Chard and Chickpea Pasta with Golden Raisins

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I’m Catholic.  For a few years I was related to a bishop by marriage. I attended a Franciscan parish throughout childhood. I can pray in English, Spanish, and Latin. There was even a summer in high school when I went to Mass every morning, although that might have been more for seeing my then-boyfriend than for spiritual nourishment.

But my relationship to my childhood faith has changed. It changed for a million reasons. Some of these are benign- studying at a Lutheran college, marrying a Protestant, attending Anglican services while living in England. Others are not. I’ve had deep qualms with the theology and disgusts with the institution. I walked out of Mass once when a Priest compared the Affordable Care Act to Maoist persecution of religion and the congregation applauded. I’ve seen fellow Catholics defending the Muslim ban, conveniently forgetting that a hundred years ago our faith was targeted in the same way. But I keep being drawn back to the Church, with reservations and with uncertainty. For all of its flaws and darkness, Catholicism is still the way I best understand God.

This week marked the beginning of Lent. Lent is one of my absolute favorite times of year. I love it for many of the same reasons as I love New Year’s. There’s an austerity and a resolve. At Mass on Ash Wednesday the priest spoke about how Lent is not a time of punishment, but of reflection. That it doesn’t exist because we are bad, but because we can be better. Lent is an invitation.

Rituals matter. And these rituals are one aspect that keeps dragging me back to the Church, over my anger and over my concerns and over my doubts.

Not to find theology lessons in my dinner, but I find meals like this particularly suited for Lent. They are simple and nourishing. There is time for questions and contemplation. Meals are rituals just as the liturgical calendar is.

But onto the pasta. Pasta is one of my favorite meals- I make it two or three times a week. Sometimes I avoid posting pasta here so I have make other foods. My most made pasta is a fail safe formula of greens and seasonings and a can of beans. It’s sustained me for many quick lunches, back-of-the-pocket dinners, and lazy date nights involving Netflix.

Here, we get the greens in beautiful rainbow chard. The stems are sauteed in a healthy dose of olive oil with garlic, capers, and golden raisins. The leaves are added in thin ribbons with a can of chickpeas, and the whole dish is topped with a good handful of feta cheese and a flurry of chopped walnuts.For a bowl of food that looks quite monochromatic it tastes like sunshine- here earthy, here a hint of sweetness, here the mellow richness of garlic. It’s a slightly Greek-esque pasta, hearty and full of good things. Having never been to Greece, I imagine this pasta would be perfect to eat on a rooftop overlooking the sea. As it is it’s perfect to eat at a dining room table, huddling in from the cold, glorying in the mundane.

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Chard and Chickpea Pasta with Golden Raisins

If you do eat fish, I would highly recommend adding two or three anchovies in with the olive oil. They melt into the oil and make everything taste just a bit more savory and a bit more like the sea.

Serves 2-4

8 ounces fusilli or other short pasta (I like whole wheat for this)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 large bunch of rainbow chard, stems diced, leaves sliced into thin ribbons
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon capers
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1 fifteen ounce can chickpeas, or 2 cups cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
feta, for serving
chopped walnuts, for serving

Set a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Add a good amount of salt to the water.

While the water boils, warm the olive oil in another large pot over low heat. Add the chard stems, garlic, golden raisins, capers, and red pepper flakes with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until everything is soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes.

Cook the fusilli according to the packaged directions, until it has just a bit of bite left. Meanwhile, add the chard leaves and chickpeas to the chard stem mixture and stir well. Let it cook until the chard leaves are beginning to collapse. If the pot runs dry,  add a bit of water. Taste everything, and add salt as necessary.

When the pasta is ready, add about 1/4 cup pasta water to the chard mixture, then drain the pasta and add to the chard. Toss well, and turn the heat up to medium just long enough for the water to reduce.

Serve hot, topped with feta cheese and walnuts.

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Eggplant Stew with Chickpeas and Paprika

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What do you make for dinner when you pair a vegetarian, a Celiac, and a few girls who would be perfectly happy with chili dogs and a side of cheetos?

The first time I made this eggplant stew was two years ago. A month after Aaron and I got married I decided to have some high school friends over for dinner. Just before the wedding we had moved to Illinois and into a new apartment, and during the most chaotic month of my life we entertained exactly zero times. I was eager to show off our new place with all its gleaming hardwood floors and large windows. There were new pots and pans and knives to use, and it had been some time since I had lived in the same state as these friends. It was an occasion for celebration. And like any celebration there was a carefully chosen menu.

Nothing too strange, nothing too foreign, but something ultimately delicious and satisfying. For our main I made a smokey eggplant stew, deciding that there was nothing too terrifying about eggplant. There was a kale salad of baby kale and baby grapes, an adorable combination that quashed any qualms about eating kale, an attempt at an acceptable cake that did not work out, and some maple grilled peaches that did. Aaron had been at work, but arrived in time for dessert and mixed cocktails for those of us who drank. I made popcorn after dinner. There were games. We ended up with surprise overnight guests sleeping on our old leather couches. The next morning I convinced the kale-phobic to drink a kale smoothie for breakfast and we lingered over caffeine and kale for hours. The only leftovers were the disappointment of the cake.

