Thursday, May 21, 2009

Will Write For (and About) Food

In December 2008, I was hired to replace the outgoing food writer for the Good Life magazine. I was thrilled. My first column would be published in the February 2009 issue and there were few stipulations regarding its content. It was up to me to come up with a recipe, written in conversational style, and an accompanying story. That was it. I wrote a piece with a Valentine's Day theme, turned it in ahead of schedule, and waited to hear from the editor, Ken Martin. I heard from him, but it wasn't the glowing praise I'd hoped to read. The email I received in early January announced the end of the Good Life, which meant my new gig as a food writer was over before it started. I'm posting the previously unpublished article here because it's filled with good background information about me and my family. And because last night I forgot to start the dough for the No-Knead Seed Bread I was going to write about today. Check back tomorrow for that post. For now, though, my first and last Good Life food column:

Ten years ago, I cooked Spaghetti al Tonno e Pomodoro for a man I wanted with all my heart. I had fallen. Hard. Wooing him with a fairly lusty plate of pasta and an inviting bottle of wine was my way of expressing serious interest. We were both writers doing time as waiters in a beloved Austin restaurant. I had just moved back to town after escaping to Seattle for a year. He had just moved back to town after a short stint in Virginia. We were both looking ahead. It felt like we were meant to be.

My year in Seattle was spent taking long walks and bicycle rides, working mindless temp jobs and fantasizing about food. I couldn’t afford to eat out and bought only meager grocery items to cook at home. My passion for all things culinary was instead fueled by a mountain of cooking magazines found in a storage closet in the rambling house I shared with four roommates. I carried a modest stack with me to work every day and copied recipes, studied techniques, and memorized ingredients in my copious downtime. Before long, I had made my way through every issue of Food and Wine, Gourmet, Fine Cooking, Vegetarian Times, and Cooking Light in that closet. I mastered the easier recipes that called for the cheapest ingredients, including the previously mentioned Spaghetti with Tuna and Tomato Sauce, and dreamed of the day when I could attempt the more precious dishes.

Now, ten years later, the man I wanted with all my heart is my husband and the father of our wondrous eight-month-old son. Spaghetti al Tonno e Pomodoro has been shortened (and anglicized)--around here the dish is now known as Tuna Pasta, and it remains, of all the meals in my much expanded and practiced repertoire, my husband's favorite. He recently admitted that sentiment plays a part in dictating his preference for the dish, which is why I've chosen it for this month's column. It has become "our" dish, a culinary Valentine, if you will. Make it for someone you love, or might love. Make it for yourself. It's easy, healthy, and relatively inexpensive, and you probably have a handful of necessary components lingering in your pantry already. Remember: your Valentine's Day meal – or any special meal, for that matter – need not involve high-end ingredients or an exhaustive grocery list. Special meals are special in exact proportion to the love and care you put into them and the spirit in which they are shared.

To make Tuna Pasta, start by draining a can of Italian tuna packed in olive oil into a large nonstick skillet. Release the tuna into a small bowl, break it up with a fork, and set it aside. Finely chop 3-6 cloves of garlic. When it comes to garlic I say bring it on, but I'm overly fond of the stinking rose and believe this humble yet powerful bulb elevates this dish to amazing heights. Worried that garlic breath might put a crimp in your romantic evening? Soothe yourself with the reminder that your dining partner will be eating the same thing. If that doesn't work, concentrate on garlic's reputation as an aphrodisiac. Long credited with prolonging physical strength, garlic was fed to pyramid-building Egyptian slaves while Tibetan monks were forbidden from entering the monasteries after eating the stuff. This is presumably because garlic was thought to inflame the passions. But I digress.

Open a 28-ounce can of plum tomatoes, pour the tomatoes and their juices into a large bowl, and with clean hands break them up. Set the bowl aside. Roughly chop a good handful of Italian parsley and put a large heavy pot of salted water on to boil. (A note about the parsley: if I still haven't convinced you not to worry about garlic breath, you may want to chop more than a handful of the stuff. If treated as another primary component rather than a condiment, parsley can counteract the effect of garlic on the breath.) Toast a tablespoon or two of pine nuts in a dry skillet and set them aside. If you like capers, rinse a tablespoon or two of brined or salted buds and set them aside, too.

Now you're ready to compose the sauce. Turn the flame under the skillet of tuna-infused olive oil to medium. When it comes to temperature add the garlic and cook, stirring, for thirty seconds. Pour the tomatoes and tomato juice into the pan and add a pinch of crushed red chili flakes and salt and pepper to taste. Lower the heat. Simmer the mixture until it has thickened slightly, about fifteen minutes. Add the tuna, adjust the seasonings, and set the pan aside. Immerse a pound of spaghetti into the boiling salted water and cook for eight to ten minutes until al dente. Drain it and return it to the pot. Add the sauce to the pot and marry it and the pasta with most of the chopped parsley and all of the pine nuts and capers. Gently toss the tangled, heady concoction and transfer it to a platter. Rain the rest of the parsley over the top and stand back and admire your creation. Ten years ago, my then future husband and I enjoyed our meal with a bottle of Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc--and to this day we often turn to the same wine when Tuna Pasta is on the dinner menu--but it would also go well with an off-dry rosé.

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