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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Our Sauce

I wrote a few weeks ago about how I got gut-punched in the tomato sauce aisle of Giant Eagle when I realized my wife had passed without writing down the recipe to her spaghetti sauce.  I wrote about how this random thing gave me a sick sense of finality...we would never have "mommy's spaghetti" again.  It's here if you want to revisit it:  Leslie's Spaghetti.

Emma and I decided that we would make it a family effort to recreate the sauce.  We would honor Leslie's memory by trying to come up with the recipe for her spaghetti sauce together.  We set a date (because cooking sauce takes time and ingredients) and marked it on the calendar:  "The Leslie Walter Memorial Spaghetti Adventure".  In hindsight I wish I'd have called it a caper. 

Emma was in charge of meatballs.  But...she hurt her fingers and had bandaids on them, which she thought would not aid in the development of the appropriate flavors.  Also, she doesn't like touching raw meat.  So she supervised.  Sort of.  We had Leslie's recipe for the meatballs so their assembly was the least of my concerns.

I got my mother-in-law's recipe.  I got my former brother-in-law's tips.  And then...then I solicited the feedback of the good people of Facebook.  And they came through.  Here's a link to feedback in the event that you'd like to benefit from their collected wisdom:  Tell me everything you know about making spaghetti sauce.

What I knew already was this: 
  • Leslie did not like chunks, especially not tomato chunks (she hated tomatoes). This eliminated any advice involving diced/stewed/real tomatoes.
  • Leslie used red wine (at least a bit).  This...though somewhat grudgingly...steered me away from using vodka per one suggestion.
  • Leslie used tomato paste
  • Leslie used mild italian sausage links
  • Leslie used Contadina tomato sauce (5 - 29 oz cans)
  • Leslie didn't mind spice, but she didn't like it as much as I did. 

I then took what I knew and what I learned...and I started to cook. 

First I started the sauce.  I took an entire head of garlic, stripped it of its papery outer whateverthefuckthat's called and then garlic pressed it into a pot that had about two or three tablespoons of olive oil in it.  I cut up the italian links into about 1/2" pieces and dumped them in with the garlic.  Then I seasoned (salt and pepper) and browned the meat with the garlic and drained most of the fat.  Most.

I dumped the small can of tomato paste in the pot with a can of water and stirred and let it simmer for a couple minutes.  After that I dumped a cup of merlot in and let that simmer a few minutes.  Then I started adding cans of sauce.  After four I was a little concerned, but five fit. 

Okay...my brother-in-law told me to cut the acidity of the tomato sauce with sugar.  He suggested 1 TBS/12 ounces of sauce.  I thought that was going to be awfully sweet, so I sort of compromised and put in two tablespoons of sugar per 29 ounce can.  His way would have been 12 tablespoons.  My way was 10.  Honestly...I'd probably cut that to 8 next time through.  But maybe not.

Okay...the spices.  Things get very sketchy here.  UNLIKE Leslie, I bought fresh herbs.  I just thought it made more sense.  I rinsed and dried then chopped up the herbs (basil and oregano primarily).  I can't tell you how much I used.  BUT...I can tell you the next time I do it, I'll just use dried.  Why?  Because, at least according to the recommendations on the fresh herbs...you need three times as many fresh as dried, so when I was tweaking and fine tuning later...I needed soooooo much just to make any noticeable difference.  At the end I started rooting through the lazy susan looking for dried spices to add.  I added a couple shakes of crushed red peppers to spice it up a bit.

I made the meatballs in a big bowl and added them at this point.  
Here is a picture of my balls.

Oh...that brings me to the onion powder/flakes...As I was cooking, I was looking through the suggestions or maybe it was a message, I can't remember, and someone told me to use onion powder instead of sauteing the onions.  I had already decided that a "chunkless" sauce couldn't have onions, but I'd sorta forgotten about getting that taste in there.  So I added the onion powder then.  Also, the onion powder that I added did a really nice job of cutting some of the sweetness that was bothering me after I added the sugar.

My mother in law had suggested adding parmesan cheese, just a little, to the mix in order to keep the sauce from sticking to the sides of the pot.  I have no idea what merit this has scientifically...but I added it.  And it didn't stick.

Lots of the suggestions said that the longer I simmered, the better the sauce would turn out.  I started the process late, but I knew that Leslie's sauce simmered almost all day, so I finally pulled it off the burner around 9:30 or 10 that night.

Then I put it in containers...2/3 of it in the freezer, and the rest in the fridge for dinner on Tuesday.

And then Tuesday arrived...and I invited my in-laws to have dinner with the kids and I.

