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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Baked Pasta with Acorn Squash, Butter Beans, and Kale

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It’s that time of year now 6pm is as dark as midnight, and there are less people about at night. Last night I was heading home from Mass, a fifteen minute walk. As I started walking I fired off a text to Aaron. And then I saw out the corner of my eye an older man cross the street and fall into step behind me.

I could see his reflection in the dark store windows. When I slowed my steps to feint admiration for bridal gowns, his steps slowed. When I sped up he did the same. When I started to avoid leaves and quieted my footsteps his became near silent. And when I turned away from the park that would lead me home and towards a bustling strip of restaurants he turned as well.

I abandoned subtlety and started looking back, making sure he knew I saw him. There were more people about here, and it was brighter lit, and I could still see him bobbing through the crowds. An alternate route home would take twice as long to walk, and wouldn’t be much safer. Feeling frustrated and slightly foolish, I called Aaron.

“I think there’s someone following me. Can you pick me up?”

I looped back to the church, where I waited in the lobby. Aaron was over in a matter of minutes. The whole time, I could not shake the feeling that I had overreacted. Was I just being ridiculous? That did not stop me from scrolling through local new sources on twitter before bed, hoping not to hear of some other woman alone being attacked.

I’m tired of this. I’ve long since observed the cardinal rules about caution- don’t walk anywhere poorly lit, don’t take shortcuts, memorize the faces of people you see, always have an escape route. I’m tired of having to take these precautions. I’m tired of being catcalled. I’m tired of reflexively listening to footsteps. And I’m tired of the truth that if I had been attacked, there would have been people who insist that it was my fault, that by somehow walking home alone (at 7:30, from church) I was inviting an attack on my person.

It’s a microcosm of how I’ve been feeling this election. I joke with friends that I’ll exhale once the election is over. But it’s not a joke. Weeks ago when the Access Hollywood tape was released I met it with resignation. When there was an uproar in Republican ranks that made me angry. This is a man who has threatened so many. Why is this is the line in the sand that you decided?

There has been such ugliness and such hatred in the recent months. Tomorrow cannot come soon enough. It won’t make everything better, but it may be a turning point, and that’s all I can hope for right now.

I have no good answers for this. There’s no recipe that can create civil public discourse, no cookie that makes women feel safe to move through public spaces unharmed. Soup won’t end wars. But food has always been a touchstone for me.

Today, a day after being followed and a day before the election, I’ve turned to cooking. It’s serving as a  comfort and as a way to keep busy. If I’m occupying myself with food, I can’t endlessly refresh fivethirtyeight. And I can’t single handedly fix our electorate but I can feed people. The optimist in me believes that enough shared meals with enough people can help us change the way we view the other.

This is not a one pot dinner or a thirty minute meal. This has multiple components and loads of dirty dishes. If that’s what you’re not looking for, that’s more than fair. I understand. But if you’re looking for something that will occupy and sooth you, you could do worse thank this. Roasted acorn squash, sautéed kale, sage, and a clever sauce of blended beans all get tossed together with pasta. The pasta gets turned out into a pan and topped with walnuts, more sage, and ricotta cheese. The result is melty and comforting, creamy and full of flavor.

Stay sane, stay safe. And may there be many comforting meals heading your way.

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Baked Pasta with Acorn Squash, Butter Beans, and Kale

If you would like a very creamy pasta bake I would use two cans of butter beans rather than the suggested one.

very roughly adapted from A Modern Way to Eat by Anna Jones

Serves 6

1 medium acorn squash, peeled, deseeded, and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
7 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and pepper
1 pound short pasta of choice
1 bunch of kale, stems removed and finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 15 ounce can butter beans with their liquid
zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 tablespoons sage, minced
1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
1/2 cup ricotta

Preheat the oven to 425.

In a bowl toss together the acorn squash, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, or until tender. Set aside. Turn the oven down to 350.

Set a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water generously, then add the pasta. Cook at a rolling boil, stirring occasionally, for two minutes less than the pasta package calls for. Drain while there’s still some bite in the center of the pasta. Set aside.

In a medium pot warm 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the kale and stir, cooking until the kale is glossy, dark, and has collapsed a bit. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. The garlic should be fragrant. Set aside.

In a blender combine the butter beans and liquid, 3 tablespoons olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Blend until smooth and taste. Adjust seasoning as necessary. Set aside.

In a large bowl combine the squash, pasta, kale, bean sauce, and 2 tablespoons of sage. Mix well. Turn out into a 9 x 13 pan. Top the pasta with dots of ricotta, walnuts, and the remaining tablespoon of sage.

Bake 45-55 minutes, until the edges are crisp and the ricotta is golden. Eat hot.

