Friday, September 23, 2005

Whole-Wheat Pasta with Chickpeas and Lemon

So, I finally found out why my kids like chickpeas so much. I mean, I love them myself, but I always feel like they're kind of hard to get to know--tenderhearted and well-meaning, sure, but standoffish in a dusty-tasting and mealy sort of way. And yet, the kids have always eaten them, which thrills me, because chickpeas are a SUPERFOOD! Not just a good food, oh no, no sir, but a SUPERFOOD! What counts as a SUPERFOOD! exactly? Good question. Anything that is just crazy nutrient-dense and/or written up by the New York Times and/or listed in the "Ten Best Foods" in the Sears and Sears Family Nutrition Book, not that anyone could ever stop co-sleeping in their house for five minutes to prepare a proper a meal (Just kiddin', William and Martha! You know we love you.). We are way, way into blueberries and beets, kale and almonds, pumpkin seeds and lentils, red cabbage and tofu and brown rice and mangoes. And chickpeas.

Which, it turns out, as Ben put it so delicately, "Look just like someone's butt. With a crack and everything. We should call them butt peas!" And the boy has a point. So I'm thinking that this might be a great way to sell this dish to your kids: Macaroni with Butt Peas. If that doesn't do it, then use the stepping stones approach: remind them that they loved the roasted chickpea snacks and the macaroni and cheese you already made, then convince them that this is like a delicious amalgamation of those two things. Alternately, if they hated the roasted chickpea snacks and/or macaroni and cheese, Taser them so that they forget.

The thing is, when I don't know what's for dinner, I often put a large pot of water on to boil, and then I look in the cupboard and freezer to figure out what I can put over pasta. Chickpeas, which retain their shape without going mushy, are perfect for this--also because they are protein-rich and nutrient-laden, and because the sauce cooks in the time the pasta does. But I have some opinions about the proper way to make, as we put it around here, "Something out of nothing." It is not as easy as opening a can, though it is not much more complicated than that. It's just that if you're going to make something super-simple, it's got to be really well seasoned and you have to pay special attention to a few details--otherwise it's going to be punishingly bland and cardboardy, and your kids are going to moan and groan and demand a precise bite count so they can please be excused quickly to fling themselves to the ground in disappointment. Is all I'm saying.

So, in case this is ever handy, here are a few secrets to simple pasta dishes. You'll notice a lot of the usual suspects here--ingredients I mentioned in the egg noodles and ham dish. These are, I think, key elements of any pasta dish that does not have an otherwise star-studded cast:
  • See if you can get your family to eat nutritious pasta. We struggled for years because nobody liked whole-wheat pasta ("Hello, particleboard!" as Michael used to say), and regular pasta is so thin on wholesomeness. And then Bionaturae came into our lives, and we love it. (By "we,"of course, I mean "I.")
  • I know I always say this, but: salt the pasta water heavily. Don't do it because it raises the boiling temperature, or lowers it, or some other equivocal physics-style reason. Do it because if you don't, the pasta will be bland no matter what else you do to it, even if you later sauce it with manna imported directly from heaven. An Italian rule of thumb is that the pasta water should taste as salty as the sea; this looks like a large and heavy handful of salt poured from the spout of the box, not like a dainty flurry sprinkling from the shaker.
  • Butter the hot pasta. Even if it's with only a tablespoon of butter, like I'm recommending here. It gives such a nice base flavor to the dish, even if you're simply pouring on a canned red sauce.
  • If lemon is a component of your pasta dish (or of any dish, for that matter), consider adding some of the grated zest along with the juice. The juice adds a pleasant tartness to recipes, but it's the zest that really makes a dish sing of lemons.
  • Keep an eye on the color situation. Here, I like the flavor of chopped parsley, but I'm also adding it for the dash of green to liven up the beige scene. If you have no herbs on hand, consider chopping the leaves from inside a bunch of celery or adding a handful of a salad green like arugula or baby spinach.
  • Likewise, keep a tooth on the texture situation. Fried breadcrumbs aren't essential here, but they are an easy crunch fix for any dish that is in danger of a certain relentless softness under the molars.
  • Use freshly grated parmesan and plenty of it. We buy blocks of parmesan at Trader Joe's, and the kids grate it on a microplane grater as needed.
  • Make sure the pasta stays nice and saucy. In a simple dish like this, that means plenty of olive oil and the liquid from the canned chickpeas. If the liquid in your can looks creepy or tastes tinny--I sometimes find one or another of these things to be the case--then use chicken broth instead. 
  • Heat the plates. I know that I sound suddenly like Queen Fancy Pants of the Many Complicated Advices, but it's so easy to warm the plates--I stick them in a 200-degree oven when I add the pasta to the water--and it prevents that whole pasta-congealing-on-a-cold-plate situation. I don't always do this, but I'm always glad when I remember to.

Whole-wheat Pasta with Chickpeas and Lemon
Serves 6
Total time: 20 minutes (not including boiling the water)

This recipe takes well to the addition of some chopped, cooked greens, dumped in with the chickpeas. The truth is that I pulled a bag of chard out of the freezer and then found it again, thawed but unopened, after dinner. The pasta was still very good without it. If your family cannot be persuaded by whole-wheat pasta, then use the healthiest pasta you can get away with. Also, if you can't bother with the breadcrumbs, this will still be very tasty. Classic pantry food.

2 tablespoons butter, divided use
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs (made from crumbling or processing a slice of white or wheat or French bread, preferably a bit stale)
2/3 pound whole wheat pasta (I cooked an entire pound of Hodgson Mills macaroni, buttered all of it, and then left some of it out of the sauce, in case kids wanted "plain seconds," which they didn't)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, pressed of finely minced
1 15-ounce can chickpeas with their liquid or, if the liquid doesn't seem tasty and nice, with 1 cup of chicken broth
Juice and grated zest of half a lemon (around 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon zest)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (half as much table salt) or more or less to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 cup freshly grated parmesan, plus more for serving

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil while you prepare your other ingredients. Such as the fried breadcrumbs: melt one tablespoon of butter in a very small pan, and fry the breadcrumbs over medium heat until they are brown and crisp. Scrape them into a bowl when they’re done, so they don’t burn in the still-hot pan.

Begin cooking the pasta and pop your bowls or plates in a 200-degree oven.

Now heat the oil over low heat in a wide pan. Add the garlic, and stir it around a bit until it is fragrant but