Recipe: “Tilling the Olive Garden”

4 Dec

The roller coaster shifts of the holiday rush at my cafe job make me want to stay up all night. When our team is blowing through 400 covers on a Saturday, I realize just how much adrenaline and athleticism rubs off on me, and how much I miss it when it’s gone. Slow afternoons at work make me want to roll up and watch movies, craving the dinner rush more than actual dinner. Lately, I wanted to make a vegetarian pasta dish in the vein of my past experience with pasta carbonara. After a languid afternoon at work, the following pasta dish did the trick.

The apartment I’m subleasing doesn’t have measuring spoons, and I left mine in South Carolina. Either out of laziness or ambition, I’ve been learning to cope without them, tearing a page from home cook-turned-pro Bill Buford, who learns fingertips are used for a “small pinch of this” or a “medium pinch of that.” I’ve kind of liked it better this way. Scarcity of spoons would be a disaster for something exact like baking; for the intuitive approach of pasta cooking, where spaghetti is ready when it sticks to the wall, using pinches just feels right. I’ve learned what a 1/2 teaspoon of pepper flakes looks like in my hand, but forgetting the measurements allows me to cook to my own flavor preferences. I have to taste. I have to cook things “until they’re done.” I’ve found that being on a server’s budget and losing the measuring spoons has made cooking more economical but also more fun. It also makes writing a recipe a real pain in the rigatoni, so I’ve tried to adjust “pinches” for following it again.


I’ve been reading a lot of Alice Waters and Michael Pollan lately, and I think this poor man’s pasta was a subconscious (and meatless) tribute to them. They’re both very big on cooking simply, using lots of vegetables, and using almost everything.

There is some peppery kick and bitter flavors from the lettuces that blends well with the buttery and fatty flavor of the pasta and cheese. The end result is a great “pantry raider” and way to get vegetables, but also reminds me of the many creamy and hyper-concentrated pasta dishes I’d crave at franchise restaurants as a kid. And now as a grown-up kid serving tables, I’ll be thinking about all week, especially if things are slow.

4 oz. rigatoni
1 1/2 tsps kosher salt
1/4 cup white wine (pour yourself some, too)
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 Roma tomato, chopped into a large dice
1/2 cup chicory lettuce, cut into a chiffonade
8 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, leaves chopped and stems reserved. The stems are packed with flavor and add a herbacious accent to the starchy pasta water.
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup grated Romano cheese

In a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts of water and a teaspoon kosher salt to a boil. Add pasta, wine, parsley stems, and one sprig of thyme. Bring to a second boil and stir consistently for about 14 minutes, or until pasta has a bite you like. Drain (don’t rinse) the pasta and reserve a bit (about a 1/3 cup) of the starchy pasta water. It adds some body to the sauce.

While the pasta cooks, mix tomatoes, chicory, parsley, and another sprig of thyme in a medium bowl. Top tomatoes with another “pinch” (about 1/2 teaspoon) of kosher salt, a medium pinch of garlic powder, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Toss to combine.

Turn heat to low and stir butter, olive oil, and cheeses into the pasta. Toss in vegetable bowl and cook for 30 seconds. Serve.

Give the pepper mill a few grinds over the final bowls. Throw on a violent movie. The King of New York is good.

Illustration by Maira Kalman, who also writes wonderful children’s books.


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