On Top of Spaghetti

For a while, when I was in university, I was part of a small gang of starving students who used to get together every Thursday night for Spaghetti Night. It would rotate between each of our “pads”. The host would provide the pasta and the sauce and everybody else would bring stuff like bread, salad, wine and dessert.  That way, at least once a week, we’d all get a really good meal for very little money.

One Spaghetti Night, the host accidentally burned the onions he was sautéing for the sauce. He didn’t have the supplies or the time to start over, so he just picked out the blackest onions and carried on. He apologized profusely if his sauce wasn’t up to his usual standards.

It was the best spaghetti sauce I’d ever eaten. He thought I was being cruelly sarcastic when I went on and on raving about how good the sauce was, but I finally convinced him that I really meant it.

Since then I often make my spaghetti sauce with burnt onions. I find it gives it a nice edge that seems to cut the acidity of the tomato…or something.

Spaghetti is odd dish. For us here in North America, it’s a main course. In Italy it’s just a side dish.

Spaghetti is probably one of the few dishes that is almost always better made at home than purchased in restaurants. Maybe because you end up paying way too much money in restaurants for a meal you can make yourself for next to nothing. Maybe because everyone has such different ideas on what constitutes good spaghetti sauce. During our university Spaghetti Nights no spaghetti was ever the same as the spaghetti the week before. We all tried to be creative with our sauces and do them just a little differently each time.

Some people like just plain tomato sauce with a little cheese grated on top. Some like a thick meaty sauce. Some like a chunky vegetable sauce. Some people swear by certain ready-made brands of sauce — sometimes adding their own twists; sometimes using it straight from the jar or can. Some people will use nothing but the recipes handed down from a family member.

I don’t have any standard recipe, but I don’t like a lot of stuff in my spaghetti sauce – just a nice smooth sauce with some herbs, maybe a few onions and mushrooms and often with TVP.

I like to put some anchovy in the sauce sometimes too or sprinkle some sliced black olives on top. I don’t like bread with spaghetti, but a good garlicky salad is a nice accompaniment.  Or very occassionally – mussels. For some reason, mussels are good with spaghetti.  And a good, hearty glass of wine, of course.

My mother likes mashed potatoes with spaghetti. It actually tastes really good, but is too much of a carb overkill, I think.

What’s absolutely essential for me when I make sauce is that I have to let it all simmer for a long time – at least a couple of hours. I usually make a big batch at once and then freeze the rest in little 2-portion containers.

I don’t like spaghetti that’s been warmed up in the microwave. The microwaving does strange things to tomato sauce. So when I take spaghetti for lunch, I eat it cold/room temperature. I pretend it’s a spaghetti salad.

You know the old story about Marco Polo bringing spaghetti to Italy from China? Well, it’s not even true. The Etruscans made pasta way back in 400 BC. There’s a bas-relief carving in a cave just north of Rome from way back then that depicts a pasta-making process.

But nobody thought of putting tomato sauce on the spaghetti until the 18th century. The Spanish explorer, Cortez brought tomatoes to Europe from Mexico back in 1519, but Europeans just used them as houseplants. They were afraid to eat them because tomatoes part of the poisonous nightshade family.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that spaghetti was introduced to North America via Italian immigrants. It also wasn’t until spaghetti was brought to North America that meat became part of the dish. Italians were used to eating meat only a few times a month, but in North America it was so much more plentiful, that it was incorporated into many of their dishes.

North Americans now eat some form of pasta for dinner approximately once a week.

One of the women from our university Spaghetti Nights recently told me that after she got married and started having kids she re-established the Thursday spaghetti night tradition among some of her friends and neighbours. It was a big hit because it gave young parents a chance to bring the kids out for a cheap meal, socialize with other young parents and gave everyone a break from cooking once a week – until it was their turn to host.

And, everybody likes spaghetti, right? Do you have a favourite spaghetti recipe or spaghetti tradition?

For The Love of Olives

In the late 1980s when I was living in Toronto, I discovered The Martini. Not any of the nauseatingly sweet and fruity coloured fad Martini selections bars feature these days, but the authentic gin (or vodka) and vermouth with an olive Martini.

That big, cold, sexy glass with just a tantalizing splash of liquid. That astringent bite when it first slides by your teeth – cold and assertive. Gone in a couple of swift gulps. Heady. And then the olive.

The olive (or 2 or 3 depending on how well I knew the bartender) became my favourite part of The Martini. One place used to soak their Martini olives in gin, so they’d be plump and ice cold and a bit crunchy and bursting with gin and olive flavour.

Olives quickly became a staple in my diet. My use of olive oil escalated just as quickly. I became mildly obsessed with olives. Black, green, stuff, pitted, tapanade, pate…

The obsession continues.

This is my screen saver at work.

 olives

An olive grove. I desperately want to live somewhere where I can have one of these in my back yard. Violetsky and I joke back and forth about one day, when we retire, buying a villa in Provence. I don’t know about her, (and I don’t actually know her except from blogging) but I’m only half joking.

