Monday, April 4, 2016

Hero Worship, and I Don’t Mean Sandwiches
What’s cooking? Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Spinach and Mushrooms

The Kitchen Goddess before... well, just before.

Aside from my grandmother, my first hero was Davy Crockett. Brave, principled, and handsome – assuming of course that he actually looked like Fess Parker. I was 8 years old in this photo, and thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

I moved on – wrestling bears and fighting wars not being my thing – to Nancy Drew, whose strength was more mental than physical, followed by Perry Mason, Holly Golightly, and eventually working my way to actual people: Anna Quindlen, Anne Lamott, and Nora Ephron. And while I developed an interest in cooking once I began living on my own, it wasn’t until my children were firmly into adolescence that I began elevating cooks like Julia Child and Ruth Reichl to rock star status.

Except on TV, I never got to see Julia in person; but Reichl is still actively cooking and writing, and she recently showed up in Austin to promote her latest book, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life.

She’s as delightful in person as she appears to be in her memoirs (Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires) – funny, relaxed, thoughtful, and completely unpretentious. In a charming profile last September, New York Times writer Kim Severson notes that Reichl has never been to culinary school, so her knife skills are “ridiculously bad.” That fact alone endears her to me.

“I love the physical act of cooking,” Reichl says. “There are all these little secret moments in the kitchen, and if you don’t pay attention to that, you’re missing so much in life.” I get that philosophy. Think about the moment when an egg white goes from clear and gelatinous to creamy white and solid; the intricate structure of an orange segment, with all those little sacks of juice held together by threads; the satiny smooth, jewel-toned skin on an eggplant that’s so alluring I want to buy one even though it’s the only food I actively dislike.

In the Q&A part of the evening, someone asked Reichl’s favorite recipe. “Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce,” she said without a moment’s hesitation. Then she proceeded to recite the recipe. This’ll take all night, I thought. And then it was done. Four ingredients. I was so amazed, I almost forgot to write them down. But I needn’t have worried – apparently this tomato sauce is legendary.

So I made some. And then, because I am, after all, the Kitchen Goddess, I played with it. Not the actual sauce – which by the way is insanely easy (total time = 1 hour) and extremely tasty with a lovely, rich tomato flavor – but the presentation. I wanted protein and I wanted something green, so I sautéed some mushrooms and bacon with some spinach, piled the whole thing on top of some pappardelle (½-inch wide flat noodles) with Marcella’s sauce, and presto! Dinner!! Yummmm...

Maybe I’m the only cook in the world who hasn’t already made this stuff. Maybe you’ve heard about it but were waiting for the Kitchen Goddess’s seal of approval. Wait no more. One batch will easily feed 4-6, with a pound of pasta. Serve it plain for lunch, with shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano and freshly ground black pepper. Or gussy it up like the KG did with bacon, mushrooms, and spinach before you add the shavings of Parm.

Kitchen Goddess note on tomatoes: Marcella apparently called for 2 pounds of fresh tomatoes (skinned and cut into coarse pieces) or 2 cups of canned whole tomatoes. Now, you may be shocked to hear this, but the KG has other things to do with her time than skin tomatoes, especially when the canned variety are a reasonable substitute. And while many food writers – including those at The New York Times – will swear by San Marzano canned tomatoes, the tasters at Cook’s Illustrated claim that Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes is the very best tasting brand, followed by Hunt’s Whole Plum Tomatoes, followed by Cento San Marzano Certified Peeled Tomatoes. Armed with this information, the KG nevertheless went with the San Marzano tomatoes. Call me a traditionalist. You should use your own judgment. The important news is that a full 28-ounce can is a perfectly acceptable substitute for the 2 cups, even though it’s closer to 3 cups. The quantities listed below are what the KG used, with outstanding results. Which just goes to show there’s more than one way to skin a cat, er, tomato.

Marcella Hazan’s Classic Tomato Sauce

Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)

1 medium onion (about 4 ounces), sliced in half through the root
1 28-ounce can San Marzano whole tomatoes, including juices
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
pinch of kosher salt

In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine all ingredients. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook uncovered for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon, using the spoon to mash any chunks of tomato.

Remove the onion before using the sauce. (Eat it or toss it -- there are schools of thought for both options.) Sauce can be tossed with pasta or ladled on top. You should have enough sauce to accommodate one pound of pasta.

Pasta with Tomato Sauce, Spinach, and Mushrooms

Serves 2.

1 recipe Classic Tomato Sauce
6 ounces pasta (your choice -- KG prefers either a wide flat noodle like pappardelle, or a shaped pasta such as fusilli or farfalle)
3 slices bacon, cut in 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, quartered
10 ounces fresh spinach
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

KG note: If you’ve already made the tomato sauce, the rest of this dish shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes. If you haven't made the tomato sauce, finish reading then go back up to that recipe and get it done!

Remove bacon from the fridge 5-10 minutes before frying.

Start the pasta now, cooking according to package instructions. While you're waiting for the pasta water to boil,...

In a large skillet with a lid, cook the bacon (uncovered) over medium heat until crisp. [KG note: To keep bacon from scorching, always start it in a cold skillet.] Remove the cooked bacon to paper towels to drain, and pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat.

Add the butter to the pan, and turn the heat to medium-high. Once the butter foam has subsided, add the mushrooms, stirring rapidly for 4-5 minutes. The mushrooms will at first absorb all the fat, then eventually will begin to release it as the mushrooms brown. Once they’ve begun to brown, add the spinach and stir, lifting leaves from the bottom of the pan and turning them to distribute the fat throughout. Reduce the heat to medium, cover the pan, and cook 5 minutes. Test the spinach for doneness at the end of 5 minutes, and turn off the heat. (If you want the spinach to be a little more done, just leave the lid on the pan for a couple more minutes. It’s important not to overcook the spinach.) Season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

You can serve the dish in layers as I’ve done here – pasta then tomato sauce then mushrooms and spinach – or you can add the pasta and tomato sauce to the skillet and stir together over low heat until the mixture is evenly warm. In either case, garnish with shaved or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and the cooked bacon.

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