The Life-Changing Magic of Making Pasta Sauce
A recipe for self-expression.
I’ve often bristled at men who think a woman’s place is in the kitchen. I’m going to glaze over the cosmically sexist reductionism in that maxim, and approach the fallacy from an alternate angle: I think men who refuse to cook out of principle are sub-optimal, half-formed and blatantly obtuse. They’ve yet to experience the unadulterated satisfaction in synthesizing bliss from elemental flavors that, when assembled just so, combine to create magic.
I love to cook. I won’t go so far as to say I’m Michelin-star worthy — I’m a chef in the same way I’d classify myself as a runner (as in, I run a lot, very slowly, but more miles in more long-distance races than 99% of Americans as of this writing) but I know my way around a kitchen, so long as that kitchen is mine. I have a wall-mounted spice rack with hand-labeled Ball jars containing everything from saffron (culinary cocaine) to garam masala (culinary heroin) to THC-infused olive oil (actual culinary weed). I add those things to proteins, greens, nuts, seeds and starches to create alchemy. It’s zen. It’s fulfilling. It’s perfect.
In what has to be the worst-kept secret on the Internet, I am a second-generation American, and a plurality Italian (along with drawing roots from the rest of the countries around the Mediterranean — my 23-and-me looks like a map of the Roman Empire at its zenith — and, notably, Ireland [the name “Gorman” is Gaelic for the color blue]).
My parents on both sides can trace some of their lineage back to Sicily (mom) and Calabria (dad), and the amount of broken Dago English that got passed around the dinner table at extended family gatherings rivaled only that of the amount of carbs.
It is in this spirit — both the Italian and the carbs — that the family recipe for sauce (often served on Sundays, usually during halftime of the NFC game that was on after the Buffalo Bills — they were good back in those days — ran up the score on their overmatched AFC opponent) was born. It had been passed down for generations, from at least my great-grandmother Concetta (you would never know from my basic-ass name with 12 Wikipedia entries and none of them mine that the names ending in vowels in my family outnumber the consonants), down to my mom. Before I go any further, let me be clear: this is not the story of that recipe.
It is at this point that I’d like to swerve the car down a detour and point out to the human populace at large that, although the blanket tropes about white Americans are true — bad at dancing, even worse at feeling and processing genuine joy, and the actual worst at displaying decorum when speaking with customer service representatives at middle-brow retail establishments — if you jet across the pond to Europe, telling white folk apart becomes relatively simple: You can tell us apart by what we eat for breakfast, and what time we eat it. This is a loose grouping (as all things are, and should be, since there are no absolutes) yet, in a pinch, it’s a decent algorithm.
For example, in the US, UK, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Canada … Breakfast is a big deal. There are eggs involved, maybe a protein, maybe some cereal, some toast, maybe a waffle or pancakes, some coffee or tea or whatever. It’s the “most important meal of the day” — and you can thank Kellogg’s for popularizing that myth, it isn’t science, it’s advertising. You eat it before school or work. In other words, for you Parks and Recreation aficionados, lots of Ron Swansons and Leslie Knopes.
Just a touch south, along the Mediterranean, in Spain, Portugal, Italy and France, breakfast is something you eat light, late and leisurely … if at all: coffee, a croissant, some juice. (I fall into this second camp, not just because I just named a bunch of countries my family hails from, but because I am just not hungry in the morning, and often my first meal is lunch, unless I’m craving a green juice or fruit smoothie.)
I explore that tangent to tell you how much of our culture really centers around, and is differentiated by, food. Food is the personal and the political. It’s the cultural and the universal. Good food is the great gatherer and the gateway to understanding. It’s up there with religion as one of the great symbols of who we are, and from where we come. And, in my culture, and particularly my family, there is no greater symbol than the blood-red sauce that runs through our veins.
Sauce was a staple of life in my home. My mom would spend Sunday mornings sweating and boiling an aromatic overload over a hot stove, effortlessly stacking ingredients until the mixture was just-so, never tasting it, but trusting it. Bay leafs, dried oregano and basil, along with ground meat, sugar and canned tomato made appearances, and once everyone was in the pool, the lid was shut, the sauce simmered at low for the afternoon, and the entire harmonious, homogenized vat of bliss was ready to be enjoyed by evening. What was left over (and there was always plenty) was frozen, to be continued at a later date, warming us all from the inside during all those cold, snowy New York winters.
Back to my own kitchen, which — when it’s not being used by my cat as a hunting ground for renegade bottle-caps — is a largely a test-lab for defining what I can get away with from a culinary standpoint, I wondered: “could I make a pasta sauce in under two hours using only fresh ingredients and no sugar?” In other words: “could I stop the procession of passing down that one specific pasta sauce to my progeny, and flip the ritual of spending all Sunday simmering on its head?”
I tinkered and refined until I settled upon what I believed to be the optimal blend of salt, sweet, spice, sour and savory. I concocted the anti-ragu, and I’m here today to roll it out to you. Bet you motherfuckers never thought you’d get a cooking column out of me, but, hey … subversion is the spice of life, right? (Is that not how that idiom works?) And, if you want it, just go ahead and scroll past this next salvo for the big reveal. Yet before that, a final word on cooking in general before it’s on to the hotly-anticipated premiere presentation.
