Growing up, my best friend was right next door. It was one of those friendships where sleepovers were weekly, staying over for dinner was almost daily, and company was constant. We were lucky enough to live on a street where everyone knew everybody, where children ran freely from yard to yard wreaking havoc and laughter. It was a great place to live, with pool parties and backyard barbecues crowned with sparklers at the end.
Beyond the fun we had, my most vivid memory of these childhood friendships was the food. I think of those barbecues and I can taste the juice of sticky sweet watermelons, I think of strawberries picked from the bushes in the backyard, and of fingers stained a myriad of rainbow colours from Fun Dip.
But most of all I think about the kitchens - ours and the one next door. While our house was filled with the flavours of India and England, theirs was bursting with those of Italy. So as much as my Grandmother's shepherd's pie and my Mother's chicken curry figure largely in my remembrance of childhood, so do jars and jars of pickled red peppers, tender veal cutlets, and handmade breads for the holidays. The alchemy of homemade wine was a mystery to us. I was fascinated by the yearly ritual, and the enormous glass carafes that would take up residence in the basement. Oh goodness, and Nutella - that wonderful dark chocolate and hazelnut spread that is nothing short of ambrosia to a 6 year old.
As kids, we ate all meals at home, walking home from school at lunchtime. As far as I can recall, the business of meals was simply part of the daily ritual. I never had the impression that it was a bother, or that it was a chore (though it must have been, sometimes).
I cannot help but think that it was this assumption of good, fresh food that has shaped how I cook today. Even when tired or frustrated, it is not often that I am too tired to cook. I may be vexed about my day, but I am not vexed about the food. Sure, it may sometimes be simple, but the process of preparing food is integral to the routine of my day; I feel I have forgotten something without it.
I am thankful for those early influences, and that food and philosophy are remembered fondly - and often. As with most of us, I am sure, pasta has endured as a comfort food in our household. In its preparation, I sometimes stop to remember those meals from years ago, hoping I can come close to those tastes.
While this vegetable bolognese is far from traditional, and nothing I had as a child, it still brings me that sense of comforting nostalgia. Slowly stirred aromatic vegetables cooked until deeply flavoured and tender, then served with hot pasta and a snowfall of Paremsan - how memorable is that?
My version was a combination of recipes; as I did not write down quantities as I cooked, I thought it best to simply provide the same guides I used. If anyone would like specifics, please feel free to contact me.
Specific changes and notes:
• Added 1/2 a large eggplant and 1 medium zucchini to the vegetables called for. As I prefer my mushrooms and eggplant to be well caramelized and golden, I cooked them separately from the rest first, then added them to the soffritto as per the recipe.
• 6 oil packed sundried tomatoes were puréed and added along with the tomato paste.
• The wine was replaced with vegetable broth and a splash of red wine vinegar.
• The photograph featured does not include marscarpone, as I intended to freeze a portion; the dairy is added just before serving, and I do believe the sauce needs a bit of richness at the finish. Full fat cream cheese can be used if mascarpone is unavailable.
• This sauce is particularly nice when thinned with a bit of pasta cooking water, then tossed through with your favourite medium tube pasta and chunks of fresh mozzarella.