they do add a bit of that funky je ne said quoi. Ours are "Yang Jiang (brand) Preserved Beans with Ginger." They come in a plastic bag inside a round yellow box in Asian Markets and even in the Chinese section of some large grocery stores. They're inexpensive and, like other fermented foods, they're already bad, so they keep forever.
1 1-pound salmon fillet, with skin (ask for it in one piece, preferably "center cut" so that it will be an even 1-inch thick)
3 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon butter
for ginger-cilantro vinaigrette:
1 super-heaping tablespoon finely chopped (peeled) ginger root (about a 1-inch chunk)
1/3 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon soy sauce or tamari
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 packed cup clean and dry cilantro leaves and stems (No need to pluck the leaves from the stems! So easy!)
1/2 teaspoon Chinese fermented black beans (optional)
2/3 cup canola oil, or another light-tasting and healthy vegetable oil (not olive)
Begin by marinating the fish: Pat the salmon dry with a paper towel and run your fingers over it to feel for any bones, which you should yoink out with pliers. Now pour the soy sauce or tamari into a dish that will hold the salmon snugly and place the fish flesh-side down in it. Cover, and leave at room temperature while you make the vinaigrette, up to a half hour or so.
Make the vinaigrette: in a small pot on the stove (or in a bowl in the microwave), heat the vinegar and ginger together until it just comes to a simmer. Remove from the heat and stick it in the freezer to steep and cool while you clean the cilantro and prepare the rest of your ingredients (if you need to skip this step, you can--but I think it enhances the overall gingery-ness of the dressing).
When the vinegar/ginger mixture is cool, add it the bowl of your food processor along with the garlic, soy sauce or tamari, sugar, cilantro, and optional fermented black beans. Whir this mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed with a rubber spatula, until it looks quite blended and uniform. Now, with the motor running, slowly drizzle in the oil through the feed tube until it's all incorporated; this should take about 30 seconds of slowish drizzling. Taste the vinaigrette: it should be pleasantly tart and just salty and sweet enough: add more of anything it might need. Scrape it into a small bowl and cover while you cook the fish.
Broil the salmon: preheat the broiler, line a small, rimmed baking sheet with foil, and place the salmon on it, skin-side down. Slice up the butter and dot the surface of the fish with it, then broil close to the heat for around 10-12 minutes (more or less, depending on the thickness of the fish), until it is done to your liking. The salmon will brown and sizzle madly and the butter will blacken on the foil (fine), but if it seems like the fish is actually burning at any point, cover it loosely with foil for the remainder of its cooking time. Remember that the fish will continue to cook once you pull it out of the oven, and try your best not to overcook it: use a paring knife to peek at it--I take it out when it's just slightly translucent at its center, but you may want it cooked a bit more.
Serve the fish and pass the sauce at the table.
Yes, I craved pickles when I was pregnant, but this was no big shocker; I had already been craving pickles for my entire life. My parents used to bribe me to wash my hair with the promise of a pickle in the bathtub, which I munched with a great and sudsing happiness. I ate sweet gherkins and sour dills and bread and butters. I ate cornichons and half-sours and spicy sandwich slices. And my favorite pickles of all were and are my mom's: the dill pickle recipe that she got from our long-ago neighbor Joe Szarwas, a version of which I'm offering you here. If you've never made pickles before, you will make these, and then you'll be like, Really? Because they are so easy and so good. Crunchy, dilly, garlicky, a little salty, a little sour. Or a lot sour, if you're me and you leave them on the counter for three full days before eating them, at which point they will have turned the khaki green of a pickle that's going to make you pucker up and kiss it. If you're my dad, then you eat them before the brine has fully cooled, and your brat of a daughter will say, "You call that a pickle?" like she's the only real Jew in the family, which maybe she is.
Active time: 5 minutes; total time: 2-3 days
This is a good time of year to get small pickling cucumbers from farm stands and farmers' markets, but no worries if you can't; just slice up a big cuke or two and make pickles from that. They'll still be delicious.
4 cups of water
3 tablespoons of kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 1/2 pounds small pickling cucumbers or 2 seedless English cucumbers (the kind wrapped in plastic)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
4 large sprigs of dill (or two fresh dill heads, if you can get them)
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
Combine the water, salt, and vinegar in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil, then turn off the heat and leave the brine to cool completely.
Meanwhile prepare the cucumbers: wash them, trim off the blossom ends (that's the end opposite where it grows on the stem), and, if you’re using large cucumbers, slice them a quarter inch thick, otherwise leave them whole. Put the cucumbers in a large glass or nonreactive metal bowl with the garlic, dill and peppercorns layered throughout, then pour the cooled brine over all of it (if you’re a bit short, simply mix up another batch or half batch and cool it quickly in the freezer before adding).
