How I make pasta sauce more delicious


This was one of the results for “tomato sauce” in the WordPress image search

Recently I’ve been honing my pasta sauce, and I’ve been told by what I consider to be discerning and picky people that it’s very good–richly flavorful and complex and doesn’t even need meat.  (That’s a good sign to me as a mostly-vegetarian; I think it’s easy to fall into grade-inflated vegetarian mindsets where you think things are sooOOoo good that are just, you know, fine.  Sadly this happens all the time with vegetarian restaurants, which so often leave me disappointed after I read their wonderful reviews.)  So I thought I’d share with you some of the tweaks I’ve made that I think contribute to that.

Two notes: this isn’t really a recipe.  I never use one anyway, and people have different preferences about their pasta sauce.  It’s just a list of things you can try doing to an existing recipe.

Second, I do not claim authenticity or even faithfulness to any particular type of pasta sauce.  I am just sharing what I think tastes good.

  1. Cook the onions a long time.  Like many techniques I love, this comes from Indian cookery.  “Real” marinara doesn’t even have onions, but you know what, I like onions.  I chop them fine, about one medium or large onion per ~quart batch of sauce.  I cook them in oil on medium heat for a bit until they start browning, then add a bit of water and turn the heat down, cooking them on low until they are very soft and, not dark brown like you’d make for a curry, but quite deeply golden and creamy, adding water as needed to keep them from burning.  This adds a bit of that lovely dark onion flavor, which is so savory and sweet and good.
  2. Add a little smoked paprika (and a lot of regular paprika).  Be very judicious; start with just a couple of dashes.  That background hint of smokiness shouldn’t even be perceptible as smokiness, but it adds a lot of depth.
  3. Sugar.  I know, sugar is evil, but literally just a teaspoon stirred in when you start to let the sauce simmer will work wonders.  Especially if you make use of the next tip.
  4. Balsamic vinegar and Sriracha.  After the onions have gotten just right, turn the heat up to medium low and add a splash of balsamic vinegar and a squirt of Sriracha (even if you don’t like spicy sauce!  A little bit will not make it spicy, don’t worry).  Stir until it’s Maillard-ed up and glazed looking, which should just be a minute or two, before adding the tomatoes/tomato pulp/tomato juice.  I actually add more vinegar while the sauce is simmering, which increases the brightness and richness of the sauce yet more.
  5. Soy sauce!  Yes, a little soy sauce will increase the umami without tasting like soy.  Don’t go overboard:  just start with a teaspoon stirred into the simmering sauce, let it simmer for a while, and taste again.
  6. Mushroom salt.  This is a specialty product that my housemate happened to have, but it’s simply wonderful if you can get it.  It doesn’t taste mushroomy whatsoever–and it’s a good thing, because if it did I wouldn’t eat it.  (I’m that unfortunate vegetarian who hates mushrooms, at least in unprocessed form.)  It thickens the sauce a bit too.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have tricks to embiggen the humble tomato sauce?



A poem for autumn

Slide with me, world, dark and gentle
Fall through me, time, swift and lovely

In dying days I lift my eyes, I fill them up
With warm senescent gold

Cherished footsteps of summer, growing fainter
I cannot hold you here

How long does the memory of sun
Persist in the brain?
Not as long as in your multifarious earth
     Cool and still to me
     Hot and teeming within
Store the light against that dark day
When even you are trapped in snow, alone
     But waiting


I desperately need your help: Presidential evaluation metrics

Every election, I get very anxious.  This election, which appears to feature even more clown school dropouts than usual, has me particularly anxious.  I prepare once again to make a decision which I feel is such a great and thrilling honor to make, but which I always make in terror and with very little confidence.

Honestly, I cannot imagine going to a rally for a Presidential candidate.  Not for even the most brilliant, compassionate, experienced, ethical, whatever sort of person.  This is because I’m honestly not sure it is possible for any human being to be qualified for such a position.  In the face of that, isn’t it a little silly to be jumping and waving banners for someone who’s, no matter what, underqualified?

Running a country like the U.S. is an unimaginably complex endeavor fraught with huge amounts of uncertainty.  There is not only a vast quantity of factual information from all disciplines to consider (even when you have the best, I mean the most primo advisors, they will be wrong or necessarily oversimplify at times, and when they are wrong they can make you wrong, and then you’ve caused a catastrophe or are at least in some sense responsible for one.  Oh by the way, the state of knowledge is changing, and your very underlying assumptions about how the world works may swiftly and incontrovertibly be proved wrong at any time, and you have to deal with that.  Sorry), there are inevitable moral tradeoffs that you must make.   Like, big, horrifying ones.  And some are even trickier than that; you have to weigh your personal beliefs against those of many of the people you claim to represent.  Your beliefs will also change; again, as you continue to learn and grow as a person.

