Since the age of 16, I’ve had a frequently recurring dream. The setting is always the same: A small village in Italy, a cottage overlooking the sea. I don’t possess any of my fair German attributes; rather I’m olive-skinned with dark hair (and since it’s my dream, I resemble a young Sophia Loren). By the setting’s color palette and style of yellow dress I’m always wearing, it appears to be late 1940s. Because I’ve chosen to remain unmarried, instead having a steady supply of lovers (if you looked like Sophia Loren, you would too), I’m treated by the rest of the deeply religious villagers as a persona non grata. That is until one day, I win their hearts. And since we’re talking about Italians, naturally it’s through their appetite.
From a bumper crop of tomatoes grown in my idyllic garden-by-the-sea, I make 25 gallons of tomato sauce. It’s a simple sauce, but intensely flavored and rich. I put some up for the winter months, and send a few of my sailor-lovers off with just enough to ensure they’ll be back. The rest I deliver to neighbors. It’s a risky move, because most Italian cooks regard their own sauce as unequaled. But in a matter of days, word has spread throughout the village of my sauce’s superlative quality. My honor is restored and I am brought into the fold.
In my waking life, I became obsessed with All Things Italian, especially food. I spent many hours and many pounds of tomatoes trying to recreate the sauce of my dreams, but it was never quite right: too much seemed to get in the way of the fidelity of flavor I could taste when I closed my eyes. And then—magically it seemed—I found it. A Sicilian boy I was dating (I told you I was obsessive) had given me The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking, The Italian Art of Eating by Marcella Hazan. There on page 95 was Tomato Sauce III, what I knew to be The One, the sauce of my dream. Three ingredients create the sauce: tomatoes, butter, and an onion. Nothing else. The onion is not chopped and sautéed but cut in half and dropped into the stockpot with the two pounds of puréed tomatoes (plum tomatoes are best, fresh or canned work equally well). A quarter pound of butter is added, plus a little salt and pepper and a pinch of sugar if the tomatoes are too acidic. The sauce is simmered, slooowly, uncovered (putting a lid on it creates water and dilutes the flavor). The onion is discarded, and if you can resist spooning the sauce straight from the pot, there is nothing better over pasta or gnocchi. Garlic and basil are better left for other sauces; the beauty of this sauce is its purity.
Perhaps that’s the essence of my dream: when the ingredients are simple and undisguised, the flavor is more vivid, whether you’re talking about life or tomato sauce.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue.
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