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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Marinated Feta

Feta 1

It was just a block of shrink-wrapped feta that was on sale at a local cafe/bodega. I picked it up on a whim, bought it, and carried it home in my purse. I don’t know what appealed to me about it- maybe that it wasn’t precious. It’s easy to get into a bubble sometimes, where I can get hand pulled mozzarella in bulk and assume everyone can find champaign vinegar. I’ve been spending some time in that bubble recently.

It wasn’t always that way. When I was a tween my parents somehow ended up with a subscription to Food and Wine magazine. My parents are many things, but “foodies” is not one of them. I read that magazine greedily. I wanted to go to the aprés ski parties in rustic modern mountain houses where they ate braised short ribs and hot chocolate affogato. I also wanted to know where in Sam Hill I was supposed to find adobo sauce and drinking chocolate that dotted those recipes. I know where to find both of those now. I’d still like an invite to the aprés ski parties.

It seems like in the past ten or so years our cultural interest and access to food has exploded. But this explosion was not evenly distributed. I get frustrated that it’s hard to find sumac or za’atar here in Minneapolis, and then get a text from my mom where she can find farro. And there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a recipe for, say, baked peaches that has the headline “Don’t even try to make this if your peaches are less than perfect.” Perfect peaches. What makes a peach perfect and where do I find them? And if I do find them is baking them, which is a clever trick to turn much-less-than-perfect fruit into almost-perfect fruit, really the preferable use for those perfect peaches than eating them over the sink with the juices running down your arms?

All of this is to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about food quality and food cost. We spend a slightly embarrassing amount on our grocery bill here, and are trying to cut down. It’s true that if you have top quality ingredients it’s easy to eat well. But it’s false that the only way to eat well is to have those top quality ingredients.  Sometimes all it takes is a bit of creativity.

To whit, I made this marinated feta. I used the aforementioned block of shrink-wrapped feta- there was nothing fancy here. I chopped together garlic and mint, stirred with red pepper flakes, lemon zest, and olive oil, and poured over the block, then let it hang out in the fridge for 6 hours. The result is a flavor packed feta that’s far more elegant than its original incarnation. I tossed some pasta with this feta, chopped tomatoes, and the last of some roasted red peppers that had been hiding in the back of the fridge. Aaron made rice and beans, our customary pantry meal, and topped the whole mess with cubes of marinated feta, which brought a flavorful punch. I have plans to use the last bit as an omelette filling, but there’s a whole host of possibilities here. I think it’s fantastic with the first of the tomatoes (I’ve been choosing hydroponically grown tomatoes and feel no shame), and this could be a great component on a bruschetta or replacing the mozzarella in a caprese salad. This would also make a mean pizza topping, and I bet that blended with a bit more olive oil it would make a fantastic spread. And, of course, you could swap out the lemon peel for orange peel, the garlic for shallots, red pepper flake for your dried chili of choice, mint for almost any herb (but I bet oregano would be especially fantastic) or add in spices (saffron would be beautiful if you want to get spend-y) or pantry staples (anchovies or capers would be excellent).

Marinated Feta

one 8 ounce block of feta cheese
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
small bunch of mint, chopped (about 1/4 cup chopped)

Place the feta in a small bowl or container where it can lay flat. In another small bowl, combine the olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, and mint and whisk together well. Pour over the feta. Cover, and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or overnight. It will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.

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