Justin: One of the joys of cooking is the thrill of being surprised. I’ve never been good at anticipating what a recipe’s result will be. Many recipes I’ve been thrilled to try have been flops, while others that seemed to lack much promise have turned out to surpass my wildest expectations.
I had the latter experience recently. One night, cooking just for the family with no thought of the restaurant, I decided to make a vegetarian pasta sauce with zucchini, onions, and carrots from one of Marcella Hazan’s wonderful books, Marcella Cucina. Marcella has been the primary influence in my own cooking, but occasionally I’ve been disappointed by recipes here and there. I thought this dish was on its way to becoming a disappointment. I had sautéed diced onions until golden and added julienned carrots and zucchini. Marcella had spoken of a light, refreshing, and subtle sauce, and it seemed on the way to being boring and emaciated. I kept complaining that it would be inedible. But then something happened, as the zucchini and carrots cooked down, the sauce took on a richer appearance. I let go of the recipe, followed my instincts and continued to cook the sauce down until deeply reduced. On a whim, I also added lemon thyme from the garden, a generous bit of butter, and I tossed the sauce with tagliatelle and freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano. I took the dish to the table, still with low expectations, but the first mouthful left us speechless. The sauce had a richness totally uncharacteristic of its ingredients. The depth of flavor was shocking considering its relatively short cooking time. It gave every appearance of being akin to a slow cooked meat ragu. The cooking down of the ingredients had released their essence, and the butter matched with the egg pasta created a delightful lusciousness. Immediately we knew that we had to change an upcoming restaurant menu to include this sauce. It was one of the best things I had eaten that year and a treasure of a find. Thirty minutes earlier I thought I had an inedible disaster on my hands, but sitting down to table we were graced with an unexpected miracle of the kitchen.
Dillon: We served this sauce with fresh egg tagliatelle as the primo piatto in our vegetarian menu for August 14. Not only did it look like a ragu Bolognese, we received several comments on it tasting like one, too — and an acute observation that its ingredients are similar to the soffritto base of that noble sauce.
(And yet, it was Justin’s ragu Bolognese that, during our courtship, first swayed me from my own vegetarian habits. A small miracle, indeed?)