My dear friend Meri climbed on a plane today, soaring away on an 18-hour flight to Hong Kong. For the next month, she’ll be working her way through most of the major cities in Asia for her job, including Shanghai, Tokyo, Seoul, and Kuala Lumpur. And she’ll be eating her way through those places too, sampling foods I’ve only dreamt of, in restaurants I have read about on other people’s food blogs. She’ll be walking down rain-splashed, crowded streets she never thought she would see, inhaling smells strange and wonderful, listening to people talk in languages she doesn’t understand. Tasting the world anew.
I’ll be riding the #2 bus back and forth to work. And I’ll be missing her.
Last night, we ate dinner together. A simple act, but so satisfying. It doesn’t take much for two people to come together. Dip our forks in bowls together and talk about the luscious taste of food. And then we are connected. My friends are fairly different from each other, but they all love food. (As well as absurd laughter, tender hearts, a keen sensitivity, and a hungering curiosity about the world.) And Merida loves food. All day long, I looked forward to her coming over for dinner.
But she was tired, and a little frazzled, at the thought of being a month away from home. And I was tired on the bus ride home, watching the rain slant down the windows. So we decided to keep it simple. I’d throw something together quickly and drive it over to her place.
All week, I’ve been brewing possibilities for dinners I could make. Homemade chicken pot pie with a gluten-free crust? Saffron risotto? Moroccan lentil soup? They all loomed in my mind, pressing upon me. But when I walked into the kitchen yesterday, and faced the remnants of vegetables left on my kitchen table, I made something up on the spot instead. Surrendering again, I found my way to a new favorite taste.
Have you ever noticed that you found what you’re looking for when you throw up your hands and give up the search?
I haven’t made pasta sauce in years. I don’t know how I fell out of this habit. A decade ago, when I first started cooking seriously, I would let large pots of red sauce simmer on the back burner all afternoon. The smell would waft through my apartment, making me think of the Italian restaurant we’d visit sometimes when I was a kid, only on special occasions. Silky tomatoes, dark garlic, an intangible sweetness, the richness lifting through the nose, straight into the brain. Baking bread and making pasta sauce—they both made me feel like I was really cooking.
But then I moved to New York, where the kitchen had a tiny gas stove, the burners too narrow for a large pot. And by the time I moved back to Seattle, I had fallen out of the daily cooking habit. Quickly, I fell into the chronic exhaustion and pain it would take me three years to find out was celiac disease. For years, I went without cooking much at all.
And then, of course, I found out I’d have to go without pasta for the rest of my life. Making pasta sauce dropped from the to-do list. Luckily, I quickly found Tinkyada pasta, the softest, remarkably chewy gluten-free pasta I have ever eaten. And now, I can’t imagine eating regular boxed pasta anymore. This one satisfies me every time.
When I first started eating pasta again, I bought pasta sauce. Carefully. Again, in places you’d least expect it, gluten shows up. (For example, yesterday I grew a little sick, because I grabbed some grated cheese off the salad bar at the school lunchroom. However, I forgot that most packaged, already-grated cheese has flour laced through it, to make sure it doesn’t stick together. What a dumbkopf—I should have rememberd that one. But I didn’t, and I’ve been laid low a little ever since.) Some commercial pasta sauces have gluten, in the form of modified food starch, or other insidious names. Two without gluten that I grew to love are the Seeds of Change brand and Amy’s pasta sauce. The first is all organic food, grown from heirloom seeds, made by a good-hearted company. Amy’s is similarly strong for society, making tasty organic, vegetarian frozen dinners and this pasta sauce that arrives in a jar, tied with a little lid, made to look like your grandmother made it. They’re both surprisingly rich for commercial sauces, and I’ve been eating them, interchangably, for months.
But a jar of pasta sauce costs nearly $5. And Tinkyada pasta is nearly $4 for a medium-sized bag. Heavens, it’s expensive to eat gluten-free.
Unless you make it yourself.
Meri found me a pasta machine in Eastern Washington last week, for $20. Soon, I’ll be slowly cranking out my own tagliatelle and pappardelle. But not last night. Last night, I decided to be kind to myself.
I started chopping the onion on the table, the one begging to be peeled. Onions don’t make me cry—I think it’s because I wear contact lenses. Instead, they make me smile. The smell of chopped onions in warming olive oil enlivens my eyes, my mind. This is the smell of a kitchen to me.
While the onions were sauteeing, I simply threw in whatever I had on the table that looked good. Eight or ten cloves of garlic—I can’t remember which. I’m a garlic fiend, and with students hacking and sneezing in the hallways already, more garlic couldn’t hurt. Fresh rosemary. Slivers of ginger, and lots of it. (The smell of freshly cut ginger is one of the gifts of this world.) The third of a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon left open on the kitchen counter. A small red pepper. A can of Muir Glen tomato paste. And roughly chopped heirloom tomatoes, the last of the season.
It simmered and smelled good right away. The tomatoes started to break down and liquify. I smiled, even though the kitchen counters needed cleaning, even though the bills still need paying, even though my energy is fading the deeper we go into the school year. I was cooking.
I boiled a bag full of pasta and drained it. After 40 minutes of simmering, I tossed the sauce on top. I’m sure it would have tasted even better two hours later, but this is what I had. “These are the days we must live,” Henry James wrote once, and it sings in my head these days, in a reassuring voice. I tucked a wedge of Parmesan cheese in my purse, plus a dark chocolate bar with ginger. And I carried a steaming bowl of pasta with chunky, gorgeous sauce to the car.
Meri and I ate pasta with shared enthusiasm, remarking on its depth, even though it had only been cooking for awhile. We sank into her couch and talked languidly about our equally crazy days. We stopped talking to sip wine and eat chocolate, closing our eyes at the same time. And we contemplated the impending month without seeing each other.
We’ll both be fine. I saw the excitement in her eyes. She is sitting in a hotel room in Hong Kong as she reads this. And I’m sitting on my couch, the keys on the laptop doing their familiar clacking dance. Here I am, the leftovers of the pasta in my stomach right now. Life constantly opens itself to me. Who knows what the next month will bring?
SHAUNA’S SPONTANEOUS PASTA SAUCE
Chop up a large onion. Throw it in a pot with olive oil so good you good sip it in a spoon. While it softens and simmers, cut up slivers of ginger. Pause to really smell. I mean, close your eyes and really smell it. Sigh. Pound cloves of garlic with the side of knife, then slip the skins from the luscious beings. Don’t even stop to rinse off your hands. Turn right to the rosemary and slide the leaves from the stems. Throw it all in. Stir.
When it has all softened and smells heavenly, pour in some of your favorite red wine. Watch it all turn purple. Let it bubble and boil (without toil or trouble). Dice a red pepper and sautee it in the pot. Throw in sea salt. Cook it for a bit.
Open a small can of tomato paste and spoon it in. Stir vigorously, until it has become one gloppy whole. Cut up soft, heirloom tomatoes (the funky-looking ones that really smell like tomatoes) and throw them in the pot. Add a touch more salt.
Stir and simmer. After awhile, taste it. If it needs something else, throw that in, Make it up. Trust yourself.
Eat with one of your closest friends. Make sure you laugh.