We need to feed ourselves once and a while to keep the gears sweaky and moving. Here's a guide to cooking and eating for the Young, Broke, and Restless.
Small Plates by Olivia Starkie
Honey Traps and Pasta Sauce
“What’s your honey trap?”
I looked up from my drink, something with gin and lemonade that was beading the coffee cup in my hands with condensation. It was late May and the Midwestern humidity hadn’t quite settled in yet, but my shirt was still sticking to my skin in the early evening heat. I was at a backyard grill party. Corn grilling in its husk filled the air with the smell of burnt grain. The light was hazy from barbecue smoke. I’d been drinking the gin and lemonade concoction for an hour, eating potato salad and making small talk.
“What?” I asked the young woman standing in front of me.
She put her hands on her hips. “People make honey traps to catch flies. The flies like the sweetness and then they get sucked in. Everybody has a honey trap.” She looked me up and down. “What’s yours?”
I was twenty years old, had just finished my second year of college, and had not considered that I was capable of having a honey trap. I pretended to think hard about it, even though I knew already the only possible answer. “My cooking, I guess.”
“Your cooking, huh?” The young woman laughed. “What do you cook?”
“Well,” I said, “there’s this pasta sauce.”
Some people believe in chicken soup. My dad believes in his pasta sauce. According to him, it has magical properties. It consists of nine ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, onions, fennel seed, carrot, oregano, basil, olive oil and butter. Deceptively simple, but my dad has lovingly honed it for the better part of the last thirty years. He’s got the proportions, the timing and the taste down to a science. One of my earliest memories is standing in the tiny, dingy kitchen at his apartment, tears running down my face as he rapidly dices onions and adds them to a pan of olive oil. That sizzle and pop and the sharp funky smell. “The key to the sauce,” he advises, “Are the onions. Never burn the onions. And never add the tomatoes before the onions are ready.”
The way my dad tells it, the sauce is responsible for my entire existence. “I made it for your mom the first time I cooked for her,” he says. “And it’s why she decided to stay with me.”
“Yes,” he says. “She respected my choice of tomato.”
“That’s wrong,” my mom says. “He made his poulet niçoise, and I decided to stay with him because he was funny.”
Whatever. Even if it’s not what really went down, I prefer my dad’s romanticized view of the pasta sauce. It makes me feel that, each time I make it, I’m somehow fulfilling a prophecy set out for me at birth. It’s inextricably tied to who I am and why I cook. “Make this someday for a boy you like,” my dad advised me, “and you’ll get a second date.”
In other words: how could the sauce not be my honey trap?
About a year after I had that summer evening, gin-soaked conversation about honey traps, I learned that the term actually refers to a specific kind of private investigation, wherein an investigator is hired by a client to flirt with and “tempt” that client’s spouse into cheating. It’s used as a gauge for faithfulness, and it often proves what many people already know: humans aren’t made for monogamy. We’re prone to thrill-seeking and drawn to hedonistic, momentary pleasure. The “honey trap” represents the power of the sensual on the human psyche, whether it’s sexual or gustatory in nature – or both. It was a long popular urban legend that the Puttanesca sauce (literally, “whore sauce”), that is served over penne in so many generic Italian restaurants, was originally cooked by prostitutes to entice men into their beds. People have been using food, maybe even pasta sauce, to get into each other’s pants for generations. In fact, you could probably make a great argument that food, and not sex, is the original and most effective honey trap known to man. Most lovers can pull their weight in bed, but how many can blow your mind with their cooking?
