My Sunday Pasta Sauce

May 17

In: Family life, Food

I really enjoy doing creative things.  I think it’s one reason why I like VC: no two entrepreneurs, markets, and Board experiences are the same. Rules of thumb help, but ultimately, you have to digest and discern, and then, decide.

Similarly, I think it’s one reason why I’m attracted to fly fishing, fly tying, and cooking. You can follow rules or go by your gut. As a natural contrarian, I like the latter.

So, today, when I was at the market, I saw these guys.

They’re pieces of pork shank, or “osso bucco.” So, I’ve decided to make a pasta sauce for Sunday dinner.

Pasta sauce is one of my go-to dishes. I make a pretty darn good and authentic Northern Italian sauce. I also experiment and tweak recipes over time. There are some secret ingredients, which I’ll share. San Marzano tomatoes are a must-have. Get the real stuff imported from Italy, not “San Marzano tomatoes grown in the USA.” Also, ground nutmeg. Trust me on this.

Also, pork adds a touch of sweetness to the dish. Ideally, you should get some pork on the bone, as the marrow will add tremendous unctuousness to the sauce. It, in a way that’s hard to explain, makes the sauce silky and really changes the mouth-feel of the dish.

Last, the bit of wine in the recipe really matters. One time, I changed the wine I use in the recipe. Our oldest child remarked that the sauce “tasted different for some reason.” Substituting one white wine for another really did change the sauce a bit. Crazy, but true.

Some techniques also are important. I note them below in the recipe.

I make enough so that we have a big batch and Monday dinner is an easy “heat the pot” option. This big batch will serve 12 people. You can freeze it for about a month and have a good dinner ready in a few minutes on a weeknight.

My children have been egging me to write down recipes, so here’s what I do.

1 onion

1 celery stalk

1 carrot

2 lbs. of ground beef (I buy the organic kind, but that’s optional.)

1/2 cup of wine (You can use red or white, but use something good enough that you’d drink it and isn’t oaked like a Chardonnay or a Cabernet Sauvignon. My favorites include an unoaked Italian white, such as a San Gimignano.)

1 “porky” element: 4 Italian sausage links, 4 spare or baby-back ribs, 1 lb. of pork shank, 1 lb. ground pork, or a few ounces of imported prosciutto (skip the domestic stuff and get The Real Thing)

2 28 oz. cans of San Marzano tomatoes

A few tablespoons of tomato paste

A small dash of nutmeg (grated fresh from a whole one)

Dice the vegetables. Heat up a large dutch oven pot over medium heat. Add olive oil. (We’re using a moderate level of heat to “coax” out flavors.)

Sauté the onion until translucent. Add salt and pepper.

Add the other vegetables and sauté until soft but not brown. Take out of the pot and set aside.

Increase the heat to medium-high. Add the beef and tomato paste. Add salt and pepper. Sauté until the meat is just cooked and not brown. Set aside. (Cooking the tomato paste and the beef really adds a huge dimension to the dish.)

Sauté the pork. Set aside. (If you’re using prosciutto, no need to sauté–just add to the pot when you add the tomatoes.)

Dump excess fat. Add the wine and deglaze the pot. (This is really important. There is a ton of flavor in the little brown bits in the bottom of the pot. It’s called the “Maillard reaction,” and French chefs deserve a hat tip for preaching about it. Also, feel free to have a glass of wine while cooking. I think of it as the Chef’s Prerogative. In fact, drink two.)

Hand crush the tomatoes and add them and all their juices to the pot.

Add back all the meat. Add the nutmeg.

Simmer on super-low heat for 4 to 5 hours. Or, if you want, put it in the oven at 250 degrees (on a cookie sheet, in case there’s spillage). Stir occasionally to prevent burning.  After about 1 hr., taste the sauce and add salt and pepper, as necessary. (If you season while you cook, you’ll actually be adding less salt vs. if you wait until the end; that’s because the salt will really infuse the food and you’ll need less of it.)

Skim off fat just before you are ready to serve.

Serve with pasta (I like fettuccine) and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. (IMO, this cheese is tough to beat. It really makes a big difference, particularly, if it’s freshly-grated.)

So, that’s what I’m doing right now: cooking pasta sauce. I find it very comforting to have a pasta sauce gently cooking and infusing the house on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It’s the smell of home for our family.

This is a pretty magical sauce, in all honesty. It will woo Significant Others and, in general, just make your world feel just right. You will taste a number of things that make your brain sit up and pay attention: protein, salt, sweet (from the carrots and onions), fat (sorry, you need it to be healthy), floral (from the celery), and umami (from the grated cheese, tomatoes, and wine).

Much love can go into this dish. It really is a “J.T. special” from our home to yours.

Hope you use this recipe. Enjoy!


May 13

In: Personal, Philosophy

I’ve drastically cut my consumption of alcohol.

Part of that is that I gave it up again recently during Lent and didn’t really get back into it much thereafter. Part of it is that drinking two glasses of wine makes me very lethargic the next morning during spring pollen season.

But, part of it is this: my attachment to alcohol in the past has been, at times, unhealthy.

Much of it started in college. There I was at Yale, mingling with trust fund kids, as the first student in my high school to ever be admitted. I at one point had three concurrent jobs to help pay for it all.

Alcohol gave me a boost of self-confidence to hang out with so many well-educated prep school kids who knew ancient Greek and had killer drop shots on the squash courts. Until I got to Yale, I thought squash was a vegetable.

Of course, most students at Yale weren’t like that. But, it was that prep-school cohort, which had a background completely different from mine, that made me feel especially insecure. Their dads, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers had attended Yale.

