Cooking by instinct didn’t happen overnight. In fact, in that first tiny kitchen, New York City circa 1965, I’m not even sure I could hardboil an egg. But I knew what, among my mother’s rather bland fare, I could taste in memory: broiled steak treated with red wine vinegar, oregano, and salt and pepper, which my sister, mother and I coveted not so much for the meat itself but for its drippings–globs of juice in that ineffable mixture of vinegar and spices. Scooped from the pan with bits of bread after we’d left the table, it was the best part of the meal.
She also made a delicious spaghetti sauce with tuna fish and anchovies, also imported from my father’s Sicilian mother and aunts: the tomato sauce probably canned but with the additions of a can of tuna and maybe half one of anchovies, this sauce brought the tang of the sea and field into “la boca,” the mouth. Sprinkled with Parmesan–Ymmm!
Other than that, she opened cans–still marvelous in themselves to someone who’d watched her mother make everything from scratch. And everything else that my mother herself made from scratch (except for sweets), she overcooked. It was the German/Swedish in her. She couldn’t help herself. I guess we’re lucky my father was always on deck to demand a green salad. Those salads too I remember with relish from my mother’s table. And I have to give my mother credit, also, for insisting that we ate our “roughage,” which meant apples and carrots constantly between our teeth.
Only when I too began to cook away from home, did my own palate come entirely into play. Then the Italian choices I favored made themselves known. I loved cookbooks and usually followed them slavishly, but recently I’ve turned to taste itself and those smatterings of knowledge picked up from books and culinary mistakes.
For instance: recently I served friends a spaghetti dish I made up as I went along. It was delicious, we all agreed, and one wrote me a note asking for the recipe. Here it is, my first cooking by instinct offering to the world: “Pesto & Company”
Make pesto by blending basil leaves and some olive oil into a paste. Don’t add anything else. Freeze or use immediately.
In a large frying pan, cook two medium onions in some olive oil and a bit of butter, for enhanced flavor. Add maybe three tablespoons of pesto or more depending on the amount of pasta and number of people you want to serve.
Then mix in slowly, over medium heat, 2 or 3 tablespoons of nonfat cottage cheese and the same amount of nonfat sour cream or yogurt–for the zing. Add maybe 4 tablespoons of capers, plus a little juice. Cut up and add a fresh zucchini, for texture. Add maybe 4 tablespoons of walnut pieces, for taste and texture. Mix. Then cook the pasta. I prefer whole wheat organic thin pasta because it cooks fast and tastes better than the bland white.
Once the pasta is “al dente,” meaning when you bite into a strand, it offers a bit of resistance, drain it and dump into the sauce mixture. Completely coat pasta with sauce and transfer as much as you want into a serving dish. I never mix in Parmesan but put it on the table for guests to add themselves. This, in part, because I want to cut down on salt, but also I want to avoid adding too much to this almost overpoweringly zesty and zingy cheese.
That’s it. What happens is that the pesto and white dairy products mix wonderfully into a rather googy sauce, then the other things add crunch and zing. Though I’m far from an expert, I find that the best Italian food (or any food) appeals not simply to taste but also very much to texture–i.e. chewiness. Unless my stomach is upset and I want nothing but the blandest food, I like to move bits of this and that around in my mouth, biting into this, then that and enjoying the little explosions of separate tastes which I then finish blending “al dente.”