Emma skipped dance because she had a lot of catching up to do in Science.  There's more to this story, and it touches on how she's handling her grief at school, and I may talk about it at some point, but I think Science class has been receiving the lion's share of Emma's time contemplating her mom.  And I think that it's because it's a lot of talking about stuff that sometimes is dry and it puts her in a place where she daydreams.  And it's really hard to fault her for it.  But...we had a talk.

Anyway, that aside, I went upstairs to summon Emma for dinner and found her sitting on her bed, sad.

When I asked her what was wrong, the general impression I got was that it seemed "wrong" to eat mommy's spaghetti when mommy wasn't going to be there with us.  I too felt weirdly conflicted about this spaghetti sauce.  On the one hand, I was really trying to make it taste good.  You know...it's cooking...that's what you want.  On the other hand, I was keenly aware of the possibility that it might be "better".  And that somehow liking the sauce better meant, or felt like it meant...supplanting Leslie's sauce and that felt disrespectful.  And it was a weird, like, "Okay, who needs Leslie now! Our sauce is better!"

Really the stated goal at the outset was "make mommy's" sauce, right?  But somewhere along the way I'd stopped trying to create what Leslie had created and started trying to "improve" on what Leslie had made.  I had:

  • added crushed red peppers
  • added fresh herbs instead of dried
  • used more wine than I thought she'd used
  • sauteed the garlic and sausage instead of dumping them in

It wasn't anything major...but they were definitely things that I thought would "make it better" versus make it the same.  Which is a weird way of sort of acknowledging that I got sidetracked along the way.  Somewhere along the line I stopped trying to make Leslie's sauce and started making "our" sauce.

Back to Emma.  She was near tears and we talked.  I asked her if this meant she was never eating spaghetti sauce again because her mom made it, because her mom had made a lot of things and if she was going to stop eating all of them it was really going to limit her diet.  She laughed.  I told her that if it had even been something we'd have thought about, mommy would have written down the recipe so we'd have it, but that it wasn't something we'd even thought about.  And then I told her what I blogged about...that every mom has their own sauce that they make, and that every kid likes his mom's sauce best.  And then I told her that mommy's sauce wasn't my favorite.  I told her that mommy had never really made it for me.  She'd made it for us.  I told her that it wasn't even her favorite, though she really liked it.  It was something she made that we could both enjoy, and it was something the whole family would eat.  And then I told her that maybe what we needed to do was not try to take mommy's sauce and make it ourselves, but to make "our" own sauce in the same way that mommy had first learned to make "our" sauce before we were married.  Then we wouldn't feel like we were replacing mommy's sauce...or by extension...mommy.

In the end there was this feeling of sort of..."I meant to do that" with regard to the fact that the sauce I'd made didn't taste exactly like Leslie's.  In the end there was a feeling that we can never replace or recreate Leslie's sauce just like we can never replace Leslie, and so let's not even try.  Let's just instead make "our" sauce. 

It was spicier.  It may have been a tad sweeter.  It may have been a bit bolder.  It wasn't Leslie's, but was perhaps reminiscent of it.  It was good.  Emma agreed.  Lily voiced her opinion non-verbally with a mostly empty bowl (but very full to begin with...).  I liked it.  My in-laws liked it. 

Our sauce then.  Leslie's can't be replaced.

Sure...I meant to do that.

----------------------

Ingredients for Our Sauce:
5 - 29 oz cans Contadina Tomato Sauce
1 - 6 oz can Contadina tomato paste (plus one of water)
1 - head of garlic
3 - TBS olive oil
1 lb - mild italian sausage links
8 - 10 TBS sugar (I thought the sauce tasted sweet early on, but by the time it had simmered 4 hours and I'd added more onion powder, it was less so.  The end result was good, but I'd probably still cut it a bit)
salt
pepper
basil
oregano
onion powder
(spices to taste.  what i'd have done if I had all dried was essentially just cover the entire top of the sauce with spices and stir it in...check...adjust...stir...check...etc)
1 - cup red wine (Merlot used, but I'd probably have used Chianti if I'd have had one open)
1/3 cup parmesan cheese.

Ingredients/recipe for Leslie's meatballs
1 lb hamburger meat (if it was up to me, I'd probably mix pork/veal/hamburger)
1 cup italian spiced bread crumbs
4 - cloves garlic
1 - egg
salt
pepper

(Leslie's recipe actually says salt and pepper to taste, which made me laugh, because it implied if the raw meat wasn't salty enough I should add more...but...how do you find that out unless you eat the raw meat?)
onion flakes

Squish together until well-mixed.  Form into 1" diameter balls.  Dump into the pot raw and cook in the sauce.

