Your Dish Doesn’t Need Any More Pepper
A recent Google search returned more than 43 million hits for the phrase “salt and pepper.” Even accounting for references to hair color, it suggests the two ingredients enjoy a cozy relationship. Too cozy, I’d say: Over the years, I’ve moved away from robotically adding salt and pepper to every savory dish I cook.
Salt, while it obviously has a recognizable flavor that can stand on its own (on a pretzel, for example), is generally used to heighten, balance, and round out other flavors.
Pepper, though, is all about its flavor: Think of the Roman pasta preparation cacio e pepe, where that flavor is, I’ll estimate, two-thirds of the appeal. Pepper is a spice, like cloves and cinnamon, which raises the question of whether you would use cloves or cinnamon in just about every dish you cooked. A response might be, “No. They’re too distinctive; they’d intrude; they’d grow monotonous.” But is pepper any less distinctive and intrusive? No: It’s just that we’ve grown accustomed to it, at least in the Western cuisines that are the foundation of what I for one cook much of the time.
For me, awareness came in a bowl of steamed new potatoes fresh out of the ground; their sweetly earthy flavor was all but spoiled by the strong-arm, though admittedly aromatic, jolt of the pepper I added. All that was actually needed to bring out that flavor without masking it was salt — and perhaps fat in the form of butter or a fragrant oil such as olive or walnut. Then, basic tomato sauces can be harsh when pepper is added (and favorite recipes such as Marcella Hazan’s use none). Anyway, once you’ve got the sauce, there’s plenty of time to think about grinding some into a dish making use of it.
That’s the key phrase: “to think about” using pepper — even when a recipe directs you to use it. I spent an hour or so paging through a few cookbooks: one French, one Italian, and one general with a Franco-pan-Asian bent. Of more than 500 savory recipes, about 75 percent called for pepper, and I’ll bet a few dozen of those could have done without it.
Another key is to trust your primary ingredients. Does a good steak or a good chicken need anything more than plenty of salt and heat to taste great? I pose that as a question, and the answer, ultimately, is a matter of habit and preference. Habits, however, are there to be broken and preferences to be challenged.
As a favor to me, next time you find your hands on the pepper mill, stop a moment, put it down, inhale the aroma of what you’re cooking, stick in a finger (or spoon), give it a taste, and consider whether you really want to complicate what may already be perfect clarity of flavor.
Edward Schneider has been cooking since he was 9 and began writing about food, cooking, and travel soon after he learned to type.
The Easiest of All Basic Tomato Sauces
What could be a better fridge (or freezer) staple than a container of basic tomato sauce? It can be used as-is on pasta, finished with grated cheese and, maybe, some fresh herbs. It can form the basis of other favorite dishes (say, pasta all’Amatriciana or its kin). It can add savor to other sauces or braised dishes. And of course it can be spooned on to a disc (or sheet pan) of yeast dough to make pizza.
For a tomato sauce to be that versatile, it needs to be uncomplicated, but delicious in its own right. And, happily, that means that the best basic tomato sauce is also the simplest and quickest. I hit upon this version quite a few years ago and have not strayed from it: Even when super-ripe farmers’ market tomatoes are available, nothing much changes apart from a more unpredictable cooking time and the additional work of blanching and peeling the tomatoes.
Note that the recipe does not call for pepper, and to add it would be a mistake: The clarity of flavor would be lost. The result does not taste like typical store-bought or restaurant sauces, which generally contain sugar and additional aromatics, so don’t be disappointed when you sample it right out of the saucepan: It comes into its own the minute it is incorporated into a dish.
Remember that simplicity demands high-quality ingredients, so use your best extra virgin olive oil and your favorite canned tomatoes. For the latter, I have had good experiences with genuine San Marzano dell’agro Sarnese-Nocerino tomatoes from Italy, bearing the DOP certification label (as believable a guarantee of origin as you can get — which is not so say that cheating is impossible). You may have brands you trust, from California or elsewhere. But don’t use diced or pureed tomatoes: My hand-squeezing method yields a non-homogeneous consistency that is far more appealing to the eye and in the mouth.
Serves 4 or more
1 28-ounce (800g) can of peeled tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon fine salt or 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
2 or 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 to 6 fresh sage leaves or a small sprig of rosemary
Pour the tomatoes into a 3-quart/liter (more or less) stainless steel or enameled saucepan, taller than it is wide. Using a passably clean hand, squeeze each tomato, crushing it unevenly. As you work, remove any of those ugly and flavorless basil leaves that often find their way into cans of tomatoes.
Stir in all the remaining ingredients.
Bring to the boil over medium-high heat, then lower the heat and simmer for 25 or 30 minutes, partially covered.
Using tongs or a fork, remove the sage or rosemary and the garlic cloves. When cool, refrigerate or freeze.