I’ve got some serious musing to do today, but before I do, let me announce an upcoming event! This Saturday, February 4 will be our next potluck. We’ll gather at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 4501 7th Ave., Rock Island. Door open at 5:30 and we’ll eat at 6. The theme of this potluck will be Comfort Food, so bring something that makes you feel good! It helps us plan room setup if we get RSVPs, so if you think you will be attending, please comment here or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hope to see you there!
Now here comes the musing.
A friend of mine wrote on Facebook yesterday: “OK… am I a snob when I say I haven’t bought jarred pasta sauce in 20 years? Making your own is normal, right?” A bunch of us chimed in to say we make our own pasta sauce too and rarely or never buy the jarred stuff. A few shared their recipes. Nobody called her a snob. I was pretty excited at the conversation: we’re getting to the point where people who prefer cooking at home over buying pre-made food are accused of elitism.
One mutual friend, though, did weigh in with a rebuttal: “I just want to know how many of you don’t have kids. :)”
I felt a little nervous about saying, “Well, no, I don’t have kids – but on the other hand, my recipe takes 20 minutes to cook and requires minimal stove-watching.” (I said it anyway.) It’s true that I’ve got no experience with cooking while watching a child, but I think if any recipe is doable under busy and harried conditions, it’s a fresh marinara. But then I was so happy to see a couple of great comments follow mine:
“LOL, I have one. But whipping together a quick marinara is easy, even with a toddler. :)”
“Heck, we taught our toddlers to do it ;)”
(We are a pretty smiley crowd, me and my friends. Gotta make sure everyone knows this is a civil internet discourse and nobody is mad!)
So, here we’ve got a problem that lots of people face: cooking at home seems hard and time-consuming, and if it’s been a long day at work and you’ve got a toddler underfoot, maybe you just don’t want to do it. Boiling the pasta is work enough. Opening a jar of sauce makes life a little easier.
It also means you’ve got zero control over what you’re putting in your body. The jar of pasta sauce is likely to be sweetened with corn syrup (in some cases, sugar instead). If it contains canola oil (most do), that’ll be from genetically modified canola unless it’s specifically labeled as organic. The herbs and spices in it will be dehydrated, it’ll include a preservative, and it will have been sitting on the shelf for how long?
Next time you’re making pasta, I challenge you to try making sauce from scratch. I’m going to share my recipe at the end of this post to get you started. It’s not hard – a beginning cook can handle it. It doesn’t take long – I made this for dinner tonight and from the time I walked into the kitchen until the time I sat down to eat was 20 minutes on the nose. And it doesn’t require constant work during those 20 minutes – while my dinner cooked, I was able to clean up the kitchen a bit, make a salad, peel an orange, and answer an email.
I especially loved the advice of the family that’s teaching their kids to help with the cooking. I may not be a parent, but I’m an aunt, and I’m a citizen of the world – and the future of the way we eat matters to me. I think it’s crucial for children to get early knowledge of what real food is – and to know that food doesn’t all come from a can or a freezer case or a drive-thru. As soon as kids are old enough to help with the easiest tasks (little hands could have made that salad), getting them involved is both useful to the cook and educational to the kids. Imagine a world where every child knew their way around a kitchen by the time they hit middle school – and with that knowledge comes the ability to recognize healthy food and make good food decisions, even away from home.
I’m deviating from the subject a bit, and that’s this: why cooking at home doesn’t have to be a chore (even if you have children). Here are a few reasons. First, not all home cooking is an hours-long task. This recipe is case in point. Stove to table in 20 minutes, you’ve got a balanced meal and you can pronounce all the ingredients. Sure, you’re not going to eat pasta every night (although you might want to after tasting this sauce), but this isn’t the only easy recipe out there. Spend a little of your internet browsing time searching for “20-minute recipes” and you’ll see how many other delicious and healthy dinners you can whip up in the time it takes to cook a frozen pizza (I just typed “20-minute recipes” into Google and got 44 million results). Finally, for things you love that take a little more time, you can plan ahead. Take advantage of the rare quiet Saturday afternoon to prepare favorite foods you can then freeze for later: a huge pot of soup or chili, half a dozen homemade pizza crusts, zucchini bread or raisin-almond muffins. You will thank yourself the next time you have an easy home-cooked meal waiting for you at the end of a hard day.
If you don’t know how to cook, it’s never too late to learn. Take a class, or start with easy recipes from the internet, or ask a friend to help. (Ask me to help if you want – I will!) If you think you’re a bad cook, see if you can figure out what’s bad about your cooking (is everything too dry? too bland? always burnt?) and ask for advice on fixing that problem (ask me! I’ll help!). Cooking is a skill that can be learned – you may never be on Iron Chef, but you can get the basics down of how to feed yourself and how to do it well.
I realize that time & skill aren’t the only obstacles to cooking at home – there’s another whole blog post that could be written on how much harder it is to cook fresh food when you’re in a low-income household and working several jobs. I’m not trying to dismiss that situation by concentrating on these others – and it’s something we’re hoping to help alleviate, even if only a little bit, as we work on our Slow Food Drive.
I suppose that’s enough musing from me for the day, so on to the recipe.
Tomatoes: I use 2 very large or 3-4 medium ones per person. In summer, I like to use fresh, local tomatoes, and in winter home-canned ones. If neither is available, you can use fresh or canned tomatoes from the grocery store, but fair warning: they will not taste as good.
Garlic: One small clove (or half of a big clove, or just a whole big clove if you really love garlic) per person, crushed. Garlic powder will not do the recipe justice – fresh is better (or fermented, which is what you’ll see in the photo).
Salt & pepper to taste
Optional add-ins: You’ll be starting with a rather liquidy base, so you can easily cook other veggies in that liquid without needing to add oil. Mushrooms, thinly-sliced zucchini, spinach, or arugula (pictured) work especially well. Onions might take a little longer.
If you’re using fresh tomatoes, you might want to peel them first – it’s optional and does add a little time to the process. You can do it by submerging them in boiled water (not still boiling – turn off the heat right before you add the tomatoes) for a minute. The skin should slip right off. Then cut out the core and cut each tomato into large chunks.
At this point – or if you’re starting with home-canned tomatoes that are already peeled – put your pasta water on to boil.
If you’re using canned tomatoes, no advance prep is needed – I just smash them up with a wooden spoon a bit once they’re in the pan.
Put your tomatoes in a frying pan – I use an 8″ pan for a single serving; multiple servings will need a larger pan. Add salt & pepper to taste, and add your crushed garlic. Cook over a low-to-medium fire, stirring from time to time. Add any other vegetables you might like as you go – mushrooms toward the beginning, zucchini after a few more minutes, fresh greens with just a few minutes left on the timer for the pasta.
Once you put your pasta in the water to cook, check the liquid level of your sauce. If it’s getting dry, either turn the heat down or add a little tomato juice, lemon juice or water. If it’s still very liquid, either turn the heat up a bit or spoon some liquid out with a shallow spoon.
When your pasta is done, so should be your sauce! Pour it over the pasta, grate a little parmesan on if you like, and enjoy.