You have to have the discipline to realize your own cognitive biases–every human must deal with this, but yours can lead to millions dying.  Even if you and your advisors are all fabulous and the best ever, you are then likely to fall prey to the ills of overconfidence.  That tends to calcify the mind and inhibit learning.  And if anyone should always be learning with a humble yet incisive mind, it’s the President.  You also have to consider the value of all human life–should not the ultimate goal of such an international office be to promote human thriving in general?–and how it weighs against national interests.

But then you also have to think about public opinion, and how to present yourself to the public in an honest (?) way that realistically deals with their own cognitive biases AND relative lack of information.  Things you do with information they don’t have may cause vast swathes of the population to think you are evil.  And you might think the same thing, in their shoes.  How do you handle that?  Wouldn’t it also make you feel disgusting to have to manipulate the polis (this seems inevitable, until the vast majority of us become sober, wise, learned, and intellectually honest) on a regular basis?   I think that sometimes people recoil from someone who “waffles” because such “waffling” can reveal the inherent complexities from which they would prefer to be shielded.

Why would any sane person ever, ever not run screaming from the prospect of this?  That’s the reason for the pit in my stomach.  Even when I think I like what I see in someone, I can’t shake the fear that no one who isn’t an idiot or sociopath could go all the way down the road to the White House.  The absolute best case scenario is someone looking around and, in mortal dread, realizing there’s no one better coming forth; then reluctantly coming in and hoping to raise the level of discourse enough that God in His infinite mercy would draw someone just a little better into the process.  Maybe there are candidates like this already; but their smiling and tidy speechifying would be once again a misrepresentation, and we’re sort of back where we started.

But okay.  Before I work myself into a complete lather and drown in the bubbles, I’ll go ahead and accept the fact that some unworthy person will end up doing this President thing.  It won’t be possible for it to be someone I completely agree with, and maybe a person I agree with most isn’t even the best person for other reasons.  The choice of person may have less of an impact than can feel like the case during this bloviating time in the political cycle.  So I have to make a choice eventually, for the least bad person, given severely limited information (and time to process the information that’s there).  And so, if you’re planning to vote, do you.

Here is where I cast myself upon the kindness of strangers.  I’d like to make at least some kind of stab at formulating a realistic, effective methodology for evaluating a candidate.  There are lots of tools out there for showing voting record or publicly stated claims/performance in the stupid rapid-fire debates and things like that, but I want to go a little deeper.  I want to answer some more fundamental questions, questions we think deeply about when hiring someone for a job in our company, but maybe not as much when selecting for the highest office in the land!  Here are some questions I want to start thinking about, and I’d so love if you’d contribute possible strategies for answering them (or telling me they’re not relevant for x or y reason, or distilling them into more usable versions) as well as salient additional questions I might not have thought of:

What makes for a “good” President?  Some things possibly to consider

  • To what degree does the President really, truly “run” the country?  I mean in reality, not in the official list of powers.
  • What are the person’s thinking/learning styles?
  • What’s the person’s educational and professional background, and what types of inquiry does the person consider most valuable, and why?
  • In what area(s) is the person’s lack of knowledge or experience most harmful?
  • What’s the person’s overall model of human nature?  Is this relevant whatsoever?  If so, how so?
  • How does the person handle being proved wrong, and learning from mistakes?  What degree of transparency about this is desirable?
  • What moral principles would this person absolutely never, for any reason violate?
  • How does the person deal with the realization that he/she has come to violate such principles?
  • What cognitive biases does the person appear to exhibit the most, and how is he/she working to address them?  What are the impacts of these biases likely to be in reality?
  • How does the person handle the very scale of the operation and the cognitive dissonance it entails?  Many a politician couldn’t raise a hand in anger who could accept innocents being killed in the name of freedom.
  • What would the person say (if the person would say it) makes the U.S. the greatest nation on earth?  Honestly?  Answer with something other than bombast, or suggest ways we might work toward being it.
  • How does the person handle public opinion and image management?
  • How does the person compromise (or not) in an unfavorable political climate?  How about a favorable one?
  • What actual impact does a sitting President have on the economy in four to eight years?  What are the long-term impacts on future administrations?  What agency does he or she have to handle the effects of previous Presidents?  Surely there are a lot of factors at play here; what are they?
  • Lots of countries talk up tolerance and openness until their citizens start feeling threatened by something concrete, then they quite often radicalize.  This is both a common individual and group dynamic, so it may not be entirely preventable.  How will the person manage or, better yet, partly prevent this?  How will the person deal with the consequences?
  • What is the person’s real, thorough plan for [the economy][education][perverse political incentives and structures in the U.S.][the environment][international relations][infrastructure][overall human thriving, at home and abroad][privacy/intelligence/cybersecurity][other stuff]?  Give the person a luxuriant amount of time to explain with real data, and allow a luxuriant amount of time for factual and philosophical rebuttal.  None of this answer in two minutes of breathless platitudes stuff.
  • How much does the person’s plan end up affecting the status quo, for real?  What indices are truly meaningful?
  • If analogizing to what other countries have done to introduce certain changes that should be made, can the person identify nuisance variables or other mitigating factors that might make the analogy not hold up?  If so, how does the person adjust the model?
  • How does the person pick advisors, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, and what real impact can these decisions have?
  • What relevance does personal style have?  Is it completely unacceptable to elect a dreary introvert because other countries will find the person not leaderly?
  • What’s the worst thing this person can have done and still make me feel like I might not be a criminal by voting for him/her?  Do I need to calibrate by knowing the awful things the other candidates have done?
  • It seems to me (an ignorant person) that a lot of what actually ends up consuming a President’s time are weird things.  What are ten interesting issues that voters may know little about that can have a big impact on the country, and how does the person plan to handle them?
  • How does the person plan to try things out?  It seems to me that individual states can be a great test bed for certain things, then they can be gradually expanded to more and more ecologically valid regions.
  • When are totalitarian-style measures morally acceptable to the person?  What might those measures be?
  • To what extent should the person’s age or physical health be a factor?