Lay a plate over the top of the cukes—one small enough to fit in the bowl, but large enough to cover most of the veggies, since it will help keep them submerged in the brine. Now leave the cucumbers for 2 or 3 days, until they are nice and sour to your liking. Transfer them with their brine to a large glass jar, in which they will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks—though you’re unlikely to have them for that long.
The thing about peach jam is that it actually gives me a midwinter burst of nostalgia, along with the simpler having of something yummy and local to spread on our toast. Come February, I will pop a lid, and that golden summer smell will take me back to yesterday, to Ben and Birdy munching fruit at the picnic table of our favorite orchard, where we had driven to buy a peck of their cheapest scratch-and-dent "utility" peaches. I will spoon up a bit of that lovely sweet peachiness and I will remember the children's long and bite-covered legs--those legs I'll have hardly seen in months!--dangling down from their shorts to kick happily at the grass and dirt while juice ran down their brown and dirty, gleaming faces. I may or may not remember the swarm of biting gnats that eventually drove us away, but I will remember the full-to-bursting feeling of a car full of ripe peaches, of ripe children, of happiness and sunshine and the promise of something wonderful, even as something wonderful was already ending: the fleeting Sunday afternoon, the fleeting season, the fleeting time of kids in the car, at our table, safe in their beds and ours.
So. Where was I? Jam. Yes. I haven't even spoken yet of the righteousness--of how you will use the word "can" (even though, yes, it's jars you're putting everything into), and how you will give away jars of jam, and friends and neighbors will say, "Wow, you made jam?" And you will say modestly, "It's easy, actually." (Unless you're me, and then you'll say, "I know, is it awesome or what? Here, come look in the basement. No, seriously, walk down with me. Yes, right now. I made all that. I know!") You won't likely make jam to save money, but you could, because it's better and cheaper than anything you can buy, and the only jam that might be better is Stonewall Kitchens Peach Amaretto Jam, which is $7.75 per 13-ounce jar. Hello, jam mortgage!
This batch of jam cost me $5 (including pectin and sugar), and I made 48 ounces. Which is, let's see, exactly. . . much much less expensive. But also, it's so much fun to make and it takes around a half an hour, start to finish, as long as you remember to run the dish washer so that your jars are nice and clean and hot when you got to fill them. Note that I'm giving you directions for freezing the jam, which is a great baby step to take if you're new to canning. I'm not calling you a baby, by the way. I'm just saying, you can put the jam in jars or plastic containers and pop them in your freezer, and then you don't have to get into the whole sterilizing/pasteurizing scene. But if you do want to, then you can go somewhere like the Ball site, and they will have loads of instructions and recipes, many for relishes where the first ingredient is "five quarts of corn kernels," which is just too much corn, so please. Depending on the situation with my jars (whether I have empty regular jars or actual canning jars) and with my freezer (whether it's too full of kale, kale, KALE!), I sometimes can the jam and sometimes freeze it. It is equally good both ways.
Just be sure to wear an apron, for the full Ma-Ingalls effect, and don't tell my jam-expert mother that I used commercial pectin (Hi, Mom! No, we weren't able to include under-ripe fruit with its naturally occurring pectin!), and don't come crying to me when you've got a five-gallon crock of sauerkraut fermenting stinkily in your basement because you got addicted to preserving. I hear you.
Makes 5-6 half-pint jars
Total time: 30 minutes
I use no-cook or no-sugar pectin, even though I both cook the jam and add sugar to it, because then you can cook it for a shorter amount of time and add less sugar. I can vouch only for the three pectins I name here for this method; other kinds may work fine, but I don't know. Depending on where you live, you may be able to get large quantities of imperfect fruit at rock-bottom prices, and this will have the added benefit of producing a locally grown jam. But you can also buy fruit at the supermarket, if you're eager to experiment. It's a fun cooking project to do with kids--just be careful because, as my mother likes to say, nothing is as hot as hot jam. Please note: a recipe with no salt! I know!