This may come to you as a shock, but I view my writing, my music and my cooking as extensions of the same skill set. They’re forms of self-expression that consist of taking things that already exist — words, punctuation, notes, rhythm, flavors, ingredients — and combining them to create something new. It’s synthesis, which is something I’ve covered elsewhere, summed up succinctly here:
Synthesis is the art of adding value to a moment, a situation, a condition, a need or relationship. Synthesis is the chain of events that takes something to its next level. It’s art. It’s heart. It’s brilliance. It’s practicality.But it’s all science. It’s A+B=C and people wonder “wait but how,” as you explain to them that it was all there beforehand, it just wasn’t arranged in the way it needed to be before.
In other words: I find just as much joy and meaning in serving a delicious meal to friends (or coworkers, I made a Buffalo Chicken Wing Dip for an office Christmas party that was so surprisingly popular that half the team asked me for the recipe) as I do in spitting out a Medium essay for strangers. (My friends don’t read me. They know better.) It’s every bit as much a part of my essence as my word-wrangling and singer-songwriting, and probably even more elemental, in that it’s more intimate. I believe that cooking your own meals, the way you want to, is the truest path to self-actualization ever devised by man or god or machine. My place is in the kitchen. And perhaps you might find yourself at home there, too, should you ever develop a taste for it.
Now, let’s roll out the recipe.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN, A FEW GENERAL RULES OF THE ROAD FOR COOKING:
- Anything truly delicious requires the presence of five flavor profiles: salt, sweet, spice, sour and savory. Without at least a touch of all five, your dish will fall flat. (There are rare exceptions to this rule, but this is true of just about every dinner item, sandwich or standout cocktail you wish to create.)
- Think of the flavor profiles like a band: savory is the drums, sweet is the bass, salt is vocals, sour is piano and spice is lead guitar. If you just read that and thought “what the fuck did I just read?” then take 25mg of edibles and listen to Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.
- If your food tastes bland, first check your melanin levels, then add salt, Brad.
- If your food tastes dull, add citrus (sour) to brighten it.
- If your food’s too spicy, add something sweet to it.
- If your food’s too top-heavy, add something savory (soy, mushroom, cheese, meat, arugula, etc)
- If you read a recipe on the Internet, double the quantity of every herb and spice it suggests you add. This is the best life-hack I can give you in the kitchen.
- When possible, do not use recipes on the Internet, and instead taste your own food. If it’s not good to you, and you know what you like, go ahead and add more of that.
- Most people’s cooking recommendations are just their own opinions, so take them with … (oh god, no! don’t do it, Gorman!) a grain of salt.
- I don’t actually measure anything. What follows are rough averages from the totality of my experimentation and experience. When you start cooking things you actually really enjoy and master them, you won’t measure much, either.
CAST (in order of appearance):
- 4 tbsp butter
- 1 sweet onion
- 8 oz mushrooms
- 1/2 bulb garlic
- sea salt
- garam masala
- red pepper flakes or a habanero if you woke up feeling dangerous
- 8 oz water
- 8 oz dry red wine
- 5 pounds tomato (mixture of roma, cherry, beefsteak)
- 1 lemon
- olive oil (be sure to look a good one, there is nothing more amateur than sub-optimal olive oil)
- Shaved Parmesan
ACT I: The Introduction (30 min)
1. Slice the onion, pepper, mushroom, habanero, and smash the garlic.
2. In a stockpot, set to medium heat, drizzle some olive oil and let it heat up until it barely starts to smoke.
3. Add and sweat the onion for about 1 minute.
5. Add pepper, mushroom, habanero, garlic and sweat those for 2 minutes.
6. Slice all the big tomato, pour them into stockpot with water, set to medium-high heat for 20 min, smashing the tomato against side or bottom of pot as they soften to meld the flesh with water. A potato-masher works really well here. The water will begin to glug and burble. That’s good.
ACT II: The Combination (20 min)
7. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 20 min.
8. During this time, add the butter, red wine, the juice of 1 lemon, a three-count of wildflower honey, 20-ish twists from a salt grinder, 30-ish twists from a pepper mill and about a forest full of leaves of fresh basil.
9. Drink some wine. Chillax. Occasionally stir and smash the tomato against the side of the pot.
ACT III: The Coronation (20 min)
10. Cook for 20 more min. During this time, add 1/2 cup of olive oil and — in a separate pot — cook 1 lb of the noodle of your choice until it is *almost* done.
11. Upon completion of cooking (both the sauce and noodle should finish around the same time), grab a ladle of pasta water and add it to a skillet.
12. Grab two ladles of sauce and also add it to the skillet.
13. Dump a reasonable amount of noodles into the skillet and stir using tongs for 1–2 min. (This is extremely critical. This is how you get the sauce to penetrate the noodle and stick to it. This is how you make pasta taste good. This technique is called “finishing.”)
14. Serve the noodles into pasta bowl. Ladle more sauce on top of noodles. Top with pecorino romano / shaved Parmesan and fresh basil. Drizzle some olive oil on top. Salt and pepper to taste.
15. Drink more wine. Eat plenty. You did the lord's work.
This is what it looks like when it’s done (I added hemp seeds for protein in this version, it does not enhance the flavor at all):