I do not have an Italian grandmother. I always thought my mom made her spaghetti sauce from scratch, if scratch meant cutting up the onion and green pepper, browning the ground beef from the nice plastic wrapped meat section of the grocery store, opening a can of whole stewed tomatoes, a can of tomato paste, and tossing in a few herbs from the glass vials in the cupboard. And this is making it from scratch compared to what I usually do in Portland, which entails opening up a jar of sauce and sticking it in the microwave before pouring it over the noodles.
I do not mean to despair my mother’s cooking at all. She did a million things from real scratch (who else saves bread loaf ends in the oven to dry them out and then rolls them into breadcrumbs?), and since the hectic days of my childhood she has started making tomato sauce from the actual tomatoes. I know this because when she was here a few weeks ago and I asked her how on earth I could find pasta sauce, she said “make it yourself.” What a novel concept.
My Tia Marichely gave me a great cookbook when I arrived. There are no photographs in it, and it is all in Spanish. I see both these attributes as good omens. First of all, there is no gleaming, perfect picture with which to compare my own final product. Second, if I get it wrong I can always claim I didn’t translate it well.
The first thing that is wildly different about Urubamba is the shopping. There is no grocery store. I mean there are a few shops that might qualify as mini-supermarkets, but really they hold no candle to a typical Portland style grocery store. I’ve learned over the course of the last few weeks where to buy the best meat, the best dairy, the best jams, and the best bread–but it was definitely a learning process, mostly through word of mouth from the few friends I’ve met. Most of my inicial conversations with people go like this. Hello, what’s your name? My name is Elizabeth. Where do you buy meat/eggs/bread/cream/chicken/granola? It hasn’t made me the most popular gal, but I have found a few great shops. Oddly, the most gourmet place to get unusual items, like cheddar cheese or Nature Valley Granola bars, is the central gas station on the main drag of Urubamba. Go figure.
But, back to dinner. I was quite proud of my dinner the other night. I bought loads of tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh parsley, onions and garlic from the town market. Each of those bundles of herbs cost about 10 cents. I followed the picture-less cookbook and blanched the tomatoes, then cut them up.
I threw them in the blender for a few pulses because they weren’t bien maduros as the book recommended. Chopped the rest of the items, and let it simmer away.
In the mean time, I soaked the lettuce for salad in a special tincture of “clean the E. coli off your veggies” that I picked up in Cusco on my last visit. We haven’t eaten a real salad for three weeks because I am terrified of eating the lettuce without getting raging colitis. Usually our salad consists of blanched tomatoes (pour boiling water over a tomato and let it sit for a minute then easily peel the skin) and cut up avocados with a little lemon juice and salt. Not a bad way to go, but we were craving lettuce. As a special treat, I also bought strawberries. Soaked those bad boys for a full ten minutes. We had the strawberries with farm fresh cream off a tip from a neighbor who directed me to that gem of a shop. Delish in morning coffee too.
The finished product was spaghetti with homemade sauce that tasted better than any jar I’ve ever had. We had a lovely salad with lettuce, cucumber, avocado and tomato. I bought olive ciabatta bread from another gem of a shop run buy an Argentinian with Italian roots. For dessert we had fresh strawberries and cream. I know this may seem like a very basic meal for many of you out there. But for me it was a masterpiece. Let me bask in its glory.