Jazz Cooking: A Bolognese-Puttanesca Hybrid

Last night, I had a craving for the flavour of a simple tomato sauce over pasta, something I haven’t had in a while. It’s not really a summery dish, but then again it hasn’t been all that summery a summer. I set out to make a straightforward Bolognese sauce, made a blunder and ended up with a cross between a Bolognese and a Puttanesca sauce. Much to my surprise and delight, it turned out to be one of the best sauces I’ve ever made, it was delicious beyond any reasonable expectations. For this reason, and because writing on various jazz matters is going slowwwwly, I thought I’d write about this. Jazz can sustain you in many ways but, the last time I checked, you can’t eat it. If you’re lucky though, you can still earn enough from jazz to at least put a decent meal on the table, no small thing these days.

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I arrived home armed with a pound of ground pork and a large can of crushed tomatoes, Bolognese sauce on my mind. I put the M.J.Q.’s No Sun In Venice on the box, some olive oil in a skillet to warm, and finely chopped a large onion and four cloves of garlic. I dumped the olives and garlic into the skillet and as they hit the warm oil, they made a crackling sizzle just as Connie Kay played a huge, shimmering splash on his open hi-hats. It made me smile; when you cook with a jazz record, things not only smell good but can also sound good, if you get the timing just right. As I often say, “Rhythm is my business and business is bad.” When the onions had softened and were sweating, I added the pork, breaking it up into small bits and adding a dash of salt, pepper, Worcestershire and oregano.

The meat would take a while to brown on low and the M.J.Q. were done with Venice, so I went down to the lair to check out the ballgame which had just started: Jays against the Rays, in that domed house of horrors they call a ballpark down in Tampa. Dickey ‘s knuckler was really dancing, it looked like he’d be good this night – great, the Jays need to win as many as they can to have any hope of October baseball. R.A.’s mound opponent was Jeremy Hellickson, a maddeningly slow and methodical pitcher whom the Jays touched for a run in the second – all right! The gave the lead right back in the next inning though, when Tampa scored two cheapies on a walk, a hit batter, a single and a shallow sac fly, damn. The Jays managed to turn a promising bases-loaded, nobody-out scenario into just one measly run, but at least it was tied again, time to check on that meat.

It was almost there, still a little rare, so I drained off the excess fat and put it back on the low heat. For a good Bolognese, the meat should still be a bit pink when you add the tomatoes, so another couple of minutes would do it. I returned to the ballgame and the Jays were really making Hellickson work, he was already up to about 80 pitches in the fourth inning. They had a couple of men on and Jose Reyes was due up and just as I was thinking to myself that Jose’s home runs were down a little – he’s usually good for about fifteen a year – he cranked his ninth over the right-field fence, 5-2 Jays.

I went back upstairs and threw on Viva Caruso, Joe Lovano’s tribute to the great operatic tenor; things were getting pretty Italian and my wife Anna wasn’t even home yet. (As Zoot Sims once put it when visiting the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, “When in Reims, do as the Reimans do.”) The meat was now ready, so I added the thirty-two-ounce can of crushed tomatoes and about a cup of Italian white wine, a cheap pinot grigio. Then I made a mistake. Without taking into account that I’d used less meat than usual, I also added about three-quarters of a sixteen-ounce bottle of strained Italian tomatoes. The result was too thin, there was too much liquid and not enough solids, damn it. I thought about draining some off the liquid off, but that would be messy. Better to add some thickeners, but what? There weren’t any mushrooms or bell peppers around, so I cast about the larder looking for something to salvage this watery mess.

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At this point I should probably explain what Puttanesca sauce is, for those who aren’t familiar with it. It’s a simple staple of Italian pasta sauces, the name comes from the Italian word puttana, which means “whore“. In the more genteel argot of cookbook-speak, it’s often described as “ladies of the evening sauce”. Legend has it that prostitutes put steaming bowls of it on the window sills to attract more johns – or in this case, “giovannis” – to the bordellos. It also helped that it was cheap, quick and easy to make with ingredients that were always on hand. It consists of olive oil, onions, garlic, chopped tomatoes, anchovies, black or Kalamata olives, capers, red pepper flakes and either fresh parsley or basil. It shouldn’t take more than thirty or forty minutes to make and the result is a chunky, zesty, spicy sauce which works with short or long pasta.

