So far I haven't written about cooking on here. In my About section I briefly mention that I cook, but I've never talked about food on here other than that. In reality cooking Italian is probably what I do most often, besides writing and working and sleeping. Alright that's a lie. I cook Italian maybe once a month.
But I want to pause on the subject of cooking Italian for a second and talk about a book: Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into The Value Of Work. I'm not about to do a review of the book, but the basic gist is worth conveying. The author, Matthew Crawford, a mechanic and a philosopher who owns a motorcycle shop in Virginia, argues that there's an "invisible worth" to manual labor. He makes the case that as human beings we find fulfillment in work that involves our hands, and that the modern day office job— a removal from manual work— leads to unhappiness and a lack of fulfillment.
While Crawford mainly has mechanics in mind when he talks about hands-on labor, I think the same also applies to cooking. There is something therapeutic about preparing food with your hands rather than going to a restaurant or drive-thru. For lack of a better word, cooking is good for the "soul". There are few things more rewarding than taking that first bite after spending hours of work preparing a meal. That bite is your labor, your sweat, your anxiety and your desire. I never really knew how to express that until I read Shop Class As Soulcraft. There's no way I can really express, or even understand, what it is about squashing tomatoes between my fingers, chopping garlic or smelling burning basil that makes me feel so... whole. But those things do. And you experience none of those emotions when getting your meal handed to you through a window or by a waitress.
So back to cooking Italian.
This week I made tomato garlic basil sauce with bow tie pasta. You can find the recipe in Essentials Of Classic Italian Cooking, which, I might add, if you're not Italian and you're wanting to learn to cook Italian food, is your bible. Only if you're Italian is Essentials optional, but even then I would recommend buying it to stay on the safe side. Essentials Of Classic Italian Cooking will save your life as an Italian-meal preparer.
Having said that, there are some details that the Essentials sauce recipe doesn't cover that I think are really important, and those are 1) the brand of olive oil, and 2) the mixing of tomato types.
Olive oil: Don't let anybody tell you that the brand of olive oil doesn't matter and that all olive oils are the same. Olive oils do matter and they are not all the same. They can make your meal or ruin it. Try making a salty sausage linguine with a brand of olive oil that's too rich, and you're sunk. Try making lasagna with a store brand olive oil that's too thin, and watch the people around you fall asleep while eating it because the taste will be so bland and boring. The best olive oil I've found in the grocery store is a brand called Lucini. Its substance is thick without running like molasses, it's not too rich, and you don't have to pour a lot of it into the pan to bring out the other flavors. Lucini will run you about $20, likely making it the most expensive ingredient of the meal that you purchase. But it's worth the investment.
Tomatoes: Essentials Of Classic Italian Cooking says Roma tomatoes are good for the tomato basil garlic sauce, and yes, you'll want to use those. But also buy a big box of cherry tomatoes and mix them in with the Roma, because you will like the way the cherry tomatoes interact with the basil you're going to add shortly thereafter.
So those are the two things that I think Essentials missed.
As for some ways you can deviate from the book's recipe without ruining the meal, you can add traditional Italian meats to your pasta like chicken, meatballs, or sausage. But if you want to get a little crazy and creative, try wrapping bits of chicken in bacon, cooking them in Root Beer, frying them, and then cooking them in Root Beer again (maybe add JUST A PINCH of vanilla), then throw that into the pasta. Root Beer-fried chicken and bacon with vanilla smothered in berries will summon the caesars from their graves!
As far as garlic and basil, minced is the devil. Do not ever buy minced garlic or minced basil. Large chunks are the key to flavor. Minced garlic and basil will cheat your sauce out of flavor because they're diced too small and the remaining bits of garlic and basil that survive the heat of the boiling sauce will be flavorless (and will get stuck in people's teeth).
There's obviously a certain wine that goes to the tomato garlic basil pasta. And that's why I'm embarrassed to say I don't know a whole lot about wine. I'm a whiskey man, I've always been a whiskey man, and the farthest I usually drift away from whiskey is a Guinness on tap. That being said, you can't have whiskey with Italian. It's like putting on white socks with a suit (which, oddly, is a very Italian thing to do). So in order to write this article, I just had to drink wine (for research purposes of course). Here's what I came up with: Once Upon A Vine: The Big Bad Red Blend goes great with the tomato sauce, and it does so mainly because the black plum and berries have a way of melting into the tomato taste, giving the diner a berry experience they'll never forget.
Finally I want to say this as a parting note: You hear a lot about how cooking is great for a relationship. "Men love it when women cook them a meal", "Women are impressed with men that can cook." But you know what? Cook for you. Other people is a bad reason to start cooking. In fact other people is a bad reason for starting anything. You don't have anyone's tastebuds but your own. You don't know what they like. And chances are— if you've spent a majority of your lifetime eating fast food like me— you don't even know what you like yet. Only when you know what you like, can you begin to get a sense of what others enjoy and why. So when you start cooking, cook for you, then gradually expand to others as you mature in the craft. Only when you learn what pleases you, can you begin to learn what pleases others.