If you have any thoughts on the above, PLEAAASE share them with me.  I really want to break down some of my own agonizing with some sort of problem-solving approach.  People have been able to solve some super-complicated problems with the right tools, and this is a really complicated one (not as complicated as running the country though :P).

Let us iterate together!  Maybe by November we can make a little more sense of this.


Nature / dualism hurts in an ecstatic way

This ain’t 1830, bro.  But it seems nature is all I want to write poems (or rather, sloppy quasi-poems) about, so here I go.

Bright lights,

Castles of desire,

Rocking tides of sweetness,

Birds that know you when they see you,

Skies your soul can touch when it hears the sound and unfurls,

The urbane fragrance of autumn and the intimate fragrance of damp earth,

Dark leaves painting the foreground of the sunset with their fine dewy motile brush,

All rushes in in the agony, the awful crack of dislocation from the static cohesion of SELF, things going through me and filling me because I’m not even here to impede them.

No one sense organ is where I am, correct?  Maybe I am everywhere, or a semipermeable membrane, or a filter that is often clogged.

Troph, Installment IV (a short one): is this the end?

Well, dear and patient reader, now I can’t think of anything else.  So consider this tale accomplished, until further notice.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Still, TROPH’s miracles hadn’t yet penetrated to all parts of the world.  Traditionalism held on in more backward cultures, and it was now as much of a shock to visit one of those dark, sensual places as it had been in the era of European exploration.  Younger visitors—who took their standard pills with them and temporarily discarded their biofeedback devices—were amazed at the human chaos in these locales.  There was so much variation in body size, and there were so many more problems with health and sanitation.  Why would anyone choose to live this way?  People either here or abroad who voluntarily kept their natural gustatory activities and organs intact (Americans and Brits often electing for a cosmetic anal reduction surgery, since the amount of waste expelled tended to be drastically reduced) were seen by the still-puritanical American populace as embracing an almost sexual perversion of gourmandism.  The US government had partnered with TROPH a couple of years ago to bring the system in as a form of aid to Bangladesh, which was suffering from simultaneous famine and mismanagement, but the Bangladeshis had, as a proud and unified people, rejected TROPH’s incredibly kind offer.  This was a shock to the government and the company, and had made relations in the region even more convoluted.

Josep was jerked back into his train of thought, and obediently sat up straight in his chair.  He had a habit of slumping forward when lost in thought, and his devices, concerned he might suffer from back pain after years of consistent poor posture, had given him a mild corrective jolt of heat.  This sort of treatment, the direct punishment and reward doled out by your very living quarters, was a little too much for most people.  But he figured it took the guesswork out of things like that, and hey, it wasn’t 2030 anymore, right?

The easiest and best way to make butternut squash soup

Edit:  pictures now present, long-winded narrative remains.

Fall approaches, and the warm and cozy caramel flavors of fall food are already starting to tempt our taste buds.  Well, I like them all year ’round, but I also sing Christmas songs all year round, so I’m always in a state of seasonal dysfunction.

