Monday, February 18, 2008

This is for you, Sister, and your years of hard work

Before Sister was an attorney, before she was married, before she was a mother of two young boys, before she lived a suburban existence in a nice three-bedroom home with minivan and a Honda CR-V, Sister moonlighted as a cultural anthropologist. I know, I know: it's a tale as old as time. Aren't we all Fulbright Scholars, completing our field work on the way to our PhDs, only to learn that, at the terminus of that arduous intellectual road, where we really meant to arrive was law school?

For Sister, her Fulbright Scholarship involved work in Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy, where she had been an exchange student in the mid-1980s. As I fell in love with Australia, she fell in love with Sardinia. When she was choosing the location for her PhD field work, Cagliari logically made the short list. She spent about two years there in 1993-1995 studying intergenerational experiences with pregnancy and childbirth (I think! She would have to clarify). This time her residency in Sardinia coincided nicely with spring break of my freshman year of college (it is all about me, after all), and in March 1994 my parents were amazing enough to send me to visit her for a week. I had been to Cagliari once before, for a few days during a family vacation to Europe in 1984. However, as I recall I wasn't totally comfortable with the place. All the Italian-speaking and topless beaches, for whatever reason, were intimidating to me -- which is absurd because (1) we were staying with trusted friends (Sister's host family) who not only were hosting us nicely but also providing any necessary translation and (2) I was a child and nobody was expecting me to go topless. But such were the paranoid ravings of my pre-adolescent mind. In 1994 I was a college student, thrilled to return to Sardinia and experience it as a "normal" adult.

Sister and I spent a wonderful week together, sightseeing and eating marvelous picnic lunches of crusty bread and fresh Sardinian Pecorino cheese, which, if you've never had it, is nothing at all like any Pecorino you can get in this country. It is salty but not too salty, but best of all is its mouth-feel: yielding but not mushy, almost squeaky between your teeth. That trip was 14 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday: sitting near the sea at Nora, hunk of bread, one knife and a wedge of cheese, sharing more of that Pecorino than two people should reasonably consume.

(There's Pecorino in that blue bag.)

We took a drive up the western coast of the island to Alghero in a trusty Fiat Panda. We explored Capo Caccia, which is a collection of cliffs in northwest Sardinia that features a network of stunning caves and grottos where the rock meets the Mediterranean. We saw an old Italian man quietly herding his goats across the main road that hugs the coastline, stopping traffic as his caprine charges meandered about at their own precious pace, the tiny tinkling bells on their collars the only sounds for miles. We ate Pecorino; did I mention the Pecorino?

Also, we laughed. Like hyenas. Like idiots. Like fools. It is, after all, what we do best.

Most of what amused us is unable to be published here. Not because it is unfit for mixed company, but rather because it is so stupid that the vast majority of the reading public would find Sister and I to be insane for finding it so funny. It's the kind of situational humor that is especially hilarious to siblings who are close. The type of hilarity that, say, Niles and Frasier Crane would greatly enjoy but that would send Martin in search of a pint at McGinty's and inspire serious eye-rolling in Roz and Daphne.

Among the things about which we laughed that week were the daily goings-on in her apartment. Sister rented a room from a woman named Maria Grazia, who lived in a lovely building in Cagliari facing the Piazza Sant'Eulalia. This painting of the piazza was done by one of Sister's friends; Maria Grazia's building is to the right of the church:

As a prime example of our idiocy, one of Maria Grazia's neighbors was a woman whose last name was "Buda," which we brilliantly deduced from the nameplate on her apartment door. She had a small white dog. We decided to refer to it with the redundant nickname of "Small Little Buda," or "Small Little" for short. (Sister had a boyfriend at the time who spoke in similar redundant phrases; we were making fun of him. Needless to say, he wasn't her boyfriend for much longer.) We found this to be hilarious. Fourteen years later, we still use the phrase "small little," though the story behind its origin is beginning to fade from memory.

Are you rolling your eyes yet?

Sister's room didn't overlook the piazza, though it had its own attendant inside jokes. Her view was of the roofs of the neighboring buildings. Beautiful in a different way, this view provided us with many laughs every morning as we'd wake up to the same crew of roofers -- the next building over -- doing the same work they did the day before. Italian initiative. They did a lot of smoothing of tar. Each day we'd awaken and ask each other: "Are the smoothers here?" Here's a view out Sister's window, sadly sans smoothers:

OK, OK, to the food! When we weren't laughing uncontrollably about a small pup or monitoring the smoothers, we were eating Mulino Bianco carrot cakes and culurgionis (ravioli filled with potato and mint) and cooking tomato sauce. I tend to make my signature tomato sauce a more complicated affair, involving roasted whole tomatoes and a food mill and at least five tablespoons of parmesan or aged pecorino. Sister learned from Maria Grazia that it doesn't have to be quite so intensive. It is what it is; you use the basic vegetables and herbs, and that's it. The sauce reminds me of Maria Grazia's response to our uptight questions about whether Italian TV would carry the Oscar ceremony (I was there the Sunday it was taking place, and we were heavy into Schindler's List that year). Maria Grazia stated, matter-of-factly, "If it's on, it's on. If it's not, it's not." One of the best answers I've ever received to any question, at any time.