I want to wake up to a tree that could be hundreds to thousands of years old and still producing fruit. I want to take that fruit to the local olive presser and watch him squeeze out its oil. And then I want to take that oil home, rip off a piece of freshly baked bread, dip it in the oil from that ancient tree and eat the chewy oily bread, complemented with  a glass of local wine.

Meanwhille, back in Realityville, the kid and I  go through almost a litre of olive oil every week. I used it for everything – cooking, salad dressing, popcorn topping, as a drizzly finish to a lot of meals. It’s also good as a moisturizer for your skin and hair and a drop in your ears once a week, keeps them wax free.

I keep a variety of olive oils on hand. The everyday oil from the grocery store and a bottle or two of really excellent oil from a specialty shop.

Spain, arguably,  produces the most and best olive oil, followed by Italy and maybe Greece. Everything else, exported,  is second rate.  Avoid anything produced in California – the only North American place that grows olives. They are allowed to call anything “extra virgin” even when it’s not.

Extra Virgin is a label given by the International Olive Oil Council to only the highest quality olive oil. The whole industry is akin to the wine industry, with tasters and vintages and the equivalent of appellations and stuff. Like wine, the more you pay, the better the quality of oil – usually. For regular use just make sure you get something from Spain, Italy or Greece. It will say “Extra Virgin” – the “first cold pressed” is implied.

Some interesting olive related facts:

  • There are over 800 varieties of olives
  • A ton of olives produces 50 gallons of olive oil
  • The cultivated olive tree is in an evergreen, and usually grows to between 15 and 30 feet tall
  • Olives taste really bad fresh off the tree. They need to be cured, to take off their bitterness 
  • Green olives and black olives are the same fruit – the green ones are just not ripe 
  • Christopher Columbus introduced Olive Oil to the Americas in 1492
  • Olive Oil is very high in healthy monounsaturated fats
  • Olive Oil has 9 calories for each gram of oil
  • The Calories in the Olive are high in monounsaturated fats
  • Olive Oil benefits the heart by helping to lower cholesterol levels
  • Plato’s olive tree is still alive although it no longer produces fruit

One of my favourite olive oil-related recipes:

Toss a bunch of crushed garlic in a good layer of olive oil in a skillet. Add fresh basil, diced sweet tomatoes a little salt and some asparagus. Sautee until the asparagus is tender. Spoon over pasta (I like it with penne). Crumble some feta on top and viola – a fully balanced meal perfect for summer evenings. (I’m having it for lunch today!)

PS: A dish like this is awesome with a crisp, dry Chardonnay.olive

PPS: I welcome any and all olive-related recipes.

I Bake, Therefore I Am

breadmakerA while back I bought this bread-maker at a yard sale for $20. I’d been wanting a bread-maker for a long time and this one was brand-spanking new, never been used and a pretty good deal (after some negotiation).

I took it home and read the manual thoroughly, because whenever I buy anything  new that plugs into an electrical socket,  the first thing I always do is read the manual from cover to cover; highlighting the really important parts and then filing the manual away in my Appliance Manual file. (Alternatively, if you don’t want all those little booklets lying around, everybody has their manuals online now so you can keep an electronic file.)

Anyhooo, it wasn’t until last weekend that I finally got around to using it. I followed all the instructions carefully and then…then I made bread! It’s freakin’ magical. Who doesn’t love fresh bread? The smell of fresh bread. The taste of fresh bread. The texture of fresh bread. But who can actually do a good job baking fresh bread? Not me, that’s for sure. I’ve tried and to this day we still have the doorstops to prove it.

So, here’s this machine in my house now into which I dump a few ingredients, push the start button and then go away and live my life. A few hours later there’s a freshly baked loaf of delicious bread in my kitchen! I know, I know, the rest of the universe discovered the wonder of the bread-making machine a couple of decades ago, but it’s all so new and miraculous to me, so bear with me.

Right away I had to wonder who came up with this enchanting device?

josephlee1

As usual, my bosom buddy, Google, had all the answers. Back in the late 19th century, an African-American guy by the name of Joseph Lee invented a machine that would mix and knead dough for bakeries. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the Japanese first came up with a miniature of this machine for home use. Later that same decade, both Sanyo and Zojirushi began exporting bread-makers to North America.

Joseph Lee grew up in the food service industry in Boston, Massachusetts. He worked as a baker, cook, waiter, and hotel manager, and eventually become the owner of two restaurants and his own catering service called the Lee Catering Company. He died in 1905 of non-bread-related issues.

Thanks Joseph Lee! Now, not only can I make a dazzling variety of breads, I can also use the little machine to process the dough for buns, rolls, strudel (STRUDEL!!) pizza, pasta, baguettes and bagels. The world of yeasty delights is my oyster, so to speak. The Zojirushi Home Bakery Supreme® breadmaker (not the one I have, unfortunately) even makes, cake, cookies, jam and meatloaf! Ah, it’s good to be alive in the 21st century, isn’t it?  I feel like Jane Jetson. 

jane-jetson

I see a lot of breadmakers at yard sales, though, so I’m thinking maybe the magic of making automatic bread wears off really quickly or something.