7 min read

Stone Soup #24: Mending Sauce - Smoked Herring Pasta Sauce

(This one's serious)

Stone Soup is an ongoing quarantine feature in which I come up with a recipe that uses the impossible thing in your cupboard, without making you go to the store or wasting any of your ingredients. Last time, we made sweet potato soup.

CW: mention of a pet’s death.

Patience says:

I have been enjoying your series a lot. I have kind of a downer of an ingredient. On our last Big Grocery Trip (we've been going every 3-4 weeks), I picked up five tins of smoked herring fillet. I like them okay, but they were mostly for my sweet little thirteen-year-old cat, who had less and less of an appetite and had gotten very picky; I used to buy smoked sardines or herrings as a treat for me in undergrad and split them with her, since my partner's much younger, larger cat doesn't care for smoke-tasting things. Unfortunately, my cat passed away last week; the last day she was with us I opened a tin and tried to split them with her, but she would only sort of lick the liquid up. I have five of the tins left, sealed and wrapped.

And, as you might imagine, I'm finding myself not interested in eating them like a snack right now; eating them with a fork without her feels wrong, and probably will for a while. But I also have a kind of strong principle, stronger in these times of scarcity, of Don't Waste Food. And I make myself sad every time I open the snack cupboard and see them hanging out there. So I've been trying to figure out what to do with them that will taste okay, but that will maybe awaken Fond Memories, rather than Bitter Sadness. Or at least, that will have a sort of productive pain of fond sadness. I just can't imagine eating them out of the tin without her.

My own cat, Buttercup, died a week or so into quarantine. It seems wrong that we should have to endure the loss of beloved pets during a time when everything feels so uncertain; losing the reliable warmth of their presence hits harder these days, I think. Not least because there’s no escaping their absence — we’re trapped at home, looking at the empty spaces they were meant to occupy.

Any time I write a recipe, I’m hoping to find a way to celebrate the ingredient in question. Fortunately, smoked herring is aggressive enough that it’s not hard to highlight it in a dish — it’s a spotlight-stealer no matter where you put it. You can shred it with a fork and stir it into cream cheese to spread onto toast. You can add it to a composed salad, or toss it into a bound salad, or incorporate it into a dip. Smoked herring is also a mainstay of Caribbean cuisine (outside my wheelhouse in terms of cooking, but overwhelmingly delicious).

All of that will get the smoked herring out of the cupboard and onto the plate — but this isn’t just about eating. I’ve written before about the way cooking can draw grief up out of a person. Every step of a recipe can be significant. If you let it, the transformative process of creating a meal can begin the process of mending your heart.

I’ve got a recipe that I’ve made too many times for too many people who are hurting in too many ways. It doesn’t always have preserved fish in it, but sometimes it does. I’ve made this recipe about lost jobs and lost babies and lost spouses, wounded marriages and damaged friendships, bad news and worse news. It doesn’t fix anything, and it doesn’t undo anything, but then again, that’s not what healing is about, is it? It’s about living alongside the new shape of reality.

So, okay, here we go.

Mending Sauce

Step one: Prep. There are some things you can’t possibly prepare yourself for, so take comfort here that you can know what will happen ahead of time. There’s enough time for you to get everything in order, and the only surprises you’ll encounter for the next half-hour or so will be pleasant ones. This is an extremely versatile recipe; the only things you absolutely need are pasta, tomatoes, garlic, oil, and cooking wine. Feel free to add things or take them out. There’s no right way to do this — you are the one who can best understand what you have and what you need.

