A Life Beyond Gravy…

Whether it was watching my brother slurp back a seemingly endless supply of Chef Boyardee noodle products as a child, or the plethora of dollar slices I consumed in my teens and twenties, in the last few years, I have almost completely lost my taste for tomato sauce. This, despite the two or three years spent feeding my addiction to The Sopranos and listening to character after character ask that most meaningful of questions: good gravy tonight?

Sure, there have been times when I have been comforted by the silky richness of a classic Bolognese, wowed by the simple goodness of a perfectly-composed marinara, or delighted by the weird and wonderful pasta with tuna and tomato that my husband cooks up about once or twice a month. But for every great dish, there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of absolutely dreadful ones.

When I was a kid, I used to be jealous of my brother, because though my parents made me eat whatever they put on the table, he was allowed to eat whatever he wanted – or so it seemed. To give you an idea of what this was like for me: picture him with a bowl of steaming mini-ravioli, and me with a plate of liver, potato and boiled cabbage. Today, of course, I would quite happily choose the latter meal – although I would never submit a cabbage to such cruel and unusual punishment. But at the time, I thought it incredibly unfair.

In truth, however, my parents were not playing favorites, they were simply trying to keep my brother from starving to death, because he was basically incapable of ingesting any type of real food aside from peanut butter, and subsisted on a diet composed of cheese sandwiches, hot dogs and Chunky soup. That he became a vegetarian in his twenties astounded me, for in the entire time we lived together, I don’t remember him eating anything that came out of the ground except for potatoes and frozen peas. I should also say that for the most part, my parents – who today are absolutely fantastic cooks – made substantially more tasty meals than the one mentioned above, but it has long stayed in my mind as the blandest (though admittedly cost-effective) meal of my youth.

Though it pains me to remember this and to make it public, there were times when I found myself alone in the house, and seeking to balance the scales, would sneak a can of ravioli from the cupboard. Because I was fearful that my folks would come home and catch me, I would skip the heating it up part, and simply eat it cold from the can while standing guard at the living room window. Later, as an adult, I discovered that a colleague had a few cans stashed in his drawer for those days when he was unable to pack a proper lunch. Knowing that they were there stirred up that old longing in me, and one day I gave in. It was as disgusting and delicious as you might expect.

In my early twenties – as it was for many people in their twenties in the days before celebrity chefs and the internet turned everyone into a foodie – I thought myself quite the cook, though my repertoire was limited to: burritos with refried beans, vegetable curry, lentil soup and spaghetti with copious amounts of dried basil. Having embraced foodism at a relatively young age, I was keen to flex my culinary muscles, but the results were often inedible, and there were often tears. This meant that dinner at my house was often spaghetti. And when I went to dinner parties, there was often spaghetti. And when I went home, my mom would make one of my brother’s favorite meals: spaghetti. You get the picture.

Some of us used canned tomatoes, which were less glutinous and salty-sweet than the pre-made sauces, but were also watery and didn’t stick to the noodles. Others used tomato paste which to this day is something I have never been able to understand. Many used store-bought sauces – some from Chef Boyardee, no doubt – that did stick to the noodles, but made them feel and taste like plastic. There were also a few fellas over the years whose specialty was taking a pot of spaghetti, which was already only marginally palatable, and adding enough powdered cheese and milk to make it taste exactly like canned spaghetti. For some reason, they thought this was AWESOME, and with their abundant enthusiasm and enough red wine, I was generally able to get it down.

Later, I would go out to Italian restaurants – and tempted by those scenes when Tony would dig into a heaping bowl of noodles and gravy and shove them hungrily into his mouth – would order a simple pasta with tomato sauce, but time and again I was disappointed.

Sometimes, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I would make what I thought was the only option to tomato sauce: Alfredo. But that is all I am prepared to say about that. Who knew that pizza would be my gateway drug to an entirely new way of eating pasta?

In the 80s and 90s, pizza in Calgary was pretty bad, but as the decade progressed and the Californication of all things food started to make its way north, I laid eyes on that most beautiful of food objects: the sauce-less pizza. Hallelujah, I cried. For there before me was nothing more than crust, and pesto, and pears and pine nuts and Gorgonzola – which to this day remains my very favorite pizza-like (for I know there are those for whom calling this pizza is a sacrilege) combination. And I thought to myself, hmmm… who needs tomato sauce? And then I surmised, if one can reject the deeply ingrained notion of tomato sauce on pizza, perhaps there are new entirely unexplored tomato sauce-less avenues to be ventured down…

Which brings me to tonight, and what I dare say was an absolutely delightful sauce-less pasta. I call it Pasta, With Things from the Fridge. And what I did was this:

Boil some pasta.

Get some things from the fridge and saute them in a large pan: onion, zucchini and mushrooms from last night that were grilled and tossed with orange juice and garlic, walnuts, kale that I dipped in the boiling water until it turned bright green, fresh mint and garlic, some Parmesan and some feta, some halved cherry tomatoes.

Stir it all together. A little olive oil and some fleur de sel…



  1. This is a topic close to my heart and my experience. The Fiance has a tomato sensitivity, so I have had to be creative with the pasta sauces. Some things I have learned:-Mushrooms almost always do good things. A dash of soy milk (or real milk) can turn sauteed mushrooms and onions into a lovely sauce (with or without the added step of frying up a roux first.)-Primavera-like combinations, like the one you mention above, are often heightened by the addition of chopped marinated artichoke hearts and/or pesto.-It's BBQ season. Roast lots of veggies, stir in olive oil and pressed garlic, and toss w/ pasta and a can of chickpeas.-The Fiance doesn't eat fish, but when he's away I often saute canned tuna w/ peppers, crushed chilis, garlic, and, because he's away, halved cherry tomatoes.-When I do make tomato sauce, the trick is to use diced canned tomatoes and to simmer for at least 30 minutes so they take on a nice sticky consistency. Also essential: lots of well-sauteeed onions and garlic, and sometimes a touch of sugar or honey. Capers are also an excellent addition.

  2. Excellent suggestions! I had never thought of putting chickpeas with pasta, but why not? A little miso/white wine mixture is also fantastic with mushrooms.

  3. As a spouse to a vegetarian, I rely on tomato sauce for the umami hit that veggie food so often lacks…But to move on from it, the roasted vegetable variation you mention is very good, and as siobhan says, doing it on a barbecue will get you results that you just can't get in your oven or stovetop. Hell – throw some tomatoes in. BBQ-roasted tomatoes may bring you 'round…And finally, we do a lot of pasta with beans, too. I am a fan of spicy tomato sauce with kale and chickpeas (or substitute sausage.) But try this: make the sauce OUT OF BEANS! Sauteed garlic & onions, white beans and some vegetable stock. Season, as you would – chilies, thyme, etc. (I like to put in a parmesan rind, too.) Cook until creamy. Throw in some greens at the very end. Serve with a chunky pasta.

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