In any case, I’ve had people ask about my method of dealing with butternut-squash soup.  It’s such an enjoyable soup, but it’s also a lot of work.  I decided after I acquired a butternut squash last winter that I had no interest in peeling the large, hard fruit, then cutting it up and boiling it, all the while fussing with onions, garlic, spices, and the whole motley crew of necessary flavor supports.  I then realized that roasting would enhance the delicious flavor of the squash far more than boiling would, and would be much easier and more hands-off than cutting the whole thing up.  So I started looking for recipes, and liked what I saw.  I went off to work thinking happily about the soup I would make.

But before I arrived home I realized something even more wonderful:  why did only the squash have to be roasted?  Why couldn’t I throw the onion and garlic in there as well?  This would reduce the labor significantly, and again, because roasting would bring out a dark, earthy, caramelized flavor in the other vegetables as well, it would be especially wonderful.

Reader, it was true.  Sometimes easier is better.  It is so with Easy Mac and it is so with this.  The same warning goes with this as goes with most of my recipes:  I cook iteratively and intuitively, so the spice and liquid amounts are mere estimates.  Be conservative with each at first, and add more if you need to.


(Makes four-ish good-sized servings?  Maybe more?  I don’t know, I eat a lot)

Section 1, the ingredients that get roasted

  • 1 large or 2 to 3 adorably small butternut squash
  • 1 onion, size dependent on how much you love onion
  • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic (peeled)
  • Salt, pepper, and neutral oil such as canola oil

Section 2, the other stuff

  • 1 tablespoon butter or oil
  • Spices:  start with a good pinch each of paprika, turmeric, ginger, nutmeg, dried rosemary, sage (if you like), and pepper, and keep them handy to add more later.  Shoot, throw in some cumin too, if you want.  Don’t be afraid of the nutmeg, though–it really enhances the creaminess of the soup in a wonderful way
  • 2.5-3 cups of chicken or vegetable broth, or other not overly assertive broth–low sodium if possible
  • Water as needed (see procedures)
  • About 1/3 cup cream, evaporated milk, or coconut milk (start with this and add more if you think it’s needed)


Turn your oven to 400 degrees F.  While it heats, rinse off your squash, cut off its stem, and slice it lengthwise.  Scoop out the seeds and fibers (though you don’t have to be obsessive about the fibers, since it’s going to be blended anyway).  If you want, reserve the seeds and toast them, using them as a garnish.  Rub the tops with oil and sprinkle reasonably generously with salt and pepper.  My squash this last time was a little underripe, leading to a sort of starchy, fibrous soup.  Be sure to get a ripe squash, don’t do as I did.


Put on a cookie sheet, jelly roll pan, or other such large, flat pan, and pop it into the oven.

20 minutes after the squash starts cooking, peel and cut your onion.  If it’s small, cut it into fourths; if large, into eighths; if somewhere in between, use your mathematical judgment.  It’s not really that big of a deal.  Toss the onion and garlic with some more oil (enough to coat them lightly) and sprinkle some salt and pepper on them too.  Open your oven door and just put them in the same pan as the squash.  Give them a stir in about 20 minutes.

At any point in the next 40 minutes after you’ve put the onions and garlic in (so you can see, the total cooking time for the squash is one hour, or until fork tender; the onions and garlic should, by this time, be soft everywhere and dark brown in spots but not, you know, burned), get a deep pot and put it on the stove.  Turn the heat to medium.  Put the butter in, and when it’s melted and starting to foam, put in your spice mélange.


This is called “blooming” the spices and it’s very common in Indian cooking.  The spices will have a far more delightful and intense flavor than if you just threw them into wet soup.  You can definitely add more to the completed soup to correct the spice level, but starting with at least a perceptible base will really help.  Anyway, bloom them for about a minute, then pour in your broth.  Give it a stir and turn the heat down to medium low if the vegetables are ready, or very low (plus cover your pot) if you still have to wait awhile.

Now get your roasted vegetables out.  Scoop the squash out of its skin and dump it into the pot, along with the delicious roasted onions and garlic.  Be sure to have turned the heat back up to medium low if you had it on low.  Stir all this and let it incorporate for a minute, give it a taste, and adjust as needed.  Now (carefully!) transfer to a blender and blend on a low setting (too high and it will get thin and watery) until it’s homogeneous, removing the pot from the burner but keeping the heat on.  Transfer back to the pot and put it back on the burner, taste and adjust seasoning again, and add water if it’s too thick for your liking.  Finally, stir in your cream and serve!  You will love it, I assure you.  Please remember to turn the burner and oven off once you’re finished, though.  Only you can prevent house fires.

While you’re at it, why not serve with some home-made whole grain sourdough bread?  That wouldn’t hurt, right?  (Pay no attention to the dirty counter.  It’s a figment of your imagination.)