It’s amazing how the old folkloric sayings, adages and proverbs are still so accurate even centuries after they were first pronounced — although sometimes you need the right attitude to appreciate the advice that lies hidden in them.
Consider: ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’. Every cloud? Every single one? This poetic sentiment, that even in the direst of situations there are hopeful or consoling aspects, goes back to 1634 when Milton wrote: “Was I deceiv’d, or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night?”
Unlike Shakespeare’s whining boy, I always ran willingly to school, and even before I knew this proverb, I was able to see that on the blackest of days there is always something to be thankful for.
This is true even of the covid-19 catastrophe that has caused the death of hundreds of thousands, shutdown economies all over the world and led to whole sections of the population being confined to their homes.
We were legally bound to be at home for much longer periods of time than usual and therefore had many more extra hours at our disposal. What we did with that unexpected spare time indicates how good we are at seeing silver linings.
Stacked into a huge in-built wardrobe, I have hundreds of books for which I don’t have shelf space and a considerable part of my extra available time is being spent looking through them to find out what’s there. (See today’s Word page for more details).
I’ve also been weeding out my extensive files on food, so that by discarding clippings and recipes I’m never going to need, I hope I’ll be able to make space for books. I have five bulging files on bacalao (salt cod) my second most fetishistic foodstuff, the first being pasta. There will be no pruning of the bacalao or pasta files: they are my preferred foods and they absolutely captivate me.
One of the bacalao files is named ‘Special Interest’ and it contains recipes I want to do sooner rather than later and I intended making two or three per week during the confinement period. But sorting out books is a slow process (and for that reason an ideal way of passing the time during confinement) and I decided that my meals would be based on dishes I can do with my eyes closed — that meant quickly, thus giving me more time for dealing with the books.
The most satisfying dish I can make in 15 minutes consists of any of the many varieties of imported Italian pasta dressed with nothing but lots of virgen extra olive oil or butter, a large amount of finely chopped parsley and a small garlic clove minced with the point of a sharp knife.
Served with generous sprinkling of grana padano cheese (or parmesan when the budget runs to it) that is pasta at its most basic — and there are times when I think this is perhaps the best way to eat it.
The week before confinement started, I was having a routine six-monthly consultation with my traumatologist. When it was over, we went on to talking about restaurants and food, as we always do: he likes to hear about the restaurants I have been to during the previous six months (I always take a list with me) and the dishes that are worth ordering. At one point we were taking about pasta and he mentioned the sauces he especially likes: pesto, vongole, carbonara, la puttanesca, amatriciana, arrabbiata or la norma.
He asked me which of the many sauces (there are some 380 of them) I preferred. I didn’t have to think about it: one made with fresh tomatoes, virgen extra olive oil, plus salt to taste. And nothing else: no onions, no garlic, no basil, no oregano. Just those three ingredients.
My choice surprised him. He was expecting me to say something elaborate and fancy like frutti di mare with lots of shellfish — gambas, cigalas, clams, mussels and calamares. But for most Italians it’s the pasta that’s important: the sauce simply enhances the pasta. You’ll never see an Italian eating pasta that is topped with an avalanche of sauce.
So that basic sauce, absolutely bursting with the taste of fresh tomatoes, helps you to enjoy pasta at its best. But you’ll seldom be served a sauce as rudimentary as that in restaurants. So if you want to ty it you have to do it at home.
But most people cooking for a family would never do a sauce as simple as that. They want to add onions, garlic, carrots, leeks and perhaps two or three herbs. Those ingredients, if cooked properly, will produce a tasty sauce that would be perfectly acceptable.
One like that, however, would lack the delightful simplicity of a smooth sauce made with nothing but fresh tomatoes and plenty of virgen extra olive. That mixture can be so heady it doesn’t even need the salt. The way to make a memorable tomato sauce is to keep it simple, thereby retaining the taste of the tomatoes.
Simple as this sauce is, a few rules must be followed to make it work, the first of which is to buy ripe fleshy tomatoes. The best plain tomato sauce is made with the Majorcan ramellet variety, the one that is used for pamboli: this tomato’s pulpy flesh that is perfect for rubbing on slices of Majorcan brown bread, is also ideal or doing a smooth sauce.