My first year in college, I met a guy who I thought was pretty damn cool. Let’s call him Male Friend. We were introduced at a party of two hundred guests in a tiny bungalow, the pungent and unromantic smell of sweat, barf, and alcohol hanging in the air and old Wiz Khalifa songs blasting on a set of speakers behind us. He had a deep voice and dark, puppy-dog eyes with long lashes. Basically, he was a babe, and I was immediately devoted to him in a way I think only a nineteen year old college freshman can be to an older, attractive student. In my dorm room, he noticed a black and white photo of an avocado on my wall. The next week, he came back with real avocados for me, a rare delicacy for a broke college student living off of cereal and burritos from the school cafeteria. I’m susceptible to all of food’s charms, and rich, ripe avocado fruit spooned directly out of its skin is one of my favorite snacks. If Male Friend wanted to win major points with this food nerd, he couldn’t have found a better way. We’d spend weeknights and weekends together, drinking whiskey, talking for hours and staying out too late. When he asked at the end of the school year if I wanted to keep seeing him that summer, I knew exactly what I was going to do. I asked him over for dinner. On a rainy, late May night, in my first apartment of my semi-adult life, I assembled the ingredients and made the sauce. I didn’t have to call my dad for the recipe – I knew it by heart.
“It smells great in here,” Male Friend said when he walked in my front door that evening. I was sautéing the onions and garlic, slowly and carefully, just as my dad had shown me so many times over the years. I crushed up fennel and sprinkled it over the onions. I chopped carrot. I watched the onions until they began to almost melt into themselves, and then I added the tomatoes, oregano, basil. I waited some more. Male friend and I drank wine. We talked. The sauce thickened in all its garlicky, oniony, fruity tomato glory, its perfume settling into the space around us. And then it was time to blend it. My dad always used a food mill to get the sauce to a smooth consistency, but I didn’t have one of those, and I’ve since found that blending the pasta sauce incorporates more flavor, as the onions and herbs are pureed rather than strained out. Male Friend looked at me, puzzled.
“You’re putting the sauce in a blender?”
I nodded. “Trust me,” I said, and pressed the “On” button.
After blending, the sauce went back into the pan to be finished with more fresh basil and a pat of butter to bind it. I dipped in a spoon, ready to offer Male Friend a taste, but he’d already spooned some out of the blender. His eyes were closed.
“Wow,” he said. “Oh my god.” He took another spoonful of the tomato mixture and ate it slowly. Then he opened his eyes and looked at me. “I think this might be the best tomato sauce I’ve ever had.”
Three years later, I’m no longer seeing this particular Male Friend. But one day, a few months ago, I got a single text message from him: “I’m trying to make your pasta sauce.” Hot damn! Honey trap status: secure.
Recipe: The Pasta Sauce
So you’ve done that first date and you’re moving on to the second. Things are going really well and you want to show your new paramour that you have kitchen chops. Problem is, you’re broke and down to a forty-dollar grocery budget. You want to make something that tastes classy but doesn’t break the bank. This sauce is perfect for that. And yeah – it doesn’t hurt that one hundred percent of people who eat it will want seconds. You don’t have to use this as an aphrodisiac – friends, parents, siblings, frenemies and everyone in-between will probably appreciate this dish. Bust it out when you want to impress. My dad would often add capers, olives, dry white wine or Italian sausage to the sauce depending on his mood, but the basic recipe is probably my favorite. If you’re into adding vegetable matter to your plate, sautéed broccoli or zucchini with garlic, olive oil and a pinch of red pepper flakes makes a kick-ass (and also cheap) accompaniment. This sauce is great as a leftover on crusty bread, with eggs, or eaten straight off a spoon. Bonus: it freezes well, so you can make a double batch and freeze half of it for quick dinners when life doesn’t allow you to do more than boil a pot of water for pasta.
