Sunday, June 20, 2010

Spaghetti by-the-seat-of-your-pants.

A few months ago I went to a winter farmers market! It was on a very sunny afternoon, maybe sometime in March, and it felt like the whole of East Vancouver turned out to buy something nice. I picked up some salad greens with delicate brassica flowers, asian pears (which tasted a tad as though they had definitely been picked the prior fall and were a bit on the vinegar-y side), a t-shirt that said I BIKE YOU (picture of a bike, of course), AND.... frozen heirloom cherry tomatoes of all colors.

I was excited for these tomatoes, and I had distinct visions of making a nice, simple pasta with lots of basil and I saved those babies in the freezer for exactly three months (where they had to survive an evening of sitting with the freezer door open and defrosting a touch, but they were looking good). And last night I figured it was the night to do it. But dinner doesn’t always go your way, does it...

Before cooking, I had to get basil (which I haven’t attempted to grow on my sun starved balcony). At the Asian market down the street a few days ago there had been a huge bag of fresh basil sitting by the cash register so I went down with a few bucks, only to find that the bag was gone. Apparently you have to fight hard to get fresh basil off the produce truck, and this nice little store lost out to the IGA. The shop lady enthusiastically told me that she would make sure to get some the next morning, but I wanted to eat this pasta tonight. I substituted for a bunch of Italian parsley (for only fifty cents! I got to spend the rest of my money on tasty England imported candy!) which looked just like a pretty bridesmaids bouquet.

Yes, this is a recipe of ‘making it work’.

I was not at all put off by the prospect of using flat leaf parsley instead of basil. I know a great recipe in which you fry some garlic, put a big spoonful of sambal oelek and let it cook a bit, then add the pasta, a huge amount of chopped Italian parsley and as much parmesan as you feel like. I figured my dinner would be along those lines.

My pasta went like this:

Obviously, put some water on to boil and start the noodles cooking (I used multi-grain spaghetti).
I started by frying some bacon. Letting it cook so that it gets crispy and really brown will make things taste smoky so never be afraid to maybe let things stick to the pan a bit, perhaps make the crappy apartment smoke alarm go off. Once it was brown, I added three or four cloves of sliced garlic and cooked it until it started to smell really good. Then I dumped in the beautiful tomatoes that I had been defrosting in the microwave. They were yellow, red, red with black stripes, green - so pretty...and still very frozen (I was really hungry and in a bit of a hurry). I didn’t want to take them out from the amazing smelling bacon garlic concoction – what a waste of flavour – so I went with it. My pasta wasn’t going to be this fresh, simple dish anymore.
In went the remnants of a bottle of red wine left over from when my mom was visiting, although I hadn’t realized there was about a glass and a half in there. This sauce was changing quickly, and it was going to have to reduce* a lot to hit a good saucy consistency. The tomatoes would defrost but they weren’t going to hold their shape in the slightest, which upset me. Three months I had been looking forward to these tomatoes!

I got over it pretty quickly as Kristopher made me a tequila blueberry mojito (we ran out of rum a few days ago..) and everything was right in the world again.

So thirty minutes later and it was nice and saucy and the whole second floor of our apartment building smelled like red wine and bacon (much better than the usual gross fried fish and old carpets). In went the spaghetti (Jamie Oliver says to let a bit of the pasta water splash in, I believe he claims it ‘loosens’ the sauce a bit, perhaps making the sauce a nice consistency. I don’t question, just do) and the entire bouquet of parsley, snipped straight in with my blue scissors.

It tasted so good, we both had two heaping bowls full and none remained for lunch the following day.

Now, I don’t cook with recipes very often. ‘Flying by the seat of my pants’ while at the stove is pretty typical news for me, but last night I got thrown a bit. Cooking is all about improvisation and if something doesn’t work out – which I know happens perhaps on a weekly basis, sometimes maybe even a daily basis for us – go with it. The trick is knowing what tastes good.
Bacon, good. Garlic, good. Red wine (and lots of it), very good.
The ingredients need to be cooked in their specific way to make them taste perfect and full flavoured (remember the browning, the thirty minutes of reduction) - never just all thrown in at the same time and boiled.

Halfway through cooking this dinner, I was pissed that I wasn’t even going to be able to see these tomatoes that I had been thinking about for the past few months. However, in the end they made the pasta sauce taste tangy, with the exact zing and freshness that a tomato picked off the vine and popped straight into your mouth should have. That will never come from a can or an out-of-season tomato.
The flavour of those tomatoes balanced the sauce out, instead of bowing down to the richness of the wine and bacon.

So roll with your mistakes (always be sure to fully defrost!), but also learn from them and enjoy them for dinner!

*P.S. Do you know how to reduce? It just means to let it sit at a low simmer (it should be bubbling a little bit) with no lid on to let some of the liquid cook out and you will wind up with a thicker, richer sauce or whatever it is in your pot.


  1. Megan your blog is amazing, I think I will be inviting myself & Tom more often. Your recipes are amazing. Thank you so much for allowing me to follow it.

  2. I want another post! You are letting things slide!