The plum tomato, which will soon be in season, is the second best variety for doing sauces. They are known here as tomate de pera, or pear tomato.
You can make a plain tomato sauce in small or large amounts. As it freezes well, it makes sense to use at least three kilos of tomatoes, especially when they are in season and the price is right.
There is no need to peel the tomatoes. Wash them and cut them into small pieces but without chopping them. Put them into a saucepan with a large amount of virgen extra olive oil, which will give the sauce an exquisite taste.
Cook the tomatoes over a high heat for 10 minutes. This will allow the oil and the juices to become slightly emulsified. Reduce the heat and continue to cook until the tomatoes are soft and thick, about another 15 minutes.
Put the tomatoes through a vegetable mill into another saucepan to get rid of the skins. If the sauce isn’t thick and unctuous, simmer it, uncovered, until it is of the desired consistency. At this stage you can add salt to taste. But absolutely nothing else because this is a plain tomato sauce.
You could add lots of onions at the start and you would also get excellent results, but it would be a quite different sauce in texture and taste. If the tomatoes were especially tartish the onions would add a nice touch of sweetness and temper the final taste. It’s a good combination but, I repeat, it’s not a plain tomato sauce.
When I use onions in a tomato sauce I get best results by first sautéing them in a good amount of virgen extra olive oil over a very low heat until they are soft and golden. I then just cover them with water and simmer until the water has completely evaporated and the onions are almost reduced to a purée. The onions are then stirred into the tomato sauce and the mixture is cooked for another 15 minutes.
If you don’t have a vegetable mill the tomatoes can be blitzed in a blender, but in this case you must peel the tomatoes to avoid having a sauce that is speckled with little bits of tomato skin. You could also leave the tomatoes unpeeled, blitz in a blender and then put the sauce through a sieve.
But if you use the blender, blitz the mixture for a very short time, otherwise the sauce will have the texture of paint and that is to be avoided at all costs. And you must reduce the final sauce over a low heat until it is very thick: if not, the sauce could be slightly watery and that is a no-no.
If you have sautéed the tomatoes in a generous amount of virgen extra olive oil you will end up with a sauce that has some excess oil floating on the surface. This is a desirable side effect as the oil gives the pasta extra lubrication. This sauce also makes an excellent base for steamed or pan-fried white fish, the excess oil adding a nice touch of succulence.
By lining the base of a small oven dish with the sauce, breaking in a couple of eggs and popping it into the oven, you will have a lovely cooked breakfast or a light lunch or supper dish with very little extra effort.
If you have made a large amount of sauce, freeze it in portions you would normally use. That way you will have the makings of an easy pasta dish as the main course of a light luncheon or as a starter for dinner.
When we were half way through the confinement period, a research nutritionist interviewed in El País newspaper said most of us would gain an average of four kilos by the time our daily life was back to normal. She said this was because we eat more when we are at home day after day, sometimes out of boredom but also because we pamper ourselves with little treats, most of which are highly calorific.
I don’t know how many kilos I’ve put on because I long ago gave up bathroom scales: even the expensive ones were so inaccurate as to be quite useless. A much better gauge of weight gain is the waistband of one’s trousers and the buttons of a shirt.
As soon as the trousers waistband feels a little tight or the shirt doesn’t hang loosely, I know it’s time to cut down on calories. I was at that stage at the end of last week. Since then I have reduced my pasta portion from 175grs (dried weight) to 125grs. It’s only 50grs but it adds up to a lot by the end of the month.
I discovered something that may help others who want to cut down on food intake. When we have to reduce the amount of food we are eating, dieticians tell us to serve the food on smaller plates: the theory is that we are fooling the brain into thinking our reduced portion is bigger than it is. That has never worked for me. I like to think my brain is rather smart and doesn’t get taken in so easily.
However, just by chance I did something similar to the smaller plate idea and it worked. I took my 125grs of spaghetti and broke it into four pieces because I wanted to eat it without any twirling. I used the same medium-sized plate as always, but because each strand of spaghetti was broken into four pieces, the amount of pasta on the plate looked huge.
It was only 50grs less but I thought I was eating a nice big portion. I am now out walking every day which means I’m already on my way to having a looser trousers waistband.