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RBR Tailgating: Simple Marinara

My favorite weekend is here.

Baton Rouge is coming to town this weekend.

Maybe not the entirety of the city, but it seems that way. I’m tasked with making marinara for thirty or so people and one of those Cajun reprobates pilfered my stock pot to make gumbo.

This is me frustratedly bathing in faux outrage. I love the Cajun reprobates who are in reality far from being reprobates and, in fact, far more upstanding citizens than me and more than welcome to said pot. This is my favorite game of the year and there is nothing even tangentially attached to the culinary world that I enjoy more than making tomato based sauces. I have fun relatives en route, a kitchen full of good things, and a task that brings out the zen in my Catholic self ahead. I’m happy.

Cooking can be many things. It can obviously be utilitarian. We need to eat. It can seduce if you’re halfway decent at it. Sometimes it just relaxes. A surety of process wipes your mind clear and your thoughts wander. Marinara makes my mind wander.

- Garlic should be chopped roughly. Goodfellas has for twenty-nine years now spread the word that garlic should be sliced so thinly that it dissolves in the sauce. Many are convinced that that is the only way. This is nonsense, as anyone who’s ever had a good puttanesca sauce should know. Roughly cut chunks or completely whole cloves are the norm for scads of Italian countryside.

Oddly enough, I’ve been struck by the quantities of garlic used in so many of the recipes I’ve seen in books written by Italians. They don’t put as much in over there. The use of garlic on the scale of Italian-Americans is considered more of a Spanish thing.

Add olive oil to a sauce pan and warm the chopped garlic. I use around four decently large cloves. Don’t wander off. You need to be on top of this as the smaller pieces can brown and develop an acrid taste. Keep that from happening. You don’t want to ruin your sauce on the first step. Actually, it would be better to ruin it now since there’s so little investment, but you don’t want to start over so watch and stir.

- “And I know there’s a guy at Alabama that has regrets that he’s not here today, and shame on him. But we have one with a higher IQ that’s here today.”

That was LSU AD Scott Woodward back in August. What the hell was he wearing? (Can’t find a legal to use pic of his press conference but you can link here.) I looked for other pictures of him and he’s generally decently well dressed, at least when cameras are around - blazers with subtle patterns, button downs when appropriate and pinpoints when needed, pretty decent ties. I love a good seersucker but it looks like he suddenly decided to summon the spirit of Foghorn Leghorn. And what is that absurdity in his breast pocket?

I don’t care for pocket squares. They are a triumph of form over function. A handkerchief in the breast pocket breaks visual lines and makes us look good, but it should still be a handkerchief. I don’t know what that useless piece of cloth pressed to resemble a row of sharks teeth is for. It’s plumage. Nothing but show. Extend that to his words as well. All show.

People should take a look at Rod Gilmore. That man knows how to dress. They should also beware Jessie Palmer. That middle jacket button is going to eventually burst and someone is going to lose an eye.

- The next step is to add tomatoes. People swear by canned San Marzano tomatoes but people swear by a lot of things. I spent some time as a sommelier and have a degree of faith in my taste buds. I’ve never been able to discern a difference in canned San Marzano from canned plum tomatoes other than that too many purveyors of San Marzano tomatoes add herbs to their cans. I like to make the call as to what goes in my sauces.

I prefer to use whole canned plum tomatoes and the low sodium varieties work best for me, not because I fear salt. I’m kind of a salt junky. I like to control the amount of salt. Again, my sauce, my call.

Canned whole tomatoes should be ripped apart by hand. You can use puree or chop them with a knife but I think that when torn apart you have tendrils that grip pasta or meatballs better than a smoother composition.

Pour a 28 oz. can of torn maters (and this is for four or five people but it’s easily scalable) over the garlic in the sauce pan and bring to a quick boil. Easy as can be. If you are not using canned tomatoes and are so much cooler than everybody else because you insist on using fresh chopped Roma tomatoes (that’s the only other real option) you need to turn the heat down to a low simmer and let the tomatoes soften. Canned are pre cooked, so you don’t need to treat them delicately. Fresh tomatoes have to be cooked slowly so that pectins (I believe) and a variety of other chemicals that react with each other are on pace to not make the final product bland. Ten to fifteen minutes at low heat should do it.

- Did anybody see Gameday before the Florida LSU game? When the four horsemen brought up Alabama, the LSU faithful began chanting “Overrated!”

I immediately thought of Vitus Garulaitus.

Respect for your opponents is key, assuming they’ve earned it. I love this game because every year it’s a contest. We have won eight in a row, but rather than brag we should remember how relieved we were when Yeldon got that screen pass.

There’s an attitude that Alabama is no good and we are about to see a Franco spelling ascendancy. Maybe. That’s what makes this game so fun. But we did win the last eight. We are ten and three since the lower IQ guy immigrated eastward.

Vitus Garulaitus was an extraordinary tennis player in the 70s with a pronounced Jimmy Connors problem.