4 pounds firm-ripe peaches (8 or 9, enough to make 4 cups puree; if you're at an orchard, you want a quarter of a peck)
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 packet (1.59 ounces) Ball “No Cook Freezer Jam” Fruit Pectin or (1.75 ounces) Ball “No Sugar Needed” Fruit Pectin or (1.75 ounces) Sure Jell “No Sugar Needed” Premium Fruit Pectin
¼ teaspoon almond extract (optional: we use it because it makes it taste like the fancy Stonewall Kitchen Peach Amaretto Jam that we love; or else you can crack the pits and use the kernels, but these may actually contain arsenic, so don't)
3 pint jars or 5-6 half-pint jars, hot from the dish washer (since you’re not actually canning the jam, you can recycle any empty jars or plastic containers, though there’s something pioneeringly righteous about using real canning jars)
Prepare the peaches. Our method is unconventional but, forgive my immodesty, completely brilliant: cut the peaches in half and remove the pits, then use a citrus juicer to ream the flesh from the skins, mashing it up as you go (this is a great job for a child). Don’t worry if there are some chunks of fruit or bits of peel. Alternately (this is the traditional method) you can bring a large pot of water to a bowl, drop the peaches in for 1 minute to loosen their skins, plunge them into ice water, peel and pit them, then finely chop them and mush them up with a potato masher.
Measure 4 cups of the peach puree into a saucepan with the sugar and lemon juice, and bring it to a full rolling boil (the kind you can’t stir away) over medium heat, stirring occasionally at first and then frequently as it gets hot, and then constantly. At various moments you'll think it's boiling, but then you'll stir it and it will stop boiling, so you'll know it wasn't really boiling yet after all. You are not looking for a tentative, waffling simmer here. Boil for 1 minute. Now add the pectin and cook, stirring vigorously, for 3 more minutes (ignore the no-cook directions and sugar amounts on the packet). Turn off the heat and stir in the almond extract.
Ladle the jam into scrupulously clean jars, leaving an inch of headroom for freezer expansion. Cap them and, when they’re cool, let them set up overnight in the refrigerator before eating. Eat within a month or freeze for a little midwinter sunshine.
|This recipe is still in heavy rotation, although now (2014), Ben is more likely to make it than I am. Because life is good.|
Doesn’t “soy-glazed” sound so lovely? It was either that or “pan-roasted tofu” or “butter-browned tofu”—the idea being, of course, to make it sound like it’s halibut at a fancy restaurant, not like it’s a one-pound block of quivering beany blandness. Ah, tofu. We eat a lot of it. It’s inexpensive, it’s incredibly good for you, our kids love it, and you can treat it like a blank canvas. Plus, it fills us with nostalgia for the early days of our great romance. Yes, welcome to another episode of Dalai Mama Dishes up memories of falling in love with her husband in a vegetarian co-op...
Speaking of which, if you’ve ever lived in a vegetarian coop, then you know how easy it is to make tofu taste exactly like, er, tofu. Michael and I have eaten great panfuls of tofu parmesan, for example, that tasted like sauce and cheese that had been dumped on slices of a wet sponge, and I don’t recommend it (we used to call it, not unaffectionately, toe-food). The trick is to use tofu’s mild sponginess to your own advantage, preferably by impelling it to soak up a lot of salt and butter. Hence the following, which is our current go-to recipe, and we eat it at least once a week. Allowed to brown in a pan with soy sauce and lemon juice, the tofu gets crispy-edged and tangily addictive. Just be sure to buy extra-firm tofu, since any other style will fall all to pieces in the pan—especially “silken tofu” which has the texture of jellied library paste. In my supermarket, tofu is in the produce aisle, I’m not sure why. But then again, this is the same supermarket that packages Halvah—which is a kind of gritty candy made from ground sesame seeds—and labels it “cheese alternative,” so what do they know? (Maybe I’ll start thinking of maple fudge as a “cheese alternative” when I’m preparing lunch for myself.)
Back to tofu: If you’ve got babies or toddlers in the house, then thank your lucky stars you’re not a withered old Mama like me with only ginormous galumphers clomping through the house on their way to college. Wait, no. I was going to make a relevant point. Oh right: babies and toddlers might like to eat cubes of raw tofu, which they mistakenly take to be delicious, probably because it feels like getting away with something, such as eating salt-free Play-Doh.
Leftovers make terrific lunchbox fare. These days, now that Ben eats like a vacuum cleaner, I double the recipe to guarantee there will be some extra; I simply wipe the pan out with a paper towel between batches.
2 tablespoons butter
14 ounces extra-firm tofu, cut into 12 skinny slices
Juice of half a large lemon (around 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
In a very large non-stick skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. When it is foamy and very hot, lay in the tofu pieces to form a crowded single layer; if the first piece of tofu sizzles only noncommittally or not at all, give the butter another minute to heat up. Now brown the tofu undisturbed for around 5 minutes; when the underside is a deep golden, flip all the pieces and allow the other side to brown for another 3-5 minutes.