For The Sauce:
- Olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan – just eyeball it)
- 1 large (or 2 small) yellow onion(s), diced
- 6-8 cloves garlic, minced very fine (roughly the size of the head of a match or a little smaller)
- ½-1 small or medium-sized carrot, peeled and diced very small or grated
- ½ teaspoon crushed fennel seed (you can use either a mortar and pestle to grind it, chop it with a knife, or use a coffee grinder)
- 1 24 oz. can chopped or diced tomatoes (best relatively cheap brand is Hunt’s, but if you want to go with a super cheap store brand, just do it, it’s still gonna taste great)
- A couple healthy pinches dried oregano (or about 2 teaspoons chopped fresh)
- 1 large bunch of fresh basil, chopped (or however much you can afford, but trust me, you want as much as you can get – Trader Joe’s, Cub Foods, and Met Foods are three chains that sell it pretty cheap)
- Salt, to taste
- A pat of butter (if using salted, be careful of how much salt you put into the sauce before adding the butter)
- Optional additions: Olives (kalamata, oil cured, or any variety of green are best), capers, dry white wine or vermouth, Italian sausage (not in casing), cooked beforehand.
For the Pasta:
- Desired amount of spaghetti or linguine (yup, I’m gonna go ahead and say that these two shapes are the best with this sauce)
- Olive oil
Coat the bottom of a large pan or skillet (not a pot – this won’t allow the liquid from the tomatoes to cook down properly) with olive oil. Turn heat on medium. Add diced onions and let them begin to cook. Once they’re sizzling, add the garlic. Give a couple of stirs to incorporate garlic, then add the carrot and the crushed fennel seed. Continue to let the mixture cook. If the heat seems too high, reduce. You don’t want to brown the onions; you just want to break them down.
When onions start to turn golden and become translucent, add the tomatoes, the oregano, and half of the chopped basil. Up the heat to bring the sauce back to a simmer, and then reduce and let simmer. This is the most maddening part of the process – for best results, simmer the sauce for an hour to an hour and a half. The heat doesn’t need to be very high; medium-low will suffice. Do not cover the pan! You want a lot of the liquid from the tomatoes to cook off. You’ll be tempted to cut corners and not let the sauce cook for this long, but trust me – the payoff is greater if you do. The tomatoes slowly lose their acidity in the slow cooking process and become sweeter and far more delicious the longer you let them cook. Pour yourself a glass of wine, beer, a forty, whatever. This is a great time to start cooking any side dishes or veggies you might want to make, or to do some kitchen clean up. Make sure to keep stirring the sauce periodically to ensure that it doesn’t stick. If sticking occurs, reduce heat and add some water or some dry white wine.
During the tomato cook-down time, fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Remember to salt the water pretty liberally – you will taste the difference, and you will be happier for it. Add some olive oil to the water with long pasta to keep it from sticking together.
After the hour, hour-and-a-half is up, if the pasta water is boiling, now is the time to add the pasta. You’ll want to time it so that the pasta begins to cook around ten minutes before the sauce is ready to serve – that way, when the sauce is ready, your pasta will be ready, as well. Consult the cooking time on the package to plan this. Cook per the directions, and shoot for al dente (pasta should still have some chew to it, but be cooked all the way through). This may mean cooking the pasta a minute or two less than the recommended time on the package (although most are timed to produce al dente pasta).
Turn off the heat under the sauce. Transfer to a blender or a food processor (I’ve never owned a food processor, but a blender works perfectly) and pulse until the sauce is very smooth. Transfer back into the pan and turn heat on to low. If you’re going to add capers, olives, or cooked Italian sausage to the sauce, this is the time to do it (before you salt!). Add salt to taste and stir in the remaining basil. As a finishing touch, stir in a pat of butter (two teaspoons to a tablespoon). It helps to bind the sauce, and deepen the flavor. If you’re vegan or don’t want the butter, the sauce is still delicious without it.
When the pasta is done cooking, drain it really well in a colander. You’ll want to shake the colander over the sink to get off the excess water. The pasta should be sticky, not slippery after being adequately drained. Transfer pasta back into the pot or a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and stir to incorporate.
Plate your desired amount of pasta and top with a generous helping of sauce. Garnish with parmesan (grana padano or reggiano are my two recommendations) and more fresh basil or baby arugula if desired. Kick back, relax and eat. And then get your date or friends to do the dishes.