  • Tomatoes. If they’re raw, chop them into big chunks. If they’re in a can, open the can but don’t drain it. I know this seems like a really small, obvious instruction, but sometimes little things like that get away from us when we’re hurting.
  • Do you have an onion or a shallot? Peel and dice it. People have all kinds of tricks to keep you from crying while you’re cutting onions, but maybe it’s okay not to fight it this time. We’re all trying so hard to keep it together; it feels like if another thing happens, a single thing, we’ll break. So maybe today, just for a minute, you can stop fighting and let your eyes do what they need to do.
  • Do you have olives? Any kind will do. Leave them whole or slice them. Capers are nice here, too. Artichoke hearts. Marinated peppers, pepperoncinis in oil or brine. What comforts you most? What’s been waiting patiently in your cupboard while you kept yourself busy, while you were being caught by surprise, while you were trying to hang on to what you could, while you could?
  • Crush some garlic by setting it on your cutting board, resting the flat of your knife on top of it, and whacking the knife with the heel of your hand. If this frightens you — and it is reasonable to be nervous about the prospect of slapping a sharp blade with the soft flesh you use to feel the world around you — it’s okay to mince the garlic fine or grate it.
  • Smoked herring, or sardines, or anchovies. If what you’re using is packed in salt, rinse it and gently boil it in clean water for a few minutes, to draw out some of that salt. If what you’re using is packed in oil, just open it and set it aside. Your kitchen will smell like fish, and that’s something you’ll just need to accept. Maybe you’ll get used to the smell, or maybe it will dissipate, spreading itself out throughout your home until it’s bearable.
  • Decide on a pasta you like and boil it in heavily-salted water for as long as it takes to nearly finish cooking it. When you drain it, reserve about a cup of the pasta water. I’ve taken to adding a bay leaf and a lemon rind to my pasta water before I turn on the heat; I don’t know if this measure adds flavor, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something. Sometimes, we need to feel that way.

Step Two: Heat. Put a big skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic first, with a healthy glug of olive oil, and a little bit of salt and pepper. Cook them, stirring infrequently, until they start to look soft and smell fragrant. Add herbs and spices that you like — here, I lean on red pepper flakes, thyme, basil, sage, and the barest dusting of nutmeg.

Now, add your tomatoes to the pan. Give them one stir to coat them in oil, and then look away. Give them at least thirty seconds alone with the heat. You want them to brown, maybe even to char just a little bit, before you stir them.
It will feel wrong. It will go against all your instincts, letting those tomatoes sit and sizzle in the pan, knowing that they’re changing in ways you’d normally try to avoid.

You can sit in that wrong feeling and come out on the other side of it intact. I promise you can.

Stir the tomatoes infrequently, until they’ve all got some brown on them.

Step Three: Liquid. Pour a little wine into the pan — red or white, although I prefer white for this recipe. Use your spatula or stirring spoon to stir the contents of the pan, scraping the bottom to lift away anything that might be stuck. This is called deglazing; it’s the process of removing things that might once have seemed permanent.
Add about a cup of water from the pasta pot into the pan. Stir.

Step Four: Additions. Here is the place to add the fish. Tune the amount according to your tastes. Remember that the flavor will be intense, even if the flesh of the fish completely disintegrates. In fact, that’s the ideal — sardines and anchovies especially will vanish into the sauce, their flavor permeating the liquid evenly. Love and fear and care and hunger will work their ways into all the creases and corners of a life; even if you can’t see them, they change the flavor of a person’s world.

Let this sauce simmer until the tomatoes start to break down. It’s okay to help this process along by breaking them up with a spoon or spatula; you’ve been very patient until now, and this is not a place where you have to keep waiting and waiting and waiting.

Step Five: Finishing. The sauce will be thin, and that’s okay. If you want it thicker, you can add canned or jarred tomato sauce — that won’t hurt anything. Do what comforts you most.

When the liquid has cooked down a bit, add any final vegetables — olives, artichoke hearts, peppers — and then add the pasta to the pan. Toss it, and then keep tossing it, and then keep tossing it. Some things feel like they should be finished quickly, but they take time and repetition. It’s okay to keep feeling and thinking the same things over and over again. You don’t have to be over it.

When the pasta is coated well, and there’s not a lot of sauce congregating in the bottom of the pan, serve in a quantity that feels like a little more than enough. If you have parmesan, use it. Now is not the time when you need to restrain yourself; allow yourself comfort and care. Treat yourself with the kindness you’d show a friend.