Now pour in the lemon juice and soy sauce, and shake the pan to coat the bottom of every piece with the mixture, then flip all the pieces and cook, shaking the pan, until the liquid is all cooked off and the underside of the tofu looks glazed and brown. Serve hot or at room temperature with brown rice and a salad. Leftovers are great cold as is, or sliced into skinny strips and sprinkled over a big green salad.
Oh, fiction writers, you are so lucky. You can turn your dreadful old boyfriend, Dan--the one who hitchhiked to Taos every other minute to play frisbee--into your novel's egomaniacal hacky-sacking "Stan" who train hops to Santa Fe. And all you have to do is add one of those These are fictional characters dredged from the brilliant depths of my own imagination. Nobody is actually based on you, you narcissistic New Mexican hitchhiker.
But you can't really write a fictional recipe column, now, can you? No you cannot. And so, this is not the character “Dad”’s spaghetti sauce, if you understand what I'm saying here. Which means that, as I write the recipe, I am acutely aware to the changes, however miniscule, I have made to the original. In my family, this may be the gustatory equivalent of editing a bit of scripture because it reads better that way. "I just feel like Noah would more likely have brought three of every animal, in case anything happened." I once published a recipe for my mother's shortbread, to which I had added the agnostic flavorings of rosemary and lemon. A plague of locusts, etc.
Anyways, this is the spaghetti sauce I grew up on, and it is rich and delicious, and I have changed it very little. The original recipe is handwritten right here, on a piece of graph paper. I see that you're supposed to add garlic salt to the meat as it's browning, which even my father doesn't bother with any more. There's the slightly mysterious ingredient "1/2 a lemon," which I'm not sure about; I sometimes add a generous splash of red wine or a smaller one of balsamic vinegar, which likely accomplishes the same thing. Oregano I don't use, because I don't like it, even though my dad uses it and I love, love, love his sauce even more than my own because he made it. But oregano always reminds me of the kind of red-saucy or salad-dressingy food that tastes dustily like someone dumped a baggie of stale pot into it. Forgive me. I know this is not a widely shared aversion, oregano.
What else. My dad's recipe calls for 6 8-ounce cans of sauce, and I use 2 29-ounce cans. That's only a 10-ounce difference, though my children have to forego the mechanical pleasure of opening those 6 little cans. Also, I forget to ask them to grind in the black pepper, which was my solemn job as a child. "No, more," my father always said, with his back to me, when I asked, grinding and grinding, if I'd ground in enough. "More." I loved that. Instead, my kids get to break up the tomatoes with their hands, which, as far as cheap thrills go, is pretty excellent.
The sugar is in the original recipe as "6 tablespoons," and if you leave it out? Well. I don't know. Don't come crying to me when your sauce was only good, but not so lipsmackingly excellent that you sat around long after dinner was over, rubbing your finger around the rim of your plate and licking it, in case there was any sauce that didn't already get sponged up by the bread you mopped around. Oh go on. We've all got more to worry about than a bit of sugar, right?
Dad’s Spaghetti Sauce
Active time: 20 minutes; total time 3 hours.
This recipe makes a huge batch that I freeze in 2-cup portions in Ziploc bags. It's one of those money-in-the-bank scenarios that I especially appreciate as the season changes: come a chilly, dark dinnertime, all I have to do is boil a pot of water. I love that. The sauce needs to cook for a long time--the original recipe actually says 4 hours, though I only do 3--which would likely make it a good candidate for the slow cooker. Let me know if you try that.
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled, and finely chopped
A couple pinches of dried thyme (or, shudder, oregano)
2 pounds ground beef (not lean)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes or whole, peeled tomatoes
2 29-ounce cans Hunts tomato sauce (it has to be Hunts)
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1/2 cup sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4-1/2 cup mellow red wine (optional)
If you're using whole canned tomatoes, pour them into a bowl and break them up with your hands. This is an incredibly fun job for a child (who has no hang nails or paper cuts).
Now, in a large pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onion with one teaspoon of salt, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or so, until it's translucent and just starting to color. Add the garlic and sauté, still stirring frequently, for another minute or two. Now crumble in the meat, add the cayenne and oregano or thyme, turn up the heat to medium-high, and cook the meat, stirring occasionally and breaking it up with a spatula, until it is cooked all over and browning in spots; if it seems like it's steaming more than sizzling, turn the heat up even higher.
Now stir in all the tomato products, as well as the sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt, lots of black pepper, and the optional wine, and bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, with the lid 1/2 inch ajar, for 3 hours (or, at the very least, 2). Stir the sauce occasionally to make sure it’s not sticking to the bottom of the pot. Serve over hot, well-buttered pasta (that you cooked in plenty of well-salted water) with freshly grated parmesan for passing.