I started cooking in my late twenties, and by that I mean doing more than shoving a piece of basically unseasoned meat in the oven, or opening something and dumping it in a pot. Things were going hard for me and though I couldn’t have consciously thought this at the time, the immediate gratification of making a nice meal was a balm for my worried mind.
I think there are two kinds of beginner cooks. One is the purely improvisational kind that is loose and just chucks things together, with often-mixed results. A thought crosses their brain, rather wacky, but they have an impulse and feel it will work to baste the duck in chocolate. They are riffing off something they taste in their minds eye, artists of a sort, and maybe a similar talent. Yet since they don’t have the discipline to sit and read a recipe or study, they often give up or move on. But if they truly love to cook, they often become exceptional at it. This, like someone who can play music by ear, is a rare type.
In the other, more populous camp, there are those of us who approach cooking sideways. We like to eat. We get sick of takeout. We can imagine all the nice things we could make ourselves and our friends. We could be those people sitting in the vineyard, passing the perfectly roasted fish under the arbor! We catch an episode or two of Rachael Ray who actually does make cooking seem easy, and we graduate to Ina, who makes cooking seem not just easy but delicious too. We start reading recipes for fun, maybe in the Times, or in Food & Wine, or Smitten Kitchen, or some other magazine or blog or IG that makes it all seem eminently doable… And then, we buy “How To Cook Everything” and we study that like a textbook, and Bittman shows us, that well, yeah, it is that easy. There are ingredients and you mix them and heat them and then you eat. It’s not that complicated.
But it can be very complicated, if you make it so. Especially early on. “The recipe calls for Serrano chilis but there are only jalapenos. What do I do?!” “There’s no mint at the farmer’s market! Just basil! And parsley! Oh my!” “Pork shoulder? All I see is pork butt!? Can I use that? I don’t know! HELP ME!” You must have faith. For you will make mistakes and end up with undercooked chicken that you hack at every thirty minutes until it’s finally done but not very pretty. You will usually err on the side of undercooking something, because it’s actually hard to burn things, except garlic in oil in a pan, which goes from golden to rancid in a heartbeat and you will never make that mistake again.
This is probably less true now, with the advent of that cooking miracle device, the smart phone. But even just ten years ago, you had to have your list and your research, and I still do see newbies wandering, glazed, around Whole Foods, clutching their damply crumpled piece of paper, wondering where the hell the crème fraiche is. (Can’t find it? No biggie. Use sour cream! Or greek yogurt, but full fat please!)
At about this time, my oldest friend Dani, was the first of my friends to have a baby. I was 30 and she was 31, and as of yet, babies were not even on my radar. But then she was, this smiling little thing, Lea, and suddenly, procreation was not such a foreign concept.
Dani lives in the most beautiful part of Long Island, deep in the North Fork. And when I went to visit, I always had a game plan; because I knew how tired she was and how little time she had to herself. I wanted to make her feel good and pamper her a little. And we both enjoy shopping at the farm stands so much. I always came prepared with a recipe in hand. I also kind of wanted to show off to her! Dani is and was so easily good at things (or so it may seem. I know how hard she works and how much she contemplates and dreams and tries and tries.) When we were kids, she was always the fastest, the funniest, and in so many ways, the bravest. If she saw something she didn’t like, she spoke up, right away. She still does this in matters small and large. Do not mess with her. She will tell you. She really will. And she is right and righteous. She gets things done.
When Lea was born, I was still very much in my follow-the-directions-at-all-costs phase of cooking. I remember once vividly wanting to make spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce for Dani that called for a very specific type of tomato, and going into a tailspin when I couldn’t find it. I think we drove to three farm stands, until she, perhaps slightly exasperatedly grabbed a bunch of perfectly lovely whatever fresh local tomatoes, that ended up being great. Maybe I put clams in them. And did we find the right herbs? Was the basil done for the year? I don’t remember. I have probably blocked it all out. Stress/failure related memory loss.
My intentions were pure. I just wanted to be a good guest, and take care of her a little. I probably made a bigger mess then we would have had with delivered pizza, or even grilled steaks, but doesn’t everyone want someone to cook a nice dinner for them while they put the baby to bed? Or is that my own fantasy? (It is!) Was it perversely selfish of me? Possibly.