 

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Zucchini, Basil, and Brie Pasta

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Last year I attempted to grow a garden. I ended up with possibly a pound of cherry tomatoes, a handful of chives, enough kale for regular consumption, and an uncanny amount of zucchini.

This year I attempted to grow a garden again. For about two weeks before summer broke I weeded and watered and planted seeds and cooed over the plants. And I haven’t been back since.  It was empowering to grow my own crops, but I was not good at it. Perhaps I have a black thumb. I recently killed a mint plant. You know, the ones that are so prolific that there are warnings about planting them in any place that they can possibly spread because they can and will grow like a weed? Maybe one day I’ll be good at gardening. For now I’ll  put my money where my mouth is and buy local vegetables in penance for all the plants I’ve killed with my neglect.

In any regard, the recipes I needed most last year were recipes to use up zucchini. I grew ones that reached two feet long, and would have kept growing if I had not decided to save what flavor was left. Zucchini filled my vegetable crisper for months. It got baked into bread, shredded into pancakes, stewed with tomatoes and eggplants, and was the subject of many an experiment. I’m destined to love zucchini. When I lived in England I would routinely walk to the greengrocer to pick out a handful of plump, firm, dark green zucchini. When I brought them to the counter the proprietor would inevitably and deliberately inform me that I was buying courgettes. I always made sure to carefully thank him for the zucchini, and then would head back to the kitchen. At the time I had more free time than I was accustomed to, and I would routinely spend 2 hours making dinner. Perhaps I should have known what my career path was  then. Instead it took me four more years of trying and floundering to figure it out.

One of my first experiments with zucchini was sautéing in olive oil and garlic and tossing it with pasta. I’ve repeated this format using a variety of vegetables with great success. Back then I was still teaching myself to cook and was horrified at not having a dishwasher. I still don’t have a dishwasher, but I have mastered the art of a good zucchini pasta. This beauty is a little less quick-easy-gotta-eat-now meal, and has transitioned into a creamy and elegant way to eat your vegetables that’s still quick and easy.

The secret to this pasta is cheese. Brie, specifically. A moderate amount of mild brie cheese melts into the pasta water and forms a light sauce, creamy enough to feel like a treat but light enough for summer dinner. And please do use something mild and inexpensive- there’s no reason to splurge on something intense or funky. There’s a generous amount of basil stirred into the pasta for a sweet, fresh anise back note, and crushed red pepper flakes for a bit of heat.The whole sauce is has a beautiful bright note from lemon juice and is a satisfying match to sautéd zucchini and onions. It’s quite good on its own, but is even better when accented with fresh basil and slivered almonds.

Zucchini, Basil, and Brie Pasta

adapted from The New York Times

Serves 2 generously or 4 moderately

It’s best if the zucchini and the pasta are both ready at the same time. Since that sort of magical timing rarely happens in real life, aim to finish the zucchini before the pasta- it will sit much better than the pasta will.

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 large zucchini, cut into quarters lengthwise and then sliced into 1/4 inch pieces
3/4 teaspoons salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups basil, tightly packed
zest and juice of 1 lemon
4 ounces of mild brie cheese, rind removed and cubed
8 ounces of your short pasta shape of choice
basil, for serving
slivered almonds, for serving

Heat a large skillet (and I do mean large- I used a 12 inch skillet) over medium heat and add three tablespoons of olive oil. Once the olive oil is hot add the onion and garlic. Stir well, and let sweat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft but hasn’t taken on any color, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil. Add a healthy amount of salt, then cook your 8 ounces of pasta until tender. Before draining the pasta save 1 cup of the pasta water.

Add the zucchini, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, crushed red pepper flakes, and black pepper to your large skillet. Stir to coat everything. Let the zucchini cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it gets soft and starts to take on some color. If the zucchini is finished before the pasta you can remove the skillet from heat.

Meanwhile, using a food processor, mortar and pestle, or a sharp knife, bash the basil into a paste. Stir the basil with the remaining three tablespoons of olive oil, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and the lemon zest.

When the pasta and zucchini are both finished add the pasta, the basil paste, the brie, and 1/4 cup of pasta water to the skillet. If you removed the skillet from heat return it to medium high heat now. Stir well, letting the brie dissolve. If you need to add more pasta water add it a 1/4 cup at a time, stirring well between each addition. Add the lemon juice. Taste and adjust for seasonings as necessary.

Serve right away, garnished with torn basil and the slivered almonds.

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After-Shift Spaghetti, or, Why Cooks Have Such Terrible Diets


Saturday, 8:25 AM I’m still in the clutches of sleep as I toast some hippie 16 grain bread and get dressed for work. The toast gets a thick coating of half an avocado, a treat because Aaron bought avocados for tacos and then forgot about them. The toast has the correct ratio of creamy to crisp but no heat. I didn’t add enough red pepper flakes. Or I forgot to add them. I pour boiling water into my thermos with a bag of Earl Grey, gather up my knives, kiss the sleeping Aaron goodbye, and run out the door.