I learned about puttanesca for the first time in England, of all places, when I visited in 1993 with a friend named Angie who originally hailed from that small, damp island. It was a low-budget kind of holiday, which meant visiting and staying with some of her friends and relatives as much as possible. Among these was her half-sister Joan, a very cheerful and hospitable woman who lived in Morecambe, a pleasantly seedy seaside town in Lancaster, just south of the Scottish border. Joan is a wonderful cook, an even better drinker and referred to me fondly as a “regular old dust-bin” for my eclectic appetites. When she heard I liked Italian food (and considering Angie was a vegetarian who ate cheese and fish), Joan decided to make what she called “tart’s sauce” one night. This involved an amusing, if unintentional, play on words. The way I heard it was “tart sauce” and it was rather tart; she’d meant “tarts” as in the English word for “puttana”, more or less. It was a bit like having Yorkshire pudding for the first time in Naples, but her version was the real deal in every way, zingy and delicious, and I’ve been fooling around with Puttanesca sauce ever since. I’ve learned to make two concessions on Anna’s behalf when making it, even though she’s a real Italian, not a wanna-be like me. She can’t abide cooked chunks of tomato, which make her gag, so I use the smoother crushed tomatoes, and she’s a bit of a spice-wimp, so I take it easy on the red pepper.

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This all flashed through my mind as I looked around the kitchen, hoping some of these ingredients were around. I was sure we had capers and anchovies, but as luck would have it, there were some Kalamata olives too. I took about fifteen of them, removed the pits and chopped them roughly in half. About eight anchovies, cut in thirds and a couple of tablespoons of small capers, maybe twenty-five or so. I stirred all of these into the sauce, adding a splash of lemon juice and a small handful of Parmesan cheese, which would also help thicken things. The olives and capers each add their own tang and some crunch, but the anchovies are the key. Taken on their own, the little fish are not exactly subtle – salty, with a powerful, astringent taste – but when added to a sauce, they do magic, delicate things. Their flavour diffuses and adds a funky undertone that’s less salty and strong than you’d expect. And they dissolve altogether, becoming invisible, but adding a lustrous viscosity to a sauce, they make it glisten, they’re wondrous. I let things cook for a bit and gave it a taste – not bad, a bit acidic. Remembering the remedy for this, I took a tablespoonful of creamed honey, put it in a small dish and microwaved it for about five seconds to melt it, then stirred it in. The honey counteracts the acid of the tomatoes and also somehow supercharges the other, more savoury flavours with its own contrasting sweetness; sugar also neutralizes the acid but doesn’t work as well. I let it come to a simmer again, gave it another stir then turned the heat to low and put a lid on it, hoping time would do the rest.

Anna arrived home about half an hour later and commented on how good the house smelled, but I still had my doubts. What I had here was some kind of mongrel hodge-podge between a Bolognese and a Puttanesca sauce, which isn’t supposed to have meat in it. It could work, but a real Italian food purist or gourmet would sniff that I’d ruined two classics in one go. Fortunately, Anna is not a purist and, after tasting it over spaghetti with some Romano cheese sprinkled on top, I needn’t have worried. It was really delicious, zingy and flavourful but with some subtlety and body; if I’d remembered to add fresh basil, it might have been perfect. To hell with the purists, I’m keeping this one in the book and any “real” Italian I know would dig it. It was an accidental, small triumph, what the English call “moreish” – we wanted a second bowl, making it a small one to avoid the “spaghetti-coma” stage.

Believe me, I’m no culinary whiz – there was some luck involved here, to be sure – especially that the other ingredients were around. While my experience and instincts told me that these should all taste good together, I lucked out on the proper amounts, a crucial point. Up until recently, I would have added too much of everything and the result would have been overkill, something that tasted like Lysol. I’m not going on and on about this because it’s food – not to belittle food, it’s important, it’s love, everybody knows that – but this was just one lucky dish. But there’s an aspect to this kitchen adventure that illustrates something I really wanted to talk about – the whole thing resulted from making a mistake and then trying to fix it on the fly. This represents a kind of jazz thinking, thinking like an improviser even when not playing jazz.

This becomes reflexive after a while if you’ve been involved with jazz long enough and I find myself using it more and more away from the bandstand. From jazz, you learn to think quickly and on your feet, to pay attention and react to a multiplicity of layered things that are going on around you, to analyze sticky situations and draw on your instincts and knowledge to problem-solve, to create something out of nothing, to be more spontaneous. And above all, the jazz discipline of improvising teaches the value and necessity of taking risks in life and on the bandstand. Not all the time and not blindly, but with some seat-of-the-pants calculation.

