A few Sundays ago, I put on my fuzzy robe and went downstairs to make coffee, only to realize the way the day looked, I might just stay in my robe. Pouring rain. A constant downpour. A dull, steel-gray day that makes lounging the operative word, Snuggying on the couch with coffee. Reading two national papers cover to cover then doing it all over again.
After some thought, I decided it was the perfect day to make ragù. A rich, meaty, cooking-on-the-stove-all-day Italian ragù that sticks to your ribs and your soul. Maybe the only thing that could make a yucky day like this seem inviting.
I took off the robe and put on the apron. Searching the pantry for ingredients, I found them. Way in the back. Two shiny Mason jars of San Marzano tomatoes. My last two jars in fact. Never in a moment of cooking prep have I felt so grateful. I pulled out the jars, anticipating even more the ragù that would follow. And I thought back to how I’d come upon these jars in the first place. Canning them alongside Leni Sorensen in her kitchen last August.
Four jars in all I’d taken away. Hubby had used two to make his ultra fabulous crockpot pork taco meat (recipe tomorrow!), but here were the other two. Waiting patiently for a day such as this, to be placed into a recipe such as this. San Marzanos, as some of you know, are the ultimate tomato. A luxurious ingredient to take a ragù from super to spectacular.
I’d canned the jars as part of Leni’s class on putting up tomatoes. Had a fabulous time and promised to sing her praises all over my blog when I got home. But I found when I sat down to write the words wouldn’t come. It’s like nothing I put on paper would ever be enough to capture what Leni gave me that day. Not just a skill, but something else. I went to her class to regain a skill my grandmothers knew but I never learned. Simple, right? But what I found was much more than that (Schmaltz alert!). I found friendship, kinship, laughter, belonging. Acceptance. Not only was it truly inspiring to discuss food and food history with someone who shares the passion I do, but it was just so much damn fun.
I was immediately dubbed “student” by Leni, her daughter Winter, hell by everybody, and put to work. And let me tell you something. Talking about food, how much we both love Edna Lewis, the best way to put up peaches, the best way to use frozen apple slices, and just whose boyfriend Troy Polamalu is anyway, is one damn fine way to spend a sweltering summer afternoon. Howling with laughter, teasing each other, being careful not to let the hot Mason jars touch lest they crack, then sitting and jawing about food and food memories. I’d forgotten how much fun that is……probably because I hadn’t done it for years.
I felt like I was hiding under the kitchen table, 8 years old, being really quiet and listening to my Nana, my aunts, and my Momma gossiping and giving each other advice. Quiet as a mouse so they wouldn’t make me leave the room. Except here I was the Momma. The Aunt. The Student. It was nostalgic, and joyful, and when I think about it even now, the waterworks start all over again. Let me tell you something young’uns. As you get older those tears sometimes fall a little easier because now you don’t give a shit who sees.
So yeah, you could say I took a lot away from that class. As the cans cooled, we walked Leni’s garden, chomping on homemade bread, talking about how this summer’s crops did compared to last year’s. Such simple stuff. The upturned cobalt bottles lining her garden glinted in the sun, the transistor radio played on at a low hum in the chicken coop (to keep deer away), and the slight chill in the summer breeze reminded me just how fast time can pass.
And after the class was over? I took home not only 4 giant jars of Leni’s San Marzanos but an entire Mason jar of lard, procured from her freezer when I asked how to make it. Because lard is the *ONLY* thing to use for Miss Edna Lewis’s biscuits. Biscuits with lily (White Lily flour) and lard. Just like my Nana used to fill up the car with leftovers when I visited her during college, Leni gave and gave to overflowing with foodie gifts. She even waved as I backed down the driveway.
Needless to say I cannot WAIT for her classes to start up again. “The Student” needs to learn to put up peaches, and how to make sausage. If you’ve got half a brain in your head, you’ll sign up too. Guaranteed good time people.
Maybe I needed some time and distance in order to put the proper spin on this food story. It definitely took a dreary grey rainy “Let’s make ragù!” day for me to appreciate the gorgeous red orbs that went into my first sauce. To appreciate how a jar of tomatoes can bring back amazing food memories.
Garganelli With Ragù AnticaPublished in the New York Times: August 24, 2010
Adapted from Osteria Morini, Manhattan
Time: 2 to 2 1/2 hours
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup diced onion
1/4 cup diced peeled carrot
1/4 cup diced celery
1/4 cup tomato paste
Two 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes, with their juice (it helps if you have Leni Sorensen's)
Sea salt and black pepper
8 ounces ground beef
8 ounces ground pork
8 ounces ground veal
8 ounces chicken livers, minced or puréed in a food processor
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig sage
2 bay leaves
Parmigiano-Reggiano rind, about 2 by 4 inches, optional
1 pound garganelli or other tube-shaped pasta
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add tomatoes one at a time, crushing them by hand, and adding any juice from the can. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and reduce heat to low.
Heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef, pork, veal and chicken livers, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook, breaking the pieces with a wooden spoon, until the meat is no longer pink, about 7 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to the sauce. Add rosemary, sage, bay leaves and Parmigiano rind, if using. Cover, and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Discard rosemary, sage, bay leaves and cheese rind. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
Author's note: I let mine cook all afternoon, about 4-5 hours, adjusting the seasoning as needed.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, lightly salted water until al dente (about 2 minutes for fresh pasta, or follow manufacturer’s directions for dried), then drain well. Divide the pasta among four plates or bowls, and top with ragù.
Yield: 8 servings