It’s a night, exceptional in its ordinary joy, that I remember often. It’s the sort of nights I like to celebrate with friends as often as possible, even though I again live in a different state of these friends. It’s a night that serves as a talesman for the power of food to connect us, and the ways that sharing a meal can be like sharing ourselves.

I’ve made this stew as a souvenir a few times. This stew was a godsend. It’s the type of thing I like to eat late summer, getting to use the last of summer’s produce without pretending like it doesn’t cool down at night. It’s smokey and meaty from the paprika and eggplants and slightly sweet, slightly tart from the tomatoes and pepper. It’s not quite ratatouille, but could be kissing cousins. And the taste is so much more complex than it should from the cooking time. It’s a beautiful sort of meal to share with the people you love.

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Eggplant Stew with Chickpeas and Paprika

I find this stew makes a filling meal, but if you’d like a bit more heft (or to stretch it further) it’s delicious over a bed of brown rice.

adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 medium eggplants (about a pound and a half), chopped into small cubes
1 red onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
5 roma tomatoes, quartered, deseeded, and chopped
1 15 ounce can chickpeas, rinsed
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
chopped parsley, to serve

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the eggplant, stirring every few minutes until golden in color, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

Meanwhile warm a dutch oven or other good-sized pot over medium heat. Add the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil. Add in the onion, pepper, and paprika, and stir well. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and pepper are starting to soften. Add in the garlic. Cook for a few more minutes, until the garlic is fragrant. Add in the tomato paste and stir well. Cook for another minute or so, then add a tablespoon or two of water. Stir well, being careful to scrape up any dark bits on the bottom of the pot.

Add in the tomatoes, chickpeas, cooked eggplant, 2 cups of water, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a rolling simmer and cover. Cook, uncovering and stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have collapsed and are stew-y in texture, about 30 minutes.

Taste and adjust for seasoning, and serve hot topped with a lot of chopped parsley.

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Fennel-Tomato Salad with Chickpeas and Mint

Fennel-Tomato Salad

There are meals that I create explicitly for this space. I write the recipes ahead of time and carefully shop for the ingredients. While I’m making them, I taste along as I go and measure my pinches of salt. I set aside blocks of time to make these meals. There’s specific time for the planning, the cooking, and the photographing. While Aaron and I are eating, I spend the whole meal analyzing our food. Did I add too much lemon juice? Does it need more salt? I ask Aaron probing questions and get annoyed when he only offers reassurance. I don’t want to hear that it’s good. I want specifics. There’s a good portion of things that I make whose recipes live on my computer with extensive notes on how to make them better next time. Maybe they’ll make an appearance here, but not until all the wrinkles are ironed out. I don’t want to trouble you with a recipe that’s anything less than its tastiest version.

And then there are the recipes that I just throw together. Sometimes it’s because the bunch of spinach in the vegetable drawer is going to go bad unless I sauté it with the stray few slices of bacon and some cold rice. Or I don’t have a lot of time and our pantry’s mostly bare so I boil pasta and toss it with canned beans and top the whole thing with a fried egg. Some days I just want to make dinner without setting a timer to see how long it actually takes to boil farro. Generally these meals are tasty and efficient, which I’ll take. Perfect is the enemy of good. I’ve heard that preached in all of my creative endeavors.

But once in a while I’ll throw together something excellent. I usually know that I’ve struck gold when Aaron looks up from his bowl and tells me to blog about it. I usually have reasons not to do so- I didn’t write the recipe down so I don’t remember exactly what I did, or it’s too similar to something I just posted, or even though I’m not explicitly writing a vegetarian blog I’ve yet to post a dish with meat and I’m not sure if I want to. Sometimes those recipes get forgotten. Sometimes they get filed away with extensive notes. Rarely do they make it here.

But a few days ago I made threw together this fennel and tomato salad for dinner. Everything seemed to align just right- Aaron and I had just finished taking a long walk together. We had summer water (rosé) chilling in the fridge. The air was hot and muggy, and rain was imminent. Our knives had just been professionally sharpened yesterday, and they sailed through the vegetables. I prepared the salad and let it sit for an hour, because restaurant work means that eating dinner any time before 8 seems ridiculous. Before it was time to eat, Aaron stole a bite and locked eye contact with me. “You’re going to blog about this, right?”

Perfect is the enemy of good. I moved our couch out of the way to claim the last of the fading light from our only North-facing window. And today I’m putting this here just as I made it. I’m not converting the vegetables to cups and the cheese to grams-that’s too fussy for a late summer dinner. Because this is for you, for those nights when you want something light but substantial, cooling and rewarding. It’s for the nights when the most work you want to do is chopping. It’s for the the dinners when an hour of Netflix is a reasonable reward for five minutes of work. But it’s also for me, so I remember the recipe next time Aaron suggests we have fennel-tomato salad for dinner. And for a reminder that I don’t always need things to be perfect. Because sometimes the reward for forsaking perfection is finding the very, very good.

