There’s a lot of loose talk out there about how long it takes to caramelize onions. It takes an inconvenient amount of time, during which one could easily cook two or three other meals, but it’s my favorite part of cooking. Few things respond so directly to attention and care as onions do. How good they are is directly proportional to your patience with them. For a lot of people the waiting is the hard part, but for me it is resisting the urge to poke and prod. When I first started cooking I would stand by the stove, stirring constantly, wary of the pan’s heat and preoccupied with getting the onions as evenly cooked as possible. But as I got more comfortable in the kitchen I learned to leave them longer in one place, allowing all the necessary chemical reactions to run their course, giving the pan a quick stir only when the onions touching the bottom got several shades darker than those touching the air. You don’t slide a steak around on the pan while you grill it; you create the right environment for it and let it sit just the right amount, until it is time. Any changes to the process feel like superstitious flourishes, which doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of them in the least. I like to think I can taste the difference when I dice the onions as small as possible and let them sit in a bowl mixed with salt and black pepper for an hour or so while I do something else, draining the water before adding them to the pan. I like to think the occasional splashes of water or wine or vinegar I throw in to make it sweeter, more stewed than sauteed, actually do that. But fundamentally, all caramelized onions are delicious, and anything you do to them beyond oil, heat, and a very occasional stir is for your state of mind, not the final state of the onions.
After a long hiatus, Ava Luna is working on some new music. I’ve been at a house in Wilmington, Vermont with my bandmates for a week and a half, and it’s been deeply satisfying to play together again, but the time management has been weird. I keep real busy at home, between working a full-time job and doing guitar setups in the evenings and playing in several bands, which means rehearsing and gigs and setting aside time at home to learn songs. Plus like, trying to maintain my interpersonal relationships and get enough sleep. Now, here, all I have to do is hang out and be prepared to play bass when it is asked of me. Even on a productive day it’s a lot of downtime. If you sit down and improvise with no predetermined structure, you’re going to have a couple good ideas and start repeating yourself. I’m happy to sit on a couch and rip off Michael Henderson and Jackie Jackson for as long as someone will let me, but we got enough of that done in the first couple days, and now the singers are singing and the editors are editing. When I have to write a more deliberate part, bass and drums get done first, and then I’m left to my own devices again. This is the most legit idle time I’ve had in a while, and it’s a little jarring to be so at rest. I try to channel my excess energy into cooking. I figure, if I’m not writing the bulk of the songs or running the Logic sessions, I might as well whip up a hearty meal for my colleagues. Everyone in the band can cook, actually, but I’m the one who gets really excited about it, and once the rhythm tracks are laid down I have the least else to do.
Yesterday, seeing that the day’s creative work was done and it was still early afternoon, I decided to make an ambitious dinner. We were towards the end of our stay, so I was trying to use up the things in the kitchen and avoid another run to the grocery store. I had some tomato paste, and onions, and garlic, and two tomatoes. I had bought the tomato paste intending to use it for a sauce, and now it was time. We also had two eggplants, and I decided to try a sort of a parm thing, never having pan-fried an eggplant before. I sliced them as thin as possible, thinking about the lunch cart near my office where instead of one thick slab of eggplant there are two or three very thin ones. I salted the eggplant and let it sit, occasionally sopping up the water with a paper towel, for an hour or two before I began cooking. After all, it was early, and no one was going to be hungry for a while. I was surprised to learn that salting eggplant is no longer strictly necessary, but if you’re going to fry something you might as well dry it out as much as possible and get it a little salty. And thinner slabs give you more crispy, caramelized surface area. I didn’t have any breadcrumbs, so I made do with seasoned flour followed by an egg wash, which is two of the three steps you’re supposed to do. I was pretty sure the breadcrumbs were important, so as a hedge I set aside about a third of the eggplant to roast in the oven, brushed in garlic-infused oil produced as a by-product of sauce production. At least one of these two eggplant things would be good, and I’d learn something about eggplant, which I don’t work with so much.
I don’t usually follow recipes, but I want to document this one because it was so well-received by my bandmates. The idea was to try making a sauce with a combination of fresh tomatoes and tomato paste, instead of the canned whole tomatoes I usually use. I didn’t have all the things I wanted in the kitchen, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Any more elements would have screwed it up. Try it sometime. Pick a night when you have no plans and no desire to go outdoors, and take your time.
Leisurely Poached Garlic Tomato Sauce
A pound of pasta. All we had was ditalini, which are tiny cylinders best-suited for a soup. Spaghetti would be ideal.