(I told Emma that when I do it again I might use two eggs.  I was afraid the meatballs wouldn't hold together with just the one.  They seemed too dry.  And over the course of the cooking, I think a few of them did sort of disintegrate into the sauce, which might have made the sauce better, but depleted the ranks of the meatballs)








Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Home Sweet Home

When last we left our happy couple, they were basking in their new "affianced" status in front of a warm fire in a cozy Maine Bed and Breakfast in February.  The rest of that vacation was just as nice as it began (if somewhat less splashy).  We ate Lobster, played pool in a Microbrew pub (Federal Jack's in Portland), and ate what we would later refer to as "the best meal we'd ever had" at The White Barn Inn.  It was a great vacation and we swore we'd return again, an old married couple.  But we didn't make it back.

We returned to our carriage house and started planning the wedding.  We tentatively picked a date 18 months from our engagement because Leslie wanted to have enough time to organize it all, which, at the time seemed a ridiculously long time in which to plan a wedding, but in hindsight was probably just barely enough.

I tried cakes, I looked at invitations, I reviewed flower arrangements and visited tuxedo shops.  I requested quotes from reception halls and sampled food and visited photographers.  Leslie bragged about how involved I was in the planning.  I think she enjoyed that I wanted a say in how the wedding looked and where it was and what ceremonies would be observed, and which would be discarded. 

At least...at least she enjoyed it at FIRST.  I can't tell you what she told her friends six months in, but I do know that there were..."several" heated exchanges involving cutlery or china patterns or knife sets when it was time for the wedding registry, and perhaps "involved" became her code for "pain in the ass".

Behind the scenes, our landlord was learning that he had ALS.  He came to visit us in the cottage house and told us.  I feel like I've written about this before but I searched the blog and couldn't find it.  He told us he had been taking a can of paint to cover the fence in the front yard and as he walked across the lawn he'd dropped it.  He picked it up and continued to the fence and dropped it again.  He couldn't make his hand close around the handle and stay there.  He talked to his doctor about it.  His doctor started running tests.  He was diagnosed.

He and his wife had two homes.  They both traveled a lot.  He told us he intended to sell the house and move to Charleston to their home there.  Not certain how it would affect us, Leslie and I started going to open houses and looking at the "For Sale" signs on homes we'd pass.  We had long talked about the wisdom of no longer paying someone else for a home, but to pay a mortgage.  We just hadn't really needed to look in earnest.

I had very specific ideas about what I wanted in a home.  So did Leslie.  Much like the wedding we were planning...I was become "involved".  We payed lip service to looking for a house but really we were mostly planning a wedding.  So in our off time we'd go look at Open Houses.  We didn't have a realtor showing us around yet. And my "involvement" in the home buying process rendered a lot of our options uninteresting.

The landlord's house sold, but the new owner was happy to have tenants paying rent in the cottage house and graciously let us stay.  We started looking in earnest shortly thereafter.

The new owner was newly wealthy.  A plane crash had claimed the life of his first wife, and with the payout that USAirways had provided, he had bought himself a beer distributorship, and a younger wife with much...much larger boobs. 

Okay sidebar...that is what Leslie and I talked about between each other.  I write about it now with fresh perspective.  I remember filing this information away in my memory banks, but it is only now, Leslie gone just seven weeks from my life, that I'm writing this story and that data now seems "important".  Holy shit...this guy lost his wife...I lost MY wife...I don't even know what to say about it.  The guy was still an immense fuckup, but I'm aware that I'm writing about a guy who got millions from the death of his wife, just after my wife has died...end sidebar.

Within a few weeks of moving in the house was trashed.  The pool we shared became kennel to their three boxers.  The dogs would run around the perimeter barking at all hours of the night and...well...shitting everywhere.  The driveway became a parking lot for the Camaro and new Jeep and new pickup that the new money purchased...each kid (there were three) got his/her own new car plus the his/hers vehicles and free parking for friends (there were typically six cars in the driveway).  They hired one of their son's school friends (he'd recently been fired from Pool City, so he had "experience") to clean the pool, but he didn't know what he was doing and ended up turning it black when he upended the pool cover and dumped about 1,000 pounds of dead decaying leaves into the pool. 

On the evening of his daughter's 14th birthday party (they cleaned the dogshit out of the pool area and completely emptied and cleaned out the pool) Leslie and I stopped over to talk to the happy couple.  We had a beer as we watched underage kids carrying solo cups meandering through the house.  We left within about a half hour to go back home and talk shit about them.  Because...OH MY GOD!!

We fell asleep very late.  Sound carried very easily across the pool over to our carriage house windows (no AC meant summertime the window was always open).  And the party lasted well into the night.  The following morning I carried the garbage up the driveway past the row of cars.  The brand new Jeep's windshield was caved in.  Three huge dents ran across the top of the hood and roof.