9:01 I’m late by a minute, which is typical. Restaurant #1 has an open kitchen and my station is set next to an enormous window. It’s bright and cheerful, waking me up as much as my tea. We bustle about setting up our station in time for the brunch to start. I don’t finish setting up until 10:05, but there’s no one in the dining room by then so it’s nothing to worry about.

11:15 Our chef is trying out a new dish, a modern riff on a tuna noodle casserole. I steal a handful of rigatoni that he just cooked and snack on it. I’m starving. He fake yells at me. I tell him I like the amount of chew in the noodles. He puts up a sample of the tuna noodle casserole as a tester just as we get a mini-bump. The casserole is all gone by the time I can leave my station again.

1:30 It’s slow enough that I can roll out tart dough in the back for a dinner dish. I get as many tart shells as their are mini tart pans out of the dough and still have some dough leftover. I peel and dice an apple, then toss it with flour, sugar, and cinnamon. That goes into the rolled out leftover dough, which is turned and crimped. I brush the top with some leftover scrambled eggs, demerera sugar, and more cinnamon. The whole thing gets thrown in the deep fryer. This is going to be, in the restaurant parlance, gross. My station mate comes in and we compare notes from service. Chef has been doing admin duty, but comes back to the kitchen to tell me I can head out now. We’re slow. No one wants to go outside for brunch when it feels like -20.

“I can’t. I have an apple pie in the deep fryer.”

Chef blinks like an owl. “Fair enough.”

2:15 Brunch is over and cleaned up. The deep-fried apple pie has been ravaged. I like the filling, but I think it needs a different crust. Someone suggests wrapping the apple filling in our biscuits and deep frying those. This is not a healthy place to work. I clock out, then use the last of an avocado for a brunch dish to fill one of our bagels and scarf it down.

3:10 I usually work at Restaurant #1 until 3, then head over to Restaurant #2 by 4 where I do pastry. But since I got out early today I drive to Restaurant #2’s neighborhood and head to a coffee shop. It’s a local chain and I love how much attention to quality they have, but each shop reflects its neighborhood. Restaurant #2 is in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Minneapolis and it’s reflected in the coffee shop. There’s lots of glass, marble countertops, and uncomfortable, backless stools. It’s beautiful but cold. I order a pot of Assam tea from the hipster-ish barista and find a spot at the common table. Usually it’s packed, but no one wants to be out when it’s -20. I read for half an hour while sipping my tea. It’s strong and bitter and is only sweet on the aftertaste, just as I like it. My pants are dusted with flour and my hair is a mess. The whole time I wonder if I’m being judged by the well-heeled customers or if I’m judging them for being well-heeled.

3:52 Restaurant #2 is much larger than Restaurant #1 and the kitchen is filled with at least a dozen people. There are three of us on pastry tonight- our Pastry Chef, S, and myself. We could manage with 2, but this way we’re able to get big projects done when no one else is prepping without compromising the quality we’re sending out. I set up the station as S is making brittle and Pastry Chef is spinning ice cream. The tickets start coming right at 5.

6:30 Pastry Chef orders a burger for us from the line and we split it in three. She also grabs each of us our preferred mode of caffine- decaf for her, regular coffee for S, black tea for me. I have a serious girl crush on Pastry Chef. We each scarf our burger, salty and oozing and cut with one crisp, tart pickle each. Why so few pickles? We agree this ridiculous.

9:30 Because there are three of us and I worked brunch this morning I’m cut when the projects get done. At work I was fantasizing about a shower, a cup of herbal tea, and writing. Instead I take a shower and lay in bed looking at my phone while thinking about herbal tea. I’m hungry but trying not to eat late at night and Aaron’s out bartending as a favor to a friend. I persuade myself against cooking.

10:30 I finally make mint tea and write. As an exercise I start to list what I’ve eaten today. I do the math and figure out I ate about a thousand calories today. Uff da.

11:00  Sit down to dinner- spaghetti bathed in butter and black pepper, topped with a fried egg. Normally I’d grate parmesean over the whole mess but our parmesean has turned into a rock from disuse. Instead I microplane scraps of a cheese (goat?)  I found in the refrigerator into flurries over the egg. It’s good. It’s salty and biting and floral and rich and warm and it’s better than almost anything I can think of right now. It came together fast and easy and right now I’m infatuated with this spaghetti. Devour. Do dishes. Go to bed. Repeat day as necessary.

After-Shift Spaghetti

Serves 1

This is not so much a recipe as a list of ingredients and techniques. You can scale this up as needed, and dress it up as you desire.

