The first cookbook I ever owned was aptly titled “Martine Fait la Cuisine” (Martine cooks). I was four years old. It was one of a collection of Martine books that I thought were written for me and about me. I’m not sure when I realized that Martine was white, and looked nothing like me, but it was such a bummer when I did. The books weren't about me after all.
But that cookbook was the first of many. There are now cookbooks in every room in my house. There are the gifts from friends; those are the wide beautiful ones with the glossy photos. There are the hand-me-downs from my mom; those are the French ones, with notes written in cursive on the side of almost every page. There are the ones picked up from garage sales; those are the odd ones like “Roasted Giraffe, Grilled Zebras and other Delicacies.” There are the ones that I actively sought to purchase; those are the technical ones and the ones written by chefs who inspire me and whom I admire. And finally there are the ones from bookshops from almost every city, in every country, I’ve been to; those are the nostalgic ones. I own cookbooks for every season and every reason. They live alongside poetry books, fiction novels, and the odd history books and biographies. I counted them today, and I am currently surrounded by 276 ½. Half because when Nola was a puppy and going through her chewing stage, she decided that my Larousse Gastronomique was particularly tasty, and managed to gnaw from N through Z before I was able to wrench it from her. Puppies are unnaturally strong! Poor Larousse and poor me! I may now never know the history behind Tournedos Marguery.
So, I spent some time with my cookbooks today. I leafed through their pages, I read some of my mom’s notes, I made some of my own notes, and I drooled over some beautiful photos. I wanted to get back in touch with why I love to cook. I sought to be inspired as I thought opening my kitchen to all of you. I also thought about my mother, my grandmother, and my aunts, and how regardless of whatever calamity had just taken place, the first thing they always say, is, "Let me make you something to eat". And then it clicked.
I love cooking because it’s an act of love. I love cooking because it is love. It connects me to people, and enables me to take care of them and show them how much they matter to me. At the moment where I serve someone, anyone, a dish, I become a part of what I hope is one of their best moments, and they become a part of one of mine. It’s a blip in time, I grant you, but it’s magical. And cookbooks can help make that connection happen by showing us the possibilities. The possibility that you and I, with a little patience and some instructions, can create some magical moments. I can listen to a piece of music and know that I will most likely never be able to sing, or play an instrument, as well as that artist. I can admire a piece of art and know that I may never produce such a work of art. But I can pick up a cookbook, read through a recipe, and know that I can go out, pick up those ingredients and recreate that dish, and that there’s a very good chance that my finished product will sorta kinda maybe bear a close resemblance to the picture in the book; and regardless, I will have made it my own and that it will (hopefully) taste as good as I imagined, that it will make someone happy, and that I will be satisfied enough to want to try another. I’m not talking about the recipes that require a sous-vide machine, or make use of molecular gastronomy. That’s a little out of my reach; By choice. I mean the real ones. The ones that require just a few crucial pieces; fresh ingredients, a knife, your hands, and fire. Okay, you might need a few more things than that, but you get my drift. The act of cooking someone a meal, though simple, can be as effective and evoke as much emotion as any piece of music, or piece of art, or piece of writing. Yes, it’s just food, but its impact is immeasurable.
1 pound grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
6 ounces thickly sliced pancetta, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 pound bucatini or thick spaghetti
8 ounces arugula (baby or regular)
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino romano (or parmesan) cheese
Preheat oven to 275ºF.
On a rimmed baking sheet, set the tomatoes cut-sides up and drizzle with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven until their juices exude and they begin to shrivel, about 15 minutes, or longer if time allows.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.
Warm the remaining one tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet and over medium heat. Add the pancetta and saute until the fat renders and the meat turns crispy, 12 to 15 minutes. Tip off about half the rendered fat. When the tomatoes are ready, scrape them (and their juices) into the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Cover to keep warm.
Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to package directions, until al dente. Before draining, reserve 1 cup of pasta water. Drain.
Transfer the pasta to the skillet with the tomatoes and toss to combine thoroughly. Add a bit of the pasta water to loosen the sauce, then toss in the arugula one handful at a time, turning everything with tongs so the heat wilts the arugula. Serve hot, sprinkled with the grated pecorino.