Marinara Sauce and the Beginner’s Mind

It was a year ago today, around my birthday, when I was thinking a lot about Italy and the food I’ve loved since I was a boy.

I never thought of myself as much of a cook, but over the past year I’ve come to see that the fundamentals of cooking aren’t half as complicated as I thought. 

And while I can’t pinpoint exactly how or why it began with marinara sauce, I think it had something to do with travel. 

I was 18 years old when I first visited Italy and the experience changed my life.  For one thing, it was one of the first countries where I spent any good amount of time outside of the States.  Not only did it broaden my perspective, but it did so in a way that inspired a deeply-rooted trust in the basic goodness of people, a trust that continues to this day. 

Never in my life had I met people who were so consistently happy, helpful and welcoming; and the realization was enough to make me weep especially when complimented with a cuisine so unbelievably good that I was convinced I could feel the love of a people put into it with every bite. 

And then of course, there was the wine.  I’d never really sipped or much less enjoyed wine before, but that first night in Rome marked the beginning of a love affair which, as my best friends will certainly tell you, also lasts to this day.  Chianti remains my favorite wine.  Forever and always. 

Simply put, Italy is one of the most friendly, romantic, sexy, joyous and culturally rich countries I have ever visited in my life.  It was an incredible way to begin what I further hope is a long life of travel. 

So I guess I can tell you exactly why I began my cooking trip with marinara sauce–because every time I make it, I reflect on these experiences.  I think about the old ruins and cobblestone streets of Rome, the ornate fountains, the candlelit restaurants that feel like they might stay open all night.  I think about the hills and cypress trees of Tuscany, and the Arno River in Florence glowing in the moonlight.  I think about the history.  The ghosts of the Coliseum.  I think about the art.  The art!  This is the land of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.  The Renaissance.  The opera!  This is La Dolce Vita and the surrealist dreams of Fellini and the great masters of Italian cinema.  

It’s a place where time doesn’t exist except in all the right ways, and for all the right reasons, where you’ll see flashes of modernity amid the backdrop of ancient ruins.  For me, life is a flashing moment and one great big beautiful trip that ought to be celebrated and revered.  Italy is a place that encapsulates that realization, one that I hope is a realization for the rest of the world that encourages us to not take life for granted, but to cherish it and truly cherish one another.

Finally there’s one other reason why I appreciate making the sauce.  As it’s a reminder of that first experience in Italy, perhaps by extension, it also reminds me of the excitement in beginning something new, something that’s about to unfold in a way I can’t even begin to imagine.  

It’s the thrill of being a beginner, when everything is unknown and mysterious and you’re unburdened by any heavy expectation because, in the beginning, you’re too humble and open-minded to indulge it.  I try to maintain that mindset in everything that I do.  Though I’ve learned and experienced a lot in the time in between, I still like to consider myself an amateur.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ren Michael - Marinara - Quinby & Co.
Molto Bene! Me in my kitchen, the night I first made the sauce.

Now, let’s get to the dish.  Like many people, Italian food is my favorite cuisine, and though I’m inclined to say that it’s more the intangibles that I appreciate the most–the warmth, the attitude, the lack of pretentiousness, the familial, convivial nature of the restaurants and the country, the red wine and all those wonderful things I mentioned earlier–if there is one constant that makes me enjoy Italian food as much as I do, I would have to say it all comes down to the sauce.  

Since I was new to cooking, I figured marinara was a simple enough dish to start, since it incorporated so many basic principles of cooking: using fresh ingredients, prepping the ingredients, using oils and garlic effectively, knowing how and when to add salt for taste, and then, my favorite part, the process of letting something cook slowly while you periodically check in to stir, maybe add more salt or get a better idea of how much time you have left.  Of course, you’ll likely add your own flourishes and personal touch with time, as I typically do myself, but here are the fundamentals.

Recipe:

1 can of whole tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil

7-10 cloves of garlic

A little basil

Salt

And that’s all you need my friends.

Directions:

Prep your garlic by slicing thin.  The thinner the better.

Crush the tomatoes by hand in a big bowl.

Add the oil to the pan and heat over medium, add the garlic and then let it sizzle, 1-2 minutes so it doesn’t burn.  When that happens, go ahead and add the crushed tomatoes.  I like to add a cup of water, which I’ve poured into the empty can of tomatoes to get any remaining bit of sauce.  