Ambitious starter cooks over think everything. We get a little power, a little success, and we dream big. We read in the glossy magazine that the pros do it this way, even at home. We should too! Don’t have a wood-fire oven for your homemade pizza? Do it on your grill. (Never ever do this, unless you are Sam Sifton or Mario Batali. It will be a mess and taste pretty terrible. Unfreeze that pizza! Go out! Order in!) Some people never get past this point, and that’s great, but those people stress me out, because I so clearly remember how it was (and once in a while still is!). Here’s another fun example, from a visit to our friends’ Stu and Ruthie’s place in Sagaponack. We wanted to BBQ, or really, grill, because we call grilling “bbqing” in the Northeast. Let’s have ribs? I said. And everyone said “Hell yea!” And then the boys went fishing. And I had read you had to boil the ribs, marinate them and then let them cook for like three hours on a low grill. So I did all that. I spent a fortune (or maybe Ruthie did) at Citarella in Bridgehampton or where ever. And then, I boiled them, and marinated them, and cooked them and the boys who were fishing were starving when they got home at six, so of course we ended up eating at nearly ten. We were all very drunk by the time we ate, but the ribs were good. Sort of. Maybe they were a little dry. And the grill was tiny, so it took even longer to cook, because they were so crowded. They really were no better than the kind that comes already cooked and sauced, in the zip pack. That’s right. No better. And maybe worse. I’m glad I’ve graduated. It’s the confidence that comes with knowing that you can do something, and the effort is nice, but maybe not worth it, so you don’t really have to. If this were to happen again next week, we’d be stuffing our faces at 6:30. Thank you Stubbs.
And then, another time, I made lasagna with everything fresh and as much from scratch as I could bear. The lesson there is that there is no need for tomato sauce from scratch in lasagna, and cheap Polly-o mozzarella tastes better than the fresh kind that they sell in balls on the counter at DiPalos, still warm, which doesn’t melt the right way, and simply gets chewy and messy. It slides off the pasta, and the sauce is too chunky, and the whole thing is too watery because the fresh mozzarella is full of water and you never get the good crisp top.
As I said, things were rough for me at around that time. My professional life was fantastical. In that, it was a fantasy that I looked at pinned to a board, as I wrote blog posts for other companies, and scraped away at a novel, soon to be rejected often. I was writing, which was great. I was getting paid, which was also great. But not very much, and there seemed to be no way up or out other than a miracle fueled by my own pedaling. Hello? Is anybody out there? Being a good cook in social situations gave me some much needed confidence, not to mention ostensible budgetary control, but then again, when you buy 8 lbs of pork ribs, there’s not much in the way of savings. And fresh mozzarella for lasagna? Eeish. That’s a great way to make a cheap dish an expensive one. It was really the praise I basked in. And that I was paying for, I guess.
So, once when I got out to Dani’s for a weekend, or maybe it was even the middle of the week, fresh and stale off the Jitney, she was there to meet me as always, Lea strapped in the back seat, beaming at me. (Lea and I were best of friends from the first moment we met each other. Kindred spirits recognize each other, regardless of age, soul to soul, at once.) I had been experimenting a lot with linguine and a very labor intensive clam sauce, with chopped fresh tomatoes cooked down and then boosted up again with white wine, and strained clam juice from the actual clams, which you cook separately and many other finicky steps etc., etc., you get the picture. My kitchen, at the time, was literally 4 feet by 2 feet, if that. Poor Rob. The cleanup!
Dani loves clams. And so do I.
“Should we have linguine with clams?” I asked her. By the way, there was a recipe in my pocket, ready to go.
“Yes! I have the best way to make it!” She told me. She had mentioned this on the phone to me too. Frankly, I was dubious. And also feeling a little bit robbed. I was supposed to cook for her. That was my gig, right? Now what purpose did I have? I mean, she couldn’t really just want my company? What good was that? I was a sad, slightly depressed, writer. And I could cook. So at least one of those things was functional, and thus desirable. And I had a recipe! No way was hers as good as mine. Doubtful anyway.
Dani is a good cook. Let me say that for the record right here. She very much is. But with the baby, would she be? I mean, she had better things to do. I was here to make HER dinner. That was how it always went. Also, she thinks nothing of opening a box, or a jar, and at that time, I did. I thought a lot about it. Judgmentally. Obnoxiously. Looking back, I’d like to tell myself to chill the fuck out. Her favorite salad has basically nothing that’s a real vegetable in it, consisting mostly of hot banana peppers, bacon bits, croutons and dressing from a bottle. Fine, there are cucumbers and maybe some lettuce and or tomatoes. (Fucking delicious, I might add, salty and crunchy and wonderful. But where is the carefully whisked fresh vinaigrette? No, she’s right. Nothing does beat Newman’s Own. And you get to help kids!)
Anyway. The day passed, and we went to farm stands probably, and definitely to buy the clams at the excellent old fish market that’s right on the dock, and feels and smells exactly like you want your local fish place to, even if they also sell farmed salmon, which is certainly not local or the catch of the day, but no matter, the clams definitely are local to the North Fork, and Dani has the clamming rakes to prove it. And still, I worried but I held my tongue. Or maybe I ventured a few comments, but knowing me as she does, she ignored me. (Wise!)
We gave Lea a bath, and put her to bed. Lea was the best-tempered baby in the whole world, but bedtime was never fun time. She hated it. Loathed it. But eventually, down she went. And down we went, to finally eat something.
Truth be told, I was anxious. And very hungry. Nothing makes you hungrier than hanging with a kid. The whole time we were putting Lea to bed, I was pretending not to worry about what exactly were we going to eat. I mean, it wouldn’t be bad- there were fresh clams. But would it live up to my exacting standards of what I deemed to be correct? Were we going to roll out our own spaghetti? (Honestly, never did make pasta, probably never will!)
