29 January 2011

Relaxed and rewaxed

Around the time we bought our house I was flipping through the newspaper and came across a collection of quotes about food. I cut out one from Julia Child and hung it on the fridge. "The dinner hour is a sacred, happy time when everyone should be together and relaxed," it read.

I grew up in a house where my mom cooked and my family sat together at the dinner table, and passed the corn, peas and casseroles around the table. As my husband and I settled into our new home, I decided I wanted to put the quote on the wall of our breakfast nook.

Just like I thought a coat of white paint would make a faux brick backsplash slightly less hideous, I thought putting that quote on the wall would will a lifetime of magical family mealtimes upon us. I was idealistic to say the least. I didn't truly understand what it really meant to be the one in charge of putting dinner on the table for a family. Those were the days when we had the extra money to buy Frenched lamb and a bottle of Pinot Noir, the time to talk leisurely about our future while we cooked and the energy to watch an entire movie afterward.

These days cooking dinner is really the side show. In addition to browning meat, firing up the oven and grating cheese, I am trying to console a baby who just wants to be held and a 2-year-old who wants nothing other than my undivided attention. Some nights, I put the baby in the front carrier, let the toddler pull a stool to the counter and ignore the cheese ground into the bottoms of his socks, the kosher salt ring around his lips and my own common sense to not do things like dice onions while you cannot see your fingers because of the baby on your chest.

Then, when we actually make our way to the table, we begin an entirely new challenge that usually involves threats like, "If you throw the fork, you will not get it back," and "We will clean up all of the red sauce when we're finished, so you do not need napkin number 592 right at this moment."

Recently, my 2-year-old took notice of the quote and started asking us to read it to him. He now has it memorized but nonetheless asks me to read it to him several times at each meal. I say it slowly, letting him say it along with me. And we always share a laugh at the end because he can't quite enunciate the word "relaxed." It comes out as "re-waxed."

That part is comical to me, anyways. Julia didn't have kids. And if you do, the dinner hour is likely not relaxing. It's a difficult, crazy, anxiety-inducing time of day that leaves many well-intentioned moms thinking that McDonald's may not be that bad.

This is why I never let my pantry be without two things: a jar of red sauce and pasta. I make a homemade red sauce that is delicious in everything from lasagna to pizza, but I'm also in touch with reality.

Here's my red sauce recipe. And when you're picking up the ingredients at the grocery store, just go ahead and throw a jar of the store-bought stuff in your cart, too. Surely by Friday you'll be thanking yourself.

Homemade Red Sauce

2, 28-ounce cans of whole tomatoes

1, 6-ounce can of tomato paste

1 medium onion, diced

1/4 cup red wine
pinch of red pepper flakes
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil

Special equipment: immersion blender or food processor.

Coat the bottom of a heavy-bottomed stock pot with olive oil and heat to medium. For best results do not use a non-stick pot. Add onions and cook on medium heat until tender and lightly browned. Add wine and continue to cook, letting wine reduce and scraping the bottom of pan, about 4 to 5 minutes or until alcohol smell is gone. Add tomatoes and tomato paste and red pepper flakes. Stir to combine and let simmer for about 30 minutes. Puree the mixture either in the pot with an immersion blender or in batches with a food processor. Season to taste. At this point the sauce could be served immediately, cooled completely and frozen or refrigerated. To use for a pizza, return to heat and allow sauce to reduce and thicken for about another hour on low heat.

Variation: For a meat sauce, begin by browning sausage. Once cooked through, remove sausage and cook onions in sausage drippings. Continue with recipe.

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