From here, just let it look and stir every twenty or thirty minutes.  Add salt to taste.  When it starts smelling real good and the water has absorbed, you’ll have your sauce, finish off with thinly sliced basil.  Buon appetito!  

 

 

Suggested music:

As you can see, we’ve provided our own curated Spotify playlist above.  If you’re looking for upbeat, Louis Prima is the way to go.  If you’re looking for romantic, try anything by the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti.  You might also consider the soundtrack to the Godfather. 

For some reason I enjoy listening to film scores when I cook.  Another great album is the score for Anatomy of a Murder by Duke Ellington.  If you’re looking for smooth, try Quincy Jones’ I Dig Dancers or The Quintessence, or Henry Mancini’s score to the Pink Panther.

 

Ren Michael - Signature - Quinby & Co.

 

 

Penetrating the Aether: Are We Listening?

Has social media made us better communicators?

No! Ok I’m not exactly sure, but I’m inclined to think not since it’s removed face-to-face confrontation, a core component of meaningful conversation, from our everyday lives. That’s not to say we were generally good communicators anyway, even before ten or twelve years ago.

Still, I do think social media has aggravated many of our common weaknesses, such as vulnerability to ego, an unwillingness to be wrong, and not listening.

The same can be said for texting but I’ll get into that, as well as social media, some other time. What’s more interesting to me, and likely more important for the sake of cultivating a more prosperous society, are those weaknesses I just mentioned. Besides let’s face it, social media isn’t going anywhere. It’s prevalence in our daily lives is unlikely to change anytime soon. Nor should it.

No, what I think ought to change more immediately is our handling of it, so that it’s presence in our lives isn’t quite as relevant, or at least so it’s less damaging.

To do that we’re going to have to get a better handling on how we have conversations with each other, independent of the platform we use to do it.

All anyone needs to do these days is go on YouTube, and look at the arguments people have with one another in the comments section following any political post. If just the thought of doing that made you cringe just now, you’re not alone. I feel the same way. “Who are these people?!”

That’s just it. They’re us.

While YouTube in particular can seem like a cesspool for vitriol and hate, we can’t be so quick to righteously distance ourselves from them, because at the core of those forums, I think, lie the same fundamental problems that dog even the most diplomatic among us. Ego.

That my friends, is one pesky son of a bitch.

Now let’s just imagine, for a moment, that ego didn’t exist in the world. What would it look like?

Are you smiling yet? Keep trying.

Alright that’s enough. Maybe you didn’t smile. Maybe you’re not the smiling type, and that’s ok. We still love you.

The point I’m trying to make is that most of us go into our conversations and arguments as though it’s a contest. But that’s just it. It’s not a contest. That’s an illusion perpetuated over the last thirty years, with the rise of cable news and programs that pit one person against another like two swordsman representing their warring tribes.

The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.
-Leonardo Da Vinci

We don’t owe our allegiance to our ideology. We owe it to the truth. Granted, the truth is something more abstract if not multi-dimensional, but it’s universal. Thus, the aim for each participant in a conversation cannot be winning, which naturally pits one against the other. The aim must be to arrive at a common truth, which requires working together.

When that happens, we no longer care about being wrong. We’re no longer terrified at the prospect of losing an argument, and why should we be? Really, we don’t lose at all. If you find that you’ve come around to embracing another person’s point of view, you didn’t lose, you just discovered something that you’d overlooked before. You’re a wiser person for it.

There’s nothing to be bitter about. You’ve simply worked together with someone else at uncovering a broader truth. That’s something to celebrate, not scorn.

Finally, when we lose the unfounded fear of being wrong, a third thing happens. We are more able to listen. We’ve removed ego, fear, insecurity, bias and judgement from our point of view; and so we can more adequately listen to the person in front of us, with respect and a clear devotion to something bigger than ourselves.

This might sound like an oversimplification, but it’s really just a small change, a slight shift in our thinking that can make a monumental difference in our society–let alone in our personal relationships–the more people follow through with it. If we remove our ego from the equation, and step out of our own way, we no longer have one hand tied behind our back in how we communicate with one another.

This, I’m convinced, is the essential core of a healthy country and a truly self-sustaining democracy.

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P.S. for those of you who made it this far, thanks for listening! Here’s a token of our appreciation.