I didn’t worry any less when Dani pulled a jar of sauce out of the cupboard. That’s right. Sauce. From. A. Jar. I winced.
At that time, I never ever ever used sauce from a jar. I mean, Theresa was my mother in law! (or back then, my about to be mother in law!) We made sauce from scratch! It’s not that hard! It just takes a little time (or not even, if you don’t want.) And it’s always better than sauce from a, shudder, jar.
I wasn’t always a jar snob. I grew up on Ragu. And, I loved it too, ok? My mom would add black olives and veggies to it and spaghetti was one of my favorite meals of all time. But now I was a newly minted ambitious cook. I DID NOT EAT SAUCE FROM JARS. I also was just smart enough to shut up. I was in Dani’s house, and I would subvert my own prejudices and go along to get along. I would be a good guest.
The jar said “Rao’s” on the side, like the famous mafia spot in Harlem. That made me even more fearful. Vanity sauce! She dumped about half the jar in a saucepan, and we cleaned the clams, scrubbing them thoroughly. Then she dumped those in the same saucepan and covered it. Once the clams started popping open, she cooked the pasta, and in about no time at all, the whole thing was done, and she was spooning the sauce on top of the pasta, and we were carrying our bowls the table.
I didn’t expect much. This might be a total waste of good clams. But I don’t mind telling you, I was absolutely 1000% WRONG. (Isn’t that the point here? I was WRONG!)
I started gingerly with a clam. It was excellent- plump and damp and perfectly cooked, with a lovely hit of sweet tomato sauce. Then, I dug my fork into the pasta. It was amazing; the sauce was the platonic ideal of tomato sauce, and it had that perfect smooth, yet slightly rough texture. The clams gave it a wonderfully rich briny hit, and that’s when the slurping began for real. It was by far the best spaghetti with red clam sauce I have ever had. We sipped the sauce from the clamshells, and sent them clattering into a bowl, the clams chewy and sweet and hot. We gulped down pasta and then had more. We may have polished off the whole box, or nearly. I think I drank the gritty red remnants at the bottom of my bowl. Mmmm…
Dani! Ere I doubted you! My truest friend for over 30 years! What an asshole I am! Since that day, my pantry is never without a jar of Rao’s Marinara Sauce. It is so delicious. I even use it instead of cans of tomatoes on cold winter nights, by itself on whatever pasta I have lying around, because the only thing better is making sauce from scratch in September. At Christmas time, when I feed my whole extended family for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, they who grew up on Theresa sauce, I use Rao’s as the base of the seafood sauce, and everyone gorges themselves and has no room for flounder or sole or whatever the entrée is. Frankly, and don’t tell Theresa this (bless her,) I cook my meatballs in it too now.
True friendship, I think, is about communication and trust. Sometimes you have to know the right way to communicate, which might be to hang on for a second, and ride the thing out, because maybe, for a change, someone can show you a thing or two. And if you trust the person, they definitely will. You don’t have to cook for them or pamper them, you just really have to listen- because that’s the part of communication everyone sucks at. We just want to be heard, don’t we?
Dani spoke, and I listened, for once. Or I tried, and I came out the winner, because I learned something new and better. It’s liberating not to have to know everything, or be great at everything. It’s liberating to open a box, or use Progresso breadcrumbs. M.F.K Fisher mentions canned things in nearly all her recipes. There’s nothing wrong with making life easier, and mostly it doesn’t make it any less delicious, and if you read the label, no less virtuous either. Now I don’t hesitate at making things easier. Can’t find a certain brand I used to have to have of chipotle peppers? No one will care if I use the lesser ones. It’s the effort and the thought that counts, right? And usually, it tastes just as good, better if you are sharing it with friends and loved ones. Because that’s why we cook anyway. To nourish ourselves and connect. And now, whenever I go to Dani’s, we make Rao’s and clams, as we call it. And it is still delicious and perfect.
Dani’s Rao’s and Clams
2 dozen littleneck clams
1 jar Rao’s Marinara Sauce
1 lb Spaghetti or Linguini
Parsley for garnish
1) Bring a pot of water to boil and salt
2) Scrub the clams under cold water to get them clean. I use an old toothbrush if I have one handy. If not, I just scrub ‘em as best I can.
3) In a large saucepan, add the Rao’s sauce. I use the whole jar, because I like a lot of sauce. Turn the heat to medium high, and add the clams. Cover.
4) Give a stir here and there. The clams should start opening at about 5-7 minutes, but popping clams is unfortunately not an exact science. It may take longer.
5) Once the first one starts to open, cook the pasta according to the directions on the box.
6) Pull the open clams out of the sauce and put in a separate bowl, as they open. This keeps them from overcooking.
7) When the pasta is done, drain and toss with a little olive oil.
8) When all the clams are open, add pasta to the saucepan, and toss for a minute with the sauce.
9) Serve in bowls with clams on top and a sprinkle of parsley.
10) Slurp away.
Serves 4, maybe even 6, but just us after putting Lea and now Jamie to bed.