Friday, May 7, 2010

Susan and the Sweet Pea: Creamy Tomato Sauce on Angel Hair with Basil


I've known Susan pretty much forever. Certainly, she was a figure in my life before I started dating her son (the first time) and clearly, she'll be part of it long after he and I broke up (the second time).

Susan and my mom met when they were both in the Junior League of our small Long Island town. I had as much familiarity with her as any elementary school kid has with her mother's acquaintances. And even though Susan's son (my ex) and her daughter from her first marriage went to a private school and I the public school, I know that we ran into each others in some circles - at the library, park, or yaght club (a fancy name for a rickety old Victorian with a pool and a dock).

If I recall correctly, Susan's son, Jack, transferred to the public school in junior high. While I don't think we were ever in the same class, he and I had some passing familiarity. At some point, he began to tease me mercilessly and I realized that he had a crush on me. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the beginning of my last year of high school after I'd had my heart broken by my first love that he and I began to date.

Now clearly Jack and I had a connection as we dated not just once as teenagers, but then again as divorcees. Nevertheless, I cannot underestimate the influence that Susan had on the existence of our relationship. For some reason, Susan had a soft spot for me. I know that Jack's pursuit of me was encouraged. And once, he had me, she welcomed me to the family with open arms, donning me Sweet Pea.

By this time, Susan had remarried Richard and with him had a third child Kaitlin. The blended family moved to a large Victorian built in the early 20th century,assembled from a kit ordered from Sears & Roebuck. Richard adored her, bringing flowers every Friday evening. Unsurprisingly, as Susan was hard to resist.

Susan was a hot ticket. Although she'd had her struggles with weight, she was a sight to see in her late 30's. She was gorgeous, vivacious, yet down to earth. She had European friends and entertained deliciously and lugubriously. Even her divorce was glamorous. Her ex-husband was a pilot who followed in the footsteps of his father, a test pilot who palled around with Chuck Yaeger while they both broke the boundaries of modern aviation. As a young woman, I was dazzled by her.

Susan is a both a force and a free spirit. She gets what she wants but does so in a meandering way. While there are few people more open-minded, she knows what she likes and sticks to it. As an example, while Susan was a terrific cook and gourmet, she loved her 7-11 coffee. Jack once bought her a beautiful, expensive coffee makers, which she demurely shunned in favor of her styrofoam cups of thin brown coffee. She can also be fiery and temperamental. There's always the story of her walking through the drug-infested neighborhood north of our town tipsy from Rusty Nails wearing her full length fur after fighting with Richard. He trailed her in the Volvo going 5 miles an hour.

But it's her generosity of spirit that I love best. Susan's door to the Ocean Avenue house was always open both figuratively and literally. It remained open to me after Jack and I drifted apart with a few months of dating long distance in college. For years, I would simply arrive on Christmas after my family's holiday celebration had ended. At first, I felt awkward ringing the bell, but within in a few years, I was simply an expected guest, no RSVP necessary. That is until the second break up, which wasn't so gracious, culminating in a custody battle over a fondue pot. (I won). Susan and I didn't speak again until Facebook surfaced allowing us to reconnect after many years, a new husband and a little locavore.

I still recall the precise moment when I realized that Susan and I had something special. At the time, it seemed so simple, even mundane, but it's a memory that has grown in intensity in part because of its ability to tap into my sense of taste. I popped in to visit Jack on a sunny summer Saturday about a month before I left for college. He was out, but Susan had just made an early dinner that she offered to share. We ate outside in a secluded area of the porch that hugged the perimeter of the home's front. My taste buds still have instant recall for that dish - silky, rich, perfect August tomatoes punctuated with basil, glazing the delicate angel hair pasta that was so in vogue in the late 1980s. It was probably so routine for Susan that she won't remember it. But for me, it was a lesson in the beauty of opening your heart and home, a tradition that I carry on.

This recipe is a very rough approximation of the sauce that Susan made. Given that fresh, local tomatoes are months away, I tried it with last year's tomato puree from Tomato Mountain giving it a touch of richness with heavy cream.

Creamy Tomato Sauce with Basil and Angel Hair Pasta

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced shallot or green garlic
2 cups tomato puree
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1 pound angel hair pasta, cooked
2 tablespoons basil, cut into chiffonade

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the shallot or garlic and cook 1 minute until fragrant. Pour in tomato puree and cook for ten minutes or until reduced slightly approximately 20 minutes. Add cream and cook for an additional minute. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over the angel hair pasta and garnish with chiffonade.

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