November 19, 2010

Eat This, Rachel Ray

If I were to pen a modern-day Dante's Inferno, I'd reserve one circle of hell for Rachel Ray. I detest her faux-cheeriness and false charm. She may sauté chicken in e.v.o.o., but it will always be olive oil to me. While Julia Child elevated her audience, Ray cooks like everyone else. And a top-rate meal in 30 minutes? Puh-leeze. That's not possible without quality-reducing shortcuts, subpar, premade ingredients, and often in Ray's case, unwashed fruits and vegetables. Speed and quality go together a lot like fat-free and ice cream: It's possible, but a lot gets lost in the process.

Italians might disagree. Yes, Italy is home to the Slow Food movement, which aims to be everything fast food is not. Many of its culinary treasures, such as the long-simmered Bolognese ragu, aren't exactly ideal for busy Tuesday nights. And other than on the road—riding in a car with an Italian driver is often a white-knuckle experience—many Italians don't appear in a hurry to do much of anything. Yet most Italian dishes don't require complicated techniques and take little time to execute. The idea is to use few ingredients and maximize each of their flavors.

There's no better embodiment of this principle than Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce with onions and butter, whose name tells you all the ingredients you'll need. (Hazan, by the way, did for Italian food what Julia Child did for French in her masterful Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.)

Here's what you need: A 15-ounce can of plum Italian tomatoes, 5 tablespoons of butter, and a medium onion, peeled and cut in half. Oh, and of course, salt. In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients, bring them to a slow, steady simmer for about 30 minutes (or maybe 45, if you listen to Marcella). Occasionally stir, breaking the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon, which gives the sauce a smooth texture. Once it's thickened, test for salt, and that's about it. There's no need for further embellishment, though I've found a healthy dash or two of heavy cream will do it no harm.

With so few ingredients, there's nowhere for bad tomatoes to hide. I know of no sauce that so simply showcases tomatoes' irresistible sweetness, but it won't do so if you use under-ripened, highly acidic ones that sadly dominate most supermarket shelves. My favorites are the Italian plum tomatoes from Carmelina, which you can find at Whole Foods. A less-expensive, more-accessible alternative brand is Muir Glen, which packages organic California tomatoes.

This sauce pairs best with stuffed pastas or those with some added personality, such as gnocchi. I prefer to serve it as it is in homes and trattorias in Bologna, Italy, coating meat-stuffed tortellini.

As much as it pains me to admit it, Rachel Ray is right. Sorta. Great food made without a lot of effort is possible in only 30 minutes. But the Italians teach you don't need to stoop to her level to next time you're in a pinch.

Buon Appetito!

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