Sister's/Maria Grazia's tomato sauce is perfection in eight ingredients. The veggies are minced with a mezzaluna, though of course you can perform this step with a chef's knife if you wish. Sister still uses a mezzaluna, and I happen to have one, so I choose to do it this way out of respect to tradition and memory. The sauce is not rocket science, as the sofrito (onion, celery, carrot) is not a groundbreaking component of Italian cuisine. However, I had never made sauce with a sofrito base -- just a base of onions and garlic. Adding the carrots and celery makes the tomatoes sweeter and, unbelievably, more tomato-y. Even though the sofrito is cooked in olive oil to soften it, some of the vegetable pieces do retain their crunch, which adds a pleasing textural contrast to the smooth tomato puree and the al dente, slippery pasta. The pleasure of this meal recalls the true simplicity of the Italian kitchen -- at least, the Italian kitchens I've been in. No pretense. Just ingredients and dinner. And joy.

There are a lot of things one learns on the way to earning one's Master's Degree, PhD and J.D. I will never learn many of those things, as I choose not to follow the admirable path that would tack those estimable letters onto my last name. But along Sister's studious road, she learned how to make a damn fine pasta sauce, with some damn complex flavors, from some damn simple ingredients. And I learned it from her. How lucky am I? Significant culinary benefit, minimal cerebral effort.

This is for you, Sister, and your years of hard work. And your quality sense of humor. And your discerning tastebuds. This is also for small little Buda, and the smoothers.


Adapted from Sister's recipe, adapted from Maria Grazia

1/4 c. olive oil

1 medium white onion, minced

4 medium garlic cloves, minced

1 c. celery, minced

1 c. carrot, minced

2 28-oz. cans of tomato puree (any brand you like; we used boxes of Pomi strained tomatoes when we were in Sardinia)

1 t. kosher salt

1/2 t. freshly-ground black pepper

1/4 c. fresh basil, shredded

3 T. fresh oregano, finely chopped

1/4 c. red wine

1 lb. pasta

Grated aged Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste

Mince the onion, garlic, celery and carrot.

If you're using a mezzaluna, I find it easier to do this in batches, and the cut the vegetables into small pieces to begin. Otherwise you will be mezzaluna-ing for days.

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add all the vegetables at once. Sauté for approximately 5 minutes, until the sofrito starts to become tender. Add the kosher salt and pepper, and cook for a few more minutes to allow the salt to begin to draw the moisture out of the vegetables.

Stir in half of the basil and half of the oregano (reserve the remaining herbs to add at the end of the cooking process, which results in a nice layered effect of different herby flavors). Cook the mixture for another 4-5 minutes.

Pour in the tomato puree and the red wine. Stir to combine thoroughly with the vegetable mixture. Reduce the heat to low and allow the sauce to simmer for about 20 minutes, as the pasta water comes up to a boil and you cook the pasta. Once the water is boiling, cook the pasta according to the package directions to al dente. At this point, add the reserved herbs to the sauce.

Drain the pasta and mix it with a ladle or two of the sauce. Serve immediately topped with additional sauce, if you'd like, and a sprinkle or two of aged Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Eat while remembering Sardinia, dreaming of Sardinia, or just thinking of sparkling blue waters and squeaky sheep's-milk cheese. Whatever makes you smile.

This meal serves 2-3, depending on how many you can typically feed with a pound of pasta in your family. I know you are "supposed" to be able to feed 4 with a pound of pasta. I find that to be a farce. This sauce recipe, on the other hand, will make enough for at least 4 meals. It keeps well in the refrigerator for about a week and freezes very well.


Unknown said...



vegetablej said...

I just happened on your blog via Nourish Me and I'm smitten. How to tell you how much I love this story of you and your sister in Italy, laughing and cooking.

Though I have my own recipe for a simple sauce, I love your description of the foods you ate, and have just got the inspiration to make some pasta sauce and penne TODAY.

Thanks so much for this tender tribute to your sister and wonderful walk through Italy. _Almost_ like being there with you. :)

And your other recipes look great, too.

Dianne said...


Thank you for your wonderful comment, and for reading! I am so happy that you enjoyed this post...thank you for your kind words. It was a magnificent trip, and I find that food is even better when it's mixed with a healthy dose of nostalgia.

Thanks again for reading!