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Fennel-Tomato Salad with Chickpeas and Mint

This would be tasty after it’s just made. But it’s best if it sits for a bit. All the flavors will meld and mingle, and it becomes something better than the sum of all its parts.

Serves 2 for a meal or 4 as a side.

1 small fennel bulb, fronds removed, halved and thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, firm but ripe, chopped
about 1 1/2 cup chickpeas
1 handful crumbled feta cheese
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 big handful of mint, finely chopped
juice of 1 large lemon or 2 small
generous drizzle of olive oil
salt and pepper

In a large bowl, combine the fennel, tomatoes, chickpeas, feta, garlic, and mint. Pour over the lemon juice and add a healthy amount of olive oil. I did a two second pour. Add a large pinch of salt and a generous sprinkling of pepper. Stir well. Let sit of at least half an hour, preferably an hour. The salt will draw out the juices of the fennel and tomatoes, which will in turn flavor everything else. Serve at room temperature. Adding some bread to sop up the juices that will be left behind wouldn’t be a bad idea.

 

 

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Mediterranean Farro Salad with Pesto Dressing

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A few weeks ago I wrote a bit about Memorial Day food, and how I didn’t really think you needed a recipe for such food. Two days later Aaron and I were invited to a vegan Formula 1 party/Memorial Day get together. I threw together this salad in the small pocket of time in between my post brunch nap and leaving for the party. And this salad was such a hit that I immediately had to reconsider what I had just put out into the internet. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry, too, that it took me this long to get this recipe up here. My first attempt at this recipe made an enormous amount of food. It made easily triple what’s here, and I like to think of this salad as already being party/leftover food. I inadvertently cooked about 8 cups of farro, and made enough pesto dressing that I was putting it on everything- pizza, pasta, other types of salads- in hopes of using it up before it went bad. I’ve heard that the ability to cook a small amount of food is a casualty of working in a restaurant kitchen, but this was the first time that it had happened to me. At least I got lots of easy, on the go lunches out of it.

Like I said earlier, the whole dish came about because we were invited to a vegan party. I had thought about making vegan cookies, but I haven’t experimented much with vegan baked goods and didn’t want to bring first attempt cookies to a party. And it was one of the first truly warm days of the summer season, which means I never want to turn on the oven. I don’t cook vegan food terribly often and bar some shining examples, I don’t often crave vegan food. There are some brilliant people making truly fantastic vegan food out there. But there’s also a lot of vegan food that’s simply trying to mimic non-vegan food, and as a non-vegan I’m just not interested in eating cheese made out of almonds or butter that tastes like coconut.

There are some rules that I’ve learned for making things taste good while working in kitchens, and many of them are applicable to vegan cooking. (Some, like always add more butter,  obviously don’t apply.) Layering subtle flavors makes them more prominent, which is why spinach and basil are both blended and chopped. Think about a balance of flavors, which is why we have the sweetness of sundried tomatoes, the saltiness of olives, and the acidity of champagne vinegar. Texture matters, such as a blend of silky dressing that’s soaked into tender farro, firm chickpeas, and crunchy walnuts. And everything should taste good on its own, so it tastes optimal together.

I’d like to urge you to make this for your next picnic/get-together/potluck/dinner where it’s too hot to turn on the oven. It’s truly quick and easy- boil farro, blend a dressing, chop some spinach, toss. The whole thing comes together in fifteen minutes, and it manages to feel both healthy and indulgent. The whole thing taste like you’re eating it under a fig tree with a glass of rosé on the side, which is what I aim for all my food to taste like, vegan or not.

(And if you have recommendations for vegan dishes/blogs/cookbooks that I should be checking out, I’d love to hear them.)

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Mediterranean Farro Salad with Pesto Dressing

This dressing is remarkably easy to make in a blender. I used my Vitamix, but any blender with a reasonably good motor should work. I imagine this could also be made in a food processor, but you may have to play around with the amount of liquid added.

Makes 6-8 servings

2 cups farro
1 cup basil, thinly sliced
1 cup spinach, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped oil-packed sundried tomatoes
1 fifteen ounce can chickpeas
2 handfuls chopped black olives
1 cup walnuts, chopped

Pesto Dressing

2 cups spinach
1 cup basil
1/2 cup walnuts
3 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1/4 cup water

Place the farro in a medium saucepan. Cover with water by at least two inches. Salt the water and bring to a boil. Boil the farro until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain, and place in a large bowl.

In the meantime make the pesto dressing. In the bowl of a blender combine the spinach, basil, walnuts, garlic, and salt. Blend on low speed until it’s all roughly combined. With the motor running, slowly add in the olive oil, champagne vinegar, and water. Blend until the dressing is smooth and loose. Taste, and add salt or vinegar as needed.

Add the dressing to the still warm farro. Toss well to coat. Stir in the sliced spinach and basil, sundried tomatoes, chickpeas, black olives, and walnuts. Serve warm or room temperature. This will keep well for a week in the refrigerator.

 

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