My ninth grade English students are writing their end-of-term papers right now–“This I Believe” essays, an assignment that is surprisingly complex when approached seriously. True: to try to distill into essay form your fundamental beliefs about the world and your place in it may be only a loftier version of the struggle to choose a bumper sticker or–heaven forbid–a tattoo…but I’ve resolutely abstained from that struggle my entire life because doing it well is far too complex to be entertaining. I can assure you both my bumper and my skin are unadorned. In fact, I’ve been wearing standard-issue blue jeans and nondescript solid-colored t-shirts ever since sixth grade precisely because I try to avoid clothing that represents anything at all. Paralyzed by the impossibility of transforming a complex identity into a single statement or symbol, I try hard to keep my material presence from saying anything at all.
I reckon that’s why it’s better to be the teacher than the student: You can make assignments you would find impossible, and when your students complain, you don’t have to care! <Insert diabolical laughter here!>
I harbor absolutely no desire to write a “This I Believe” essay–even though I love reading them and feel sure my students will learn a great deal from writing them. (Is there an emoticon for “encouraging teacher-face”?) I will, however, in a gesture of solidarity, offer this pale imitation of a “This I Believe” essay, in which I will attempt to define what I believe…about dinner.
But first, this disclaimer: I wrote these belief statements based on the recipe I’m sharing here, as I considered why we love it. I think they travel well, but I’m not about to put them on a message tee. Roger that?
1. I believe dinner shouldn’t take long, unless you want it to. And sometimes, I want it to. Sometimes, while the kids spin crazily outside and my husband busies himself in the chaotic garage, my house falls quiet and dinner preparation becomes a kind of meditation, one in which I lose myself entirely…sometimes even without consuming two glasses of wine on an empty stomach.
This happens maybe two days a week.
The rest of the time, I try to squeeze dinner preparation duties into the time between, on one end, the frantic re-ordering of the house in the wake of the after-school backpack explosion and, on the other end, the commencement of homework at the kitchen table.
I believe thirty to forty minutes is plenty long for a Wednesday.
2. I believe more flavor means better food. And that means I believe in salt, fat, and spices. Just ask nutritionists: It’s almost impossible to get too much salt when you prepare your own foods from whole ingredients (not condensed soups). And the Greeks supposedly consume more than 2 liters of olive oil per person per month–seriously!–while living far longer on the whole than pretty much anyone anywhere else. And spices? Their fragrance is their own apologia. What’s not to love?
3. Finally, I believe that an egg cooked over easy may be the perfect food. Inexpensive. Vibrant. Light and rich all at once. A self-saucing animal protein that arrives in nature’s own single-serve packages. We eat almost no meat during the week and no one notices because eggs fill the void perfectly.
What happens when I put these beliefs into one dish:
Smoky Fideos with Chickpeas (and Egg)
(Adapted from The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook)
8 ounces thin spaghetti
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 can fire-roasted tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 3/4 cups water
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup white wine
eggs (at least one per person)
chopped parsley, lemon juice
feta cheese (optional)
1. Break your pasta in half and toss it in a large, broiler-safe skillet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Place it over medium-high heat and stir frequently until the pasta is brown and smells toasty. Remove the pasta from the pan.
2. To the now-empty pan, add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Then add the chopped onion and saute it until it’s softened. Add the smoked paprika, garlic, and a generous amount of salt. Stir until fragrant. Then add the can of tomatoes and stir until thick and dark.
3. Add the water and wine and stir. Bring to a simmer.
4. Then add the toasted pasta and chickpeas. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is barely tender. Remove from the heat.
5. Heat the broiler to high and place the whole pan under the hot broiler until the top looks browned and slightly crisp.
6. While the pasta rests, cook your eggs, over easy, in a separate pan. Don’t forget to salt them like you mean it. A generous sprinkle of kosher salt is essential.
7. Serve the pasta sprinkled with feta, parsley, and lemon juice. Top with a lovely egg. Place something green alongside it for good measure.