Connors took him to the woodshed sixteen times. Finally, Garulaitus found a chink in the armor and took Connors down. What followed was the greatest post-game conference in sports history.

Vitus walked into the conference room drinking straight from an open bottle of Champagne (the former sommelier in me has to point out that maybe it was a sparkling wine from another region) and said “Let that be a lesson to you all.

“Nobody beats Vitus Gerulaitus seventeen times in a row.”

I think we beat the Tigers. But if we don’t, the good money bet is that their fan base resets the historical clock at Gary’s sign off. Ain’t a Vitus among em.

- Add as much dry white wine to the sauce as you would serve to an elderly relative. Yes, the tomatoes have a great deal of acidity, but bright flavors make a sauce. Stir it in and bring to a boil so you can pretend that you cooked the alcohol off, and then add some chopped herbs. I like either chopped fresh basil, oregano, or flat leaf parsley. My mood tells me which one or which combination of two of the three. I’ve done all three in the same pot and it just seems like overkill. I’m doing just basil for the LA folks.

I like a little more than a pinch of red pepper flakes. Too much is my status quo, but a bit seems necessary. You decide.

- I can’t decide if the custom is specific to my in-laws or if this is something that has infected the entirety of East Baton Rouge Parish (for the record that was going to be a cool flourish with a French sounding moniker that showed how Napoleonic their county system is - I was expecting Tribbedeaux or Lemmeiux or some such, but got East Baton Rouge Parish.) They always take prepared food with them on vacation.

It’s like the rest of the world is missionary country with no access to a Publix. My mother-in-law, now a forty-plus year denizen of Birmingham, has yet to shed this affectation. When we go to the beach there is always a cooler of something. Fortunately the prepared food is always excellent. They brought meatballs this time.

- This is a little bit maudlin, but as I said, my mind wanders.

In 2008 I made tomato sauce under the direction of my mother. It was her way to do things, not mine. I had long established my routine. I think a linguist who traces modern languages back to their roots would have fun with my family and our sauces.

My grandfather, Doc Carroccio, had a thinner construct than mom. My sister and I have gone in completely different directions with our base meat sauce, which is decidedly different than a base marinara, and I’ve dined at uncles’ and aunts’ houses. All different, but there is a basic string connecting them all like some Indo-European source we all pulled from. Our relationship with the tomato is recognizable to one another.

Mom directed me to make her sauce that night. She was weak from her treatments and couldn’t do it herself. To my knowledge she never cooked again. Chemotherapy plays havoc with your taste buds. She ate for utilitarian reasons after that.

- I mentioned meatballs. They brought a slew of them. More than my pilfered stock pot could have held even if its bottom wasn’t being scraped mercilessly by roux makers.

The meatball chef hasn’t an Italian bone in his body. His name ends in an “x.” But he’s got chops. He owns parts of four restaurants and was the president of the LA restaurant association for a spell. I can say without having sniffed them that they are going to amaze.

The sauce should be turned down at this point to a light simmer and allowed to simmer. The flavors need to marry.

- I make a sauce over pasta every Sunday for lunch. We have a list of twenty-five written down recipes, but there are so many more. One of the commonalities of every preparation is that they benefit from ten or so minutes of simmering. I have come into a stupid habit of setting the flame to low and invariably my head starts singing “Linger” by The Cranberries. So while the sauce lingers I listen the song. I know that’s doofy, but I’m an adult and you can… you know, get lost.

I’m a big fan of Deloris O’Riordan’s voice. Just sticking with “Linger” there’s a duet of the song with Simon LeBon. It’s really interesting. He sounds just like he did when I was (he was) a kid but his inflections are completely different. He doesn’t sound old. He sounds wiser. It’s like Cyndi Lauper’s new acoustic stuff.

Invariably this has me listening to the O’Riordan duet with Pavoratti on “Ave Maria.” It’s not often Pavoratti plays second fiddle.

- I don’t know how last name that ends in “x” blended his spices or whatnot with his meatballs. I’ve got some pulsed Parmesan on the side to cover any mistakes or miscues between his and my culinary expectations.

We have pasta for the kids and baguette with cheese for the adults and all manner of mess will be made when our cooking collides.

But that’s not the collision worth noting. Once a year we see each other.

We meet at weddings, but the timing of those is up to the smitten. We’ll start meeting for funerals sooner than we wish. But for now, we meet for a football game; a stupid clash of avatars. I love the sport, but that’s what it is. Thankfully it is regular. Annual.

I get to see them. I get to bring a tradition of cooking that would make my mother proud. This is my favorite game of the year.

Hopefully this year, as in the last eight, we are gratia plana.

I don’t know if you are headed to the game or not. If you are, apologies for not providing a tailgate friendly recipe, but there’s going to be secret service delays and… I’m staying home to party with the reprobate cajuns.

As always, enjoy, no injuries, and Roll Tide.