I’ve only come to realize it fully of late, but this is what I admire most about jazz and jazz players – their courage, their willingness to put their ass right on the line each and every time they improvise. All jazz involves risk-taking, even the more straight-ahead stuff that’s seemingly not all that involved or way-out, like improvising on a standard. The art of it is that the great ones make this look easy, as if there was no risk at all, but mistakes and terror are around every corner, just waiting for you. There’s always the chance that you’ll crash and burn rather than soar, sound like a fool rather than make it.

Lester Young’s playing and, by extension, jazz itself, have been described as “the sound of surprise”, but jazz is also “the art of the mistake”. Mistakes are often what fuel hidden discoveries and you have to be willing to make and embrace mistakes to really play jazz. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard a great player make a real mistake on a record or live, then turn it into something by reacting to it, or repeating it as if it were deliberate, following wherever it leads. I once read Ornette Coleman say about learning to create his unique music, that he knew he was on to something when he started making mistakes. It took me a long time to understand what he meant – how can making mistakes be good? I think what he meant was that making mistakes in his seemingly freer, looser music proved there were still boundaries and ideals and substance in it, that it wasn’t just haphazard bullshit, that some things worked and sounded good and other things didn’t. It’s that way in all jazz, mistakes are like a necessary, random engine that drives the music. In this small case of cooking, a mistake merely led to an unexpectedly delicious meal, a bit of cooking luck. Sometimes, the bear eats you and sometimes you eat the bear but, on this night, we ate the bear and it felt good.

To acknowledge that jazz musicians have a unique improviser’s view is not to say that they’re all brainiacs, I don’t think that. But, by and large, I’ve been around a lot of them for years and there are all kinds – quiet, outgoing, funny, serious, and so on – but very few dummies. Most of the jazz musicians I’ve known are not just knowledgeable about their craft, but about other aspects of culture too. Other music, painting, food, wine, movies, literature, baseball, comedy, history. And they’re very quick and funny, their minds turn on a dime and they can think in several directions at once. With a few exceptions, you can generally have a very interesting conversation with a jazz musician and probably learn something, or at the every least be entertained.

Coming to appreciate this “thinking like an improviser” that jazz teaches has caused me to relax a little about jazz education. In the past, I’ve had a kind of Sisyphean despair about how many young people are studying jazz at the university level and what the seemingly not-too-bright future holds for them, it’s one of the reasons I don’t teach. I’ve often wondered, where are they all going to play, and how many of them can teach future jazz players who also won’t work? But considering all that jazz teaches us that can be applied away from the music, I’m more convinced that a good jazz education is worthwhile, even if the person ends up not being a player, which is entirely possible.

Not everyone that graduates from a jazz program will find viable success as a musician, for lots of reasons. They may lack the talent or the will, the necessary determination. Some may end up teaching music or another subject, some may move into another field entirely. As Elvin Jones once said, “Just because somebody wants to learn to ride a bicycle, doesn’t mean they have to be in the Tour de France“. But if a jazz student has paid attention, done the work and graduates, he or she will have learned a great deal of value – how to really think, to listen, to work with others and alone, to be open-minded and disciplined. To really concentrate and assimilate complex and diverse elements into a whole, to find solutions others might not think of and above all, to not fear mistakes so much. Those are valuable things to know for the rest of your life, no matter what you do, and I’m not sure study in any other field teaches them quite so well. I swear, half the failures I see are the result of people being too afraid to fail.

So, mistakes breed necessity and “necessity is the mother of invention.” Or, as Lester Young once put it, “Necessity is a motherfucker.” Indeed it is, Pres, indeed it is.

© 2014 – 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Jazz Cooking: A Bolognese-Puttanesca Hybrid

  1. Wonderful! You’ve made me hungry for some homemade tomato sauce (with the tomatoes in our garden which are quite nice this year) and for some playing. Hopefully I’ll get to both sometime this week.

  2. Steve…enjoying your writing immensely. Could I ask you a small favour. I met Erich Traugott many years ago when I sat in with the Lucio Agostini Orch in Marville, France. Took him home for dinner and when we got back to Canada he took me with him to several TO gigs; a marvellous experience and a super guy. Could you, if you keep in touch with him pass my e mail along to him…would love to hear how he is doing personally. And, of course if you are ever out this way pls give me a heads up and we will get together… p.s. I copied your Sauce Recipe while salivating!
    Regards… Jack

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