A handful of spaghetti
Salt
Pepper
Butter
One egg
Hard cheese for grating, such as parmesean or peccorino

In a large pot set water to boil. Once the water is boiling salt it well, then add the spaghetti. Stir once or twice to make sure the noodles don’t stick together, then cook until the spaghetti is al dente- tender but not flabby. The time changes based on the brand of noodles, but is normally somewhere between ten and twelve minutes.

In a small skillet melt a small knob of butter over low heat. Crack an egg into the melted butter. Season with salt and pepper and let it cook gently and slowly until the white is set and the yolk is custardy.

Drain the finished spaghtti. Toss with another small knob of butter and a sprinkling of black pepper. Grate some of the cheese over the pasta, then top with the fried egg. Sprinkle more cheese over the egg. Eat.

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Lentil Bolognese

 

“You eat too healthy,” my chef says. “If you never eat junk food you’ll ruin your immune system and get cancer.”

I try to eat healthy at home. I throw kale into everything and stock cases full of canned beans. My fridge is full of root vegetables, fermented condiments, and organic dairy products. And while I’d never go so far as to ban white flour, sugar, and pasta in my kitchen, there’s a quota.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. We’re drinking beer after our shift, engaging in the mockery that builds a kitchen. “I eat here, after all.”

I have to eat healthy at home, because our work meals are not healthy. Mayo fried rice. Philly cheese steak poutine. Mac and cheese that’s one part cream cheese to two parts velveeta. They’re quick, efficient meals that are meant to replenish the calories burned from eight hours on your feet. I’ve devoured them all.

It often feels that I’m inhabiting two worlds, especially in regards to food. It’s a strength, certainly. I can look at dishes from multiple perspectives. I know how good vegetarian food can be- a fragrant curry, a comforting pot pie, a really good pot of beans. I also know how good an oozing, melty burger can be. Because of this I’m less inclined to be impressed by a dish solely because it’s vegetarian, or because there’s bacon in it. There’s more tricks in my wheelhouse because of this duo identity, and I can apply them in all the places I cook. And I love picking dishes apart and figuring out how they work and then rejiggering them at home.

Like this lentil bolognese. This bolognese is everything that’s right with vegetarian food. That’s a big claim, I understand. But it’s true. It’s earthy and rich and savory, thanks to the long cooking time and the savory ingredients used. It’s hearty enough for a meal at home, and would take a stunning turn at a dinner party. It’s filling, but doesn’t leave you with that burst gut feeling that can happen after a plate of meat sauce. It’s pretty hands off, so you can start it and leave it be. There’s no funky ingredients to hunt down across town and pay twenty dollars for. And it’s fantastic. Aaron put it at mac and cheese level for how good it is. To put that into perspective, there’s nothing that ranks higher than mac and cheese for Aaron.

This is a dish I would feel confident enough to serve to my health-conscious vegetarian friends and burger eating, dorito loving coworkers. It’s that good.

Lentil Bolognese

Serves 4-6

There are two tricks to this sauce. The first is to make sure that all the vegetables are cut quite small- around the size of a lentil. That allows more surface area for flavor to develop, and makes sure the vegetables are integrated in the sauce. The second is to make sure it cooks low and slow, to get tender lentils and a deeply flavored sauce. I used crimini mushrooms because they were cheap at my local grocery store. Button mushrooms would work as well, I would just cook them a little longer.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 medium carrot, finely diced
1 medium celery stalk, finely diced
salt
pepper
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, finely diced (you can use the stems as well)
1 cup earthy red wine (I used an Argentinian malbec)
3 cups water
1 twenty-eight ounce can whole tomatoes, juices retained and tomatoes crushed
1 cup beluga lentils
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup whole milk
1 pound fettuccini, for serving
Pecorino romano, for serving

In a medium saucepan, warm together the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, and celery, toss in the oil and butter, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened and the onions translucent, about 10 minutes.

Add in the mushrooms and season again with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are soft and have started to give off some juice. Add in the red wine and stir well to bring any brown bits off the bottom of the pan. These are very flavorful, so get all you can. Add in the water, tomatoes and juice, lentil, bay leaf, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Let the sauce simmer away, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are almost tender and the water is mostly cooked away. This will take at least an hour, possibly two.

Once the water is cooked away add the milk and stir well. Let the milk reduce in the sauce until it is almost gone. Taste to make sure the lentils are tender, and that the seasoning is correct. If the lentils are not at the desired state of tenderness, add more water, a little at a time, and cook out. If the seasoning is not correct, adjust the salt, pepper, or nutmeg to desired state. Remove the bay leaf.

Cook the fettuccini according to package directions.

To serve, top the fettuccini with the lentil sauce. Sprinkle with grated pecornio romano.

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