We must have slept VERY soundly, because:

Mr. Landlord (who had a drinking problem...I know...perfect business model for an alcoholic:  beer distributorship) decided to go get another keg from his business at 2 in the morning.  So he went to get the keys from the hook only to find Mrs. Landlord had hidden them because he was drunk.  He chased her around the house WITH.  AN.  AX.  Until she parted with them and he drove to the business, stopping only to crash into the brick column that flanked the driveway where it met the street.  Upon returning, he had flown into a rage (apparently a second rage) and threatened to kill Mrs. Landlord whereupon she locked herself in her room and called the police as he took the empty keg outside and proceeded to smash the windshield of his good wife's Jeep before doing some body work on the hood and roof. 

The police arrived, sirens and all, arrested him (he resisted, because obviously) and was thrown into a cell.  MRS. Landlord then went ballistic on the police because Mr. Landlord didn't have his medication, and he could DIE!!! without it.

All of this while we slept.

That day we contacted a realtor and began looking in earnest.

More later...

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sleep Walking

Friday night was Emma's chorus concert.  I took Lily and we watched the 7th and 8th graders sing.  Lily was really good throughout.

The walk was Saturday.  It was...well-attended.  Over 80 walkers signed up.  I'm not sure all of them made it (I know a couple didn't), but most did.  The weather looked gloomy and threatened rain, but turned warm and muggy instead.  I drove down early with Emma and a couple of her friends so that I'd be there for shirtless team members.

That sounds bad...

ABOARD is not ABOARD!  It's Aboard's Autism Connection of PA
I was afraid people would get lost, so I sent this out.  "The Beach is that way!"

 


Lily arrived with my parents and was VERY excited for the walk. 




I have two pics that both ALMOST capture the whole team.  I posted the other one on Facebook.
I just checked the website this morning and it says we raised $4,626 for (Aboard's) Autism Connection of PA.  I suspect when the final tally comes in it will top $5,000.  Amazing.  Leslie would be so excited. 

I talked to Emma that night.  She said she had a rough day.  I didn't notice it.  I was so busy caught up in the organization of it all, handing out shirts and handshakes, that I didn't see if she was visibly upset.  But she told me that she'd been sad.  She said, "Mommy really loved the Walk and it was hard doing it without her there."  And I almost said, "But she was honey, in our hearts," but I know that's not what she meant, and I know it wouldn't have made her feel better, and maybe would have made her feel worse, so I just squeezed her and told her that when I'd seen her she'd looked good and that I was sorry for not noticing and how proud mommy would have been at her and Lily and at all the money we raised for the charity, and if it didn't cheer her, at least it got her thinking about something more positive.

I hosted guests for much of the rest of the weekend, close friends who hadn't yet said goodbye to Leslie or seen the kids and me yet.  There were some tears, for sure.  Emma seemed a bit out of it, but assured me she was fine. 

That night I dreamed of Leslie.  It was the first time I'd dreamed of her since she passed.  I have been sort of living in fear of dreams.  You know how sometimes you have one of those dreams where you're really really angry with your spouse because they did something completely meaningless that only happens in dreams...like...painted the dog or something.  Anyway, the emotion is so strong and the feeling so real that you wake and you're still pissed.  Or, maybe it's the other way, that you dream something so great that when you wake up you're really sad to learn that the dream wasn't reality.

Ever since her death I've been dreading having dreams about Leslie where she's still alive, and the dream being so real and convincing that I'll wake up and get gut punched by the reality of her passing. 

It was a really short dream.  I forget all my dreams now, as if I never had them in the first place.  I don't remember when that started, maybe in my thirties.  When I woke, I knew I'd forget, and I thought about writing it down but didn't (it was like 4:30 in the morning).  Leslie was alive.  She was healthy and looked beautiful.  Her hair was long and thick like it was before chemo.  Sidebar:  She used to complain about her beautiful hair all the time.  It was too thick.  It took too long to get ready.  It was too hot.  You never see hairstyles for women with really thick hair.  And on and on.  But she knew she had great hair.  She was younger...maybe 35.  She was happy and smiling and we talked a little about nothing (that's why I decided not to try to write it down).  Like she was really alive.  Just a married couple chatting about nothing.  It was beautiful and fleeting. 

I woke up happy, which surprised me.  I think maybe even in the dream I realized it was only a dream.  So I woke happy, like I'd had a chance to tap into a particularly rich and vivid viewing of Leslie and see her smile again and hear her laugh again.  Like somehow this new experience with Leslie was almost like having her back alive again.  New words, new smiles, new laughs.  And then I got sad because as the dream started to fade away a bit the reality started to seep back in.  I went back to sleep but didn't dream about her again.


It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.  It was even sort of...nice.  I'm not afraid to dream about Leslie anymore.