My great-grandfather was an orphan from China, who moved to Indonesia and sold pots and pans door to door. Thankfully, he eventually became wealthy, and that helped protect my father’s family during the tough years during WWII.

So, alcohol became a crutch for me over time.

As I became an adult and earned money, it became a fun experience to learn about wine. I read a lot about my favorite regions and varietals. I love going out to eat, looking at the wine lists, and asking questions. We have a wine cellar.

As a VC, I find that many networking events hospitably offer open bars. Many one-on-one meetings involve going out for drinks. We have season tickets at Fenway. Servers will bring alcohol to your seats, and there are two bars a 30-second walk away. At restaurants, chefs put out some incredible tasting menus with incredible wine pairings.

Here is the reality for me. Wine contains a drug. And with that drug is the temptation to self-medicate and escape. It’s a socially-acceptable beverage. It’s not as though you’re drinking a flask in a brown paper bag.

I don’t have a “plan” regarding if, when, and how much wine I drink. Whether that will change in the future. I just know that I don’t feel like drinking much these days.

And, I feel good about that decision.

Home Remedies

May 11

In: Family life, Food, Personal

It was a quiet weekend. I’ve been in bed for a few days with a gastrointestinal bacterial infection. I’ve lost 6 lbs and haven’t eaten much.  TMI, I know. I got it by drinking from an old water bottle while fly fishing. Lesson learned.

So, I rallied to see my doctor. Her parents are from Iran. We shared home remedies for a bad stomach ache. In Iran, she said that warm rice, plain yogurt, and salt were a prescribed cure.

I told her about rice congee. See above.

In an ethnic Chinese family, it is what your parents make for you when you are ill. Rice is cooked until it essentially disintegrates and creates a creamy and nutritious stew. A little meat is added, as are green onions, white pepper, and thin soy sauce.

My mother used to make it with a twist. She’d throw in a whole chicken so that the rice would cook in a very rich broth.

Thankfully, a local Hong Kong-style noodle shop offers it. When I eat congee, it is always when I’m really sick. And that first bite always reminds me of my mother. I am teleported back. The consistency of the porridge. The unique whiff of white pepper. The gentle saltiness of a thin soy sauce.

I’m home.

So, three days of intestinal distress, thus far, for a whopping 21″ brown trout, my Personal Best catch. I’m finally feeling a bit better.

It has been worth it….

Re-Post: My Mother and Her Shoe Boxes

May 10

In: Family life, Personal

This is a re-post of a blog entry I wrote a few years ago. I thought it would be appropriate to re-run it, with today being Mother’s Day. This time, I’m adding a picture of her, my sister, and me. We had just emigrated from Indonesia and arrived in Queens, NY.

This is a hard post to write. Today is May 12. It is the day of my mother’s birthday. She also died, at age 60, on May 12. That day also happened to be Mother’s Day. It was a difficult day with too many coincidences.

Soon after she passed away, I was at the funeral home. My mom kept in shoe boxes every greeting card my sister and I had ever given her. She had asked my sister that the boxes be placed in her casket after her death. I didn’t know about either the boxes or her request, until after my mother died.

And so, there I was, waiting for the funeral director, going through card after card as I relived past decades. There were hand-drawn cards from our youth, with unsteady writing and crayon pictures. There were also the polished store-bought cards I had sent as an adult. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. Too many memories. In shoe boxes.

The director came up to me. I stood up and handed the boxes to him. Giving away those cards was hard.

Afterwards, I drove back from the funeral home, and I thought about many things. In the silence, I thought about how my mother didn’t want to emigrate to the U.S. and leave her family, friends and culture. I remembered the very hard life we had when we first moved here with just $1,500. I remembered well our dilapidated apartment in a beaten-down part of Brooklyn. But, in the end, my mother persevered. She wanted a better life for her children.

As I drove, I regretted that I had never thanked my mother for moving to the U.S. It was a long drive.

Growing up, my mother used to say to me: “Please work hard at whatever you do for a living.” It was her polite way of saying: “I’ve given up a lot so that you might have more–so, don’t waste my sacrifice.”

Why do I write this? First, I think many VCs like what they do because we really identify with people who want to chase the American Dream. I definitely do.

To me, being a VC is not just a job. It’s personal.

Second, I find that many entrepreneurs can point to a person, who unwittingly planted the seeds of entrepreneurship in them early in life. I have met with probably over 5,000 founders in my venture capital career. They come from many backgrounds and areas of life. Not everyone shares why they are starting a new company, but when they do, the stories are fascinating. I find that these intensely personal “drivers of drive” are very inspiring.

I’d like to close with two last items. First, if you’re an entrepreneur, I’d love to hear about why you are one. You can always get a job working for someone else, but yet, you’ve decided to start something new. Why?

Second, to my mother, I hope this somehow gets to you: a very belated and deeply-felt thank you….

A 21″ Brown Trout

May 9

In: Fly fishing, Personal

I feel really good about our Thursday meeting with our investors. We heard very positive feedback about the portfolio as well as the transparency that we always try to show.

It was a good feeling. I’m so grateful to our investors and to the portfolio company CEOs, who made time to speak.

I long ago scheduled a vacation day for Friday. We’re not doing a summer vacation this year, as we have so much going on. So, I’m building in some days off on Fridays.

I decided to fish. I got up at 3.45 am and drove out. It became a beautiful day: sunny, 85 degrees, and the river was absolutely shimmering with sunlight. Birds everywhere. A very peaceful setting.

Then, I hooked and landed this fish. Video below or here.

It’s a 21″ brown trout. My personal best. Trout don’t normally grow that big in New England. I was stunned.

Two amazing days.