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Food + Cooking

Homemade, Handmade, and Unprecious

In praise of food that someone cares about enough to make, but doesn’t care so much you’re afraid to eat it.

Lately I’ve been either too busy or too lazy to leave the apartment. My stores are dwindling. My fridge is haunted by the Ghost of Vegetables Yet to Come, and every meal I’ve made in the past two weeks starts with boiling a pot of water.

And yet I’ve been eating pretty well. Kind of amazingly, in fact, thanks to Anthony and Giulia’s gifts of their home-canned tomatoes and sausage they hung up to dry in their garage.

Yes, they live in Brooklyn, but they’re not part of the New Artisan Brooklyn you keep hearing about. Their scene is one that could include Anthony’s grandfather, who drives around in an old car that automatically honks its horn whenever he makes a left turn. Their scene is Giulia’s mother, who—I swear—was making ricotta with a fig branch when Anthony came over to ask for her daughter’s hand in marriage. These are families who never stopped making their own food when they came to America.

But let’s not romanticize—this is not the painstaking craftsmanship of obsessives, and the mythical nonna turns out to really be just an old lady with a wonky hip and other things on her mind. I remember being entranced by Anthony’s stories of the family making wine, growing their own grapes, squashing and aging. In Brooklyn! “Amazing,” I said. “How is it?”

“It’s pretty bad,” he replied. “But we drink it.”

The tomatoes are not some perfect, obscure heirloom variety. The sausage is irregularly stuffed, with only a trace of that blooming depth you find in expertly cured salumi. “What’s this called?” I asked. “It’s dried sausage,” he said, shrugging. It’s a sausage unaffected enough to have no name. (Although he did tell me that they also made soppressata. “It’s the same taste, just a different size, basically.”)

So this is not the stuff of reverential foodie-worship. But it is good eating, and, in a way, it helps me with one of my cooking neuroses. Despite my cavalier calls for outlandishly expensive tomatoes, often I am afraid to touch wonderful, precious foods. I’m afraid I’ll screw them up. I’m afraid the time isn’t right, that they should be eaten for a special occasion; I continue to feel like that all the way until they’ve started to wilt or change color or lose half their wonderfulness.

So: Anthony and Giulia’s sausage and tomatoes. They made this stuff for eating. It’s unprecious and earnest, and so I feel like I can treat it with familiarity. I’m not afraid to cook it, to blend it in with other flavors. I sweated three medium shallots, about the only non-dried food I have in the house, added half a teaspoon of smoked Spanish paprika for intrigue, dumped in a pint of tomatoes, sugar, and a splash of vinegar for balance, and cooked it mercilessly for about 10 minutes to concentrate it. I stirred in some pasta, some shaved Parmigiano on top, some butter because why not, and Christine and I were on the couch, bowls in lap, happy as cats.

A couple of days later, I did the same thing, only adding finely sliced ribbons of that sausage instead of the paprika, and the sauce was rich, peppery, and had just enough fennel seeds to make every sixth or seventh bite taste a little like grass. And then yesterday I took what was left of the sausage, about an ounce and a half, browned it up with four shallots and dumped in about half a pound or so of frozen peas along with a little pasta water. I let that stew for 15 minutes, until the peas lost their stupid brightness and started to soften, tossed it with some orecchiette, and bingo. Kind of like pork and beans. Food for eating.

But for you, you don’t have to know Anthony and Giulia (though you would be happier and would laugh more if you did). Go out and get yourself a decent can of puréed tomatoes, a chunk of dried sausage. Keep it on hand and you can have lunch, pretty much whenever. But now I have to go buy some more shallots.