Small, Good Things: Cooking Man, Cooking

By Joe Dizney

Nov. 9, 2016 — In the (almost) three years I’ve written this column I’ve never run a dateline, but it would be disingenuous, dishonest and almost cynical of me not to acknowledge last week’s momentous events in light of “Small, Good Things.”

The Raymond Carver short story that gives the column its name is about loss — and mourning, and sadness — and how food, in addition to providing physical sustenance when strength is most needed, pointedly offers spiritual and emotional comfort and succor, too.

As sleep was impossible last night, I spent my dark night reading a book by Yuval Noah Harari called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It traces the biological, anthropological, economic and social history of our particular species of Great Apes, Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”), the only species of the genus to emerge triumphant over the last 10,000 years. The first “creative” trait that emerged from our genus was the fact that we cooked — we discovered fire and invented cuisine (a minor exaggeration), which in turn fueled our physical, mental, social and economic dominance of the world.

I am Homo concoctus, cooking man. Like Carver’s baker, it is my response to the highs and lows of life. (It obviously beats thinking, which from current evidence is held in particularly low esteem.) I woke up this morning sensing a general and free-floating air of pervasive loss and saw gleanings of its classic psychological stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. So I cooked.

*  *  *

This week’s recipe challenge was thrown down a day or two following a different creepy day: Halloween. “What do we do with all these pumpkins?,” came the cry for help from a friend and mother of an 8-year-old who had made the mistake of hosting a sucrose blowout for 20-or-so pre-teens. She was left with a short bushel of choice sugar pumpkins in the wake.

Snooping around the internet, I came across a “creamy pumpkin pasta sauce” which became the genesis for what we have here.

Roasting and puréeing a pumpkin is a snap, and a 10-inch specimen yielded 5 cups (but you can certainly use canned). That’s your base. Add a classic mirepoix of onions, celery and carrots (with a little garlic), a scattering of Tuscan-inflected herbs — oregano and sage (a common pairing with squash) — and bay leaves, which allegedly make pumpkin “more pumpkin-y,” whatever that means.

Pumpkin Ragù (Photo by J. Dizney)

Pumpkin Ragù (Photo by J. Dizney)

Pumpkin is a natural thickener and the broth is a flavorful way to thin it out. Now, this would certainly result in a lovely vegetarian sauce, but a trip to Marbled Meats inadvertently uncovered some sweet Italian sausage, bolstered by some wild fennel, which somehow got me thinking of a Marcella Hazan’s classic Bolognese sauce. In her recipe, the meat (usually beef) is simmered in milk (and a grating of nutmeg) before tomatoes are added. Substituting the fennel spiced pork sausage for beef, and pumpkin purée for tomato sauce further validated the choice of oregano and sage and resulted in an unusual but satisfying New World ragù. Served over penne rigate or rigatoni (use whole wheat pasta for extra body) with a grating of Parmesan, this is fall comfort food of the highest order.

Eat up, buck up. We’re going to need strength for whatever comes next.

Pumpkin Ragù

Serves 4-6

1 medium sugar pumpkin, 10-inch diameter (or 2 cups canned purée)
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup butter
1 large yellow onion, diced small
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 large stalk celery, chopped
½ pound sweet Italian sausage (uncased)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage leaves
2 to 3 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 cup white wine (optional)
1 cup chicken (or vegetable) broth
12 ounces penne rigate
⅓ cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
Fried sage leaves for garnish (optional)

If using fresh pumpkin, halve the pumpkin horizontally and scrape the insides to remove the fibers and seeds. Sprinkle with water and place cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in preheated (350°) oven for 1 hour. When cool, scrape pumpkin flesh from skin and purée in a food processor until smooth. (This will make more than you need —  freeze the rest or make soup, risotto or pie.)

Heat oil and butter in a Dutch oven or deep skillet over medium heat. Sauté onion until transparent (3 to 4 minutes), add garlic and sauté for a minute more. Add carrots and celery and cook for another 2 minutes. Add sausage and cook until it has just barely lost its raw color. Add sage, oregano, bay leaves and red pepper flakes, stirring to incorporate for a minute.

Add milk and bring to a simmer. Add nutmeg and a few grinds of pepper, stirring regularly, until milk has evaporated. Add wine and simmer until evaporated. Add purée and broth. Stir to coat ingredients and bring to a low simmer. Correct seasoning and simmer for 30 minutes to an hour. Remove bay leaves.

Prepare penne according to package directions. When done, briefly drain. Add a knob of butter to the pasta pan over low heat. Return drained pasta to the pan and add enough ragù to liberally coat the pasta. Heat, stirring, for a minute or so.

Serve in shallow bowls with Parmesan, garnished with fried sage leaves.

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