time well spent…

…in the company of three dead women.

On Sunday I spent the better part of four hours coaxing a simple Bolognese sauce into the realm of the culinary sublime. While the recipe required time and patience, always in short supply, it mostly demanded concentration which I willingly surrendered. I was so intent on losing myself cooking all day that I also made pollo con orégano with enfrijoladas on the open burners. Thankfully, this left little room for an idle mind to wander very far. I used to wonder if I undertook massive cooking projects because of some self-imposed Type A competition thing. But after a long, rainy summer alone with my thoughts I now understand that there is method to this madness…

Simply put, I need a mute button for that inner voice in my head – she’s a reckless blabbermouth who’s overstayed her welcome. I know she’s responsible for working memory and she oversees all manner of executive functioning, however not everything in my head requires constant scrutiny. Mindfulness is a great thing, but frankly I’ve had enough rumination and introspection to last a lifetime. Sure, my problem solving skills have become sharply honed gifts/weapons, but the incessant overthinking needs to downshift…immediately. My plan is to plunge headlong into functional adult mode and fill any vacant or lazy spaces with professional and creative endeavors, like sports photography, writing and overly elaborate cooking challenges.

herbless, garlic-less and utterly perfect

The irony is, it turns out I’m actually pretty well-adjusted to my inner voice, all things considered. I read a 2014 Science article last week that discussed Americans’ resistance to being alone with their own thoughts. Given the choice of sitting alone without distraction for 15 minutes or receiving an electric shock, 67% of men and 25% of women chose the shock. No thanks, I can make it 15 minutes. I’ve grown tolerant of, if not comfortable with my own company and have found a handful of worthy external interests to occupy my curious mind – so at least I have some pretty cool things to obsess over. I just need to set a few more boundaries. On Sunday, it started with sauce.

“To put a freshly made meal on the table…is a sincere expression of affection, it is an act of binding intimacy directed at whoever has a welcome place in your heart. And while other passions in your life may at some point begin to bank their fires, the shared happiness of good homemade food can last as long as we do.”

– Marcella Hazan

This was not my first encounter with Marcella Hazan’s famous Bolognese sauce, but it was the first time I truly trusted her process. Using a formal recipe can take many forms, from unyielding rule-following to creative mimicry to a mere nod. But when I am following the written texts of my idols (Julia, Diane and Marcella) it’s like we’ve entered into a contract. They trust that I am capable of following their directions with discernment and respect, while I trust that the food I make will be exceptionally delicious and actually achievable. Assuming we share these goals and expectations, we all get along just fine.

the girls: Julia Child, Diana Kennedy, Marcella Hazan

Growing up in Savannah I took Italian ragùs for granted – it was all just ubiquitous red spaghetti sauce except when my grandfather made it. He was stationed in Sicily in 1944 and after WWII his mantra became “burn the onions,” before adding plenty of oregano. Pop also taught me how to properly form hamburgers without overworking the meat, whip up a batch of creamy eggnog for two and a craft a perfect beef marinade. It was unusual for a man of his era to have so much interest in cooking, and while he taught me about red sauce, I was also his dove hunting companion, underaged chauffeur, Labrador wrangler and deck hand.

It made absolutely no difference to him that his first grandson was a little girl. He even allowed me to adorn his thinning hair with a fleet of tiny pink plastic barrettes, which he would forget about and wear all day – this played particularly well with his work colleagues. Pop was my “berry best friend” and our special relationship seemed to glaze over traditional gender roles, whether intentional or not – sort of his accidental participation in the 70s. I was only 15 when he died and I’ve often wondered how our relationship would have evolved through the years. But it’s frozen in time and I choose to simply remember the lovely moments together, especially making Sicilian sauce with burnt onions.

Marcella might not burn her onions, but I now trust her recipe

Back to Sunday…in between intense bursts of activity, the Bolognese sauce required hours of intermittent babysitting, which gave me time to make another entire meal. Full disclosure, all this cooking was to prep for an upcoming week of late afternoon sports photography, which I knew would preclude my typical kitchen schedule. After cooking all damn day, we actually grilled burgers for dinner. The sauce was for Monday and pollo con orégano, debuted Tuesday. Voilà, another advantage of overthinking: despite my general optimism, I always have a Plan B and quite often a B. Okay, fine and a Plan C.

I’m not afraid of garlic, but very suspicious of oregano, given it’s historic overuse in Italian food; I don’t think basil was much of a thing until pesto raged in the 80s. So while the oregano-less Bolognese sauce simmered, I pulled out my mortar and pestle to create an herb paste so pungent that Husband smelled it from upstairs. The recipe calls for 2 generous tablespoons of Mexican oregano which is an entirely different plant than Mediterranean oregano. Most household spice racks are stocked with the latter, which is in the mint family. They share some basic flavors but Mexican oregano is in the verbena family and much more floral and citrusy.

After days of looking, I finally procured the right oregano to make this dish, only to realize I had no thighs, only breasts. And there’s the discernment I was talking about – Diana needs to forgive this adjustment and trust that it was out of necessity rather than defiance. And it worked out beautifully, which is testament to her good recipe.

work, if you can call it that

Diving back into work, my week was a parade of sights, sounds and human interactions which was jolting almost to the point of overload. I was exhausted every night, but in a good way; a way that gave no allowance for second guessing or useless internal chatter. My arms ached from hoisting the heavy cameras and my bleary red eyes strained to edit photos with both precision and character. Also in a good way. These minor discomforts reminded me that, hey, I’m out there doing it. Of course my cooking was completely off-schedule, sporadic and unstructured, but guess what? In a good way. I was met with a warm dinner each night, which granted, I made myself, and I pulled it all off with little trust and forgiveness. And the girls were behind me all the way.

Overall, it was a pretty good week.

credit: somebody on the internet who knows

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