2 medium-sized tomatoes
2 smallish onions, or an equivalent amount of onion mass from a single larger one
At least five cloves of garlic, unpeeled
1 can tomato paste
1 cube vegetable bouillon
An aged cheese to put on top, we used a combination of parmigiano reggiano and 2-year Vermont cheddar
Salt, black pepper, red pepper, garlic powder, and rosemary to taste
Preheat your toaster oven to 400 degrees. I used the toaster because I was using the primary oven for something else. Feel free to just use the oven, I guess, but the toaster oven is my favorite kitchen appliance and I often use it in preparing proper meals beyond toast. It’s just a little oven that preheats faster, perfect for prepping small things or making a hot sandwich that you can easily monitor to ensure perfect execution. There’s probably something different about how the heat is distributed that a professional chef would care about, but not I. I could live with just a toaster oven if I had to. Actually the guy who lived in my apartment before me did just that. He even went so far as to take the burner racks off the stove and just put a toaster oven on there. When I took over the apartment the gas wasn’t even turned on. The sight of that toaster perched atop my useless stove told me more than I cared to know about the life that was being conducted in that house. But he did leave it when he moved, and for that I am grateful. It’s a good one, with a convection setting. The one here is a step down, but it does the job.
Anyway, slice the onions as thin as possible. Splash some oil into the pan, enough to cover the bottom and then some, and put the pan on medium-low heat. Add the onions and a generous sprinkling of salt. Stir enough to coat the onions with oil and salt, and leave it the hell alone. Don’t be a helicopter parent to your onions. Let them go unsupervised for a while so they can properly socialize with the other onions, even though they risk getting a little singed out there.
Separate the cloves of garlic from the head, but do not peel them. Quarter and de-seed the tomatoes. Place the garlic cloves in a small ramekin, and pour in some olive oil, enough to nearly cover them. If you don’t have a ramekin, you can fashion a little vessel out of aluminum foil, just make sure it doesn’t have any holes in it. I was able to fit one of the tomatoes in the ramekin with the garlic, and switch them out halfway through the roasting, but that was an experiment and I don’t think it’s essential. I’d thought about covering the tomatoes in oil in a larger vessel, but that would be a lot of oil and I compromised. You’d be fine just generously coating the tomatoes in oil and roasting them in a pan with some salt. The garlic, however, needs to be almost entirely covered so it gets poached. Put this in the oven and forget about it for a while. I think I left it for about twenty minutes before I switched out the tomatoes, then I did another twenty minutes with those tomatoes, and finally did another twenty or thirty minutes with the tomatoes just roasting on a small baking sheet, switching the toaster to broil. Ovens are different, it might take you less time, but that’s an hour and ten minutes right there, just so you know what you’re getting into. The sauce was going for the majority of that time, just doing its own thing and waiting for these ingredients to make it complete.
Leave the tomatoes in until they’re falling apart under their own weight and ever so slightly charred at the cut edges of the skin. Leave the garlic in until it is soft enough to spread like room-temperature butter. It’s probably possible to do this in less time at a higher temperature, maybe broiling throughout. I’ll try that next time. But I’m on vacation, and if I take several hours to make some eggplant and pasta that is a feature rather than a bug.
Keep an eye on the onions in the pan. When they’re translucent and limp, throw in the vegetable bouillon and half a cup of water to reconstitute it, stirring thoroughly. You’re doing something like you’d do to begin a soup, but you’re cooking it with far less water, so all the vegetable umami that would be distributed throughout a soup with a lot of water is instead concentrated and reabsorbed into your onions. Around this time, find another burner and start boiling the water for pasta, with a healthy dose of salt. Stir when absolutely necessary to prevent burning, until the water is gone and the onions are at least as dark as a brown paper bag. The more you wait, the better they are. You can take it further than you think you can.
Now it’s time to add the tomato paste, plus a canful of water to make it mix in more evenly. Probably you could do the bouillon and the tomato paste at the same time, but my gut told me to cook the tomato paste less. Perhaps another superstitious flourish, but the idea was to leave the paste as a neutral tomato base and let the roasted tomatoes give it depth. Cooking is basically magic, so superstitions are appropriate. Add rosemary, garlic powder, and red pepper flakes. Even when I use fresh garlic, I like to throw some garlic powder in there too. It’s a different animal, and it adds another layer of taste to the final product.
Cook this for ten minutes or so. Check on your tomatoes and garlic in the toaster – if they’re not ready yet, turn the heat off. If they are, take them out and remove the skin from the garlic, reserving the oil, which is now infused with garlic (I used it to oven-roast a portion of the eggplant noted above). Add the garlic and tomatoes to the pan and mash them up a bit, but don’t be too thorough about it; some chunks of both contribute nicely to the texture. At this point your sauce is going to be quite thick, and you’re going to add some volume with the pasta water once the pasta is done. Throw the pasta in the water, which is hopefully boiling by now. If you have to turn off the heat on the sauce while you wait it’s not the end of the world, it’ll still be hot. When the pasta is done, save some of the starchy water and incorporate it into the sauce. I don’t know how much water. Between half a cup and a cup. Do you. Let it simmer for as long as it takes you to grate some cheese and get plates and utensils and whatnot. Mix with the pasta, grind a little black pepper on top, add cheese, and serve.
The sauce was fantastic. It got rave reviews, and these are people who have had many sauces of mine. It was the best tomato sauce I’ve ever made, and the rhythm of juggling three burners, a toaster oven, and a regular oven was oddly soothing. It was the opposite of efficient and it absolutely paid off.
The eggplant was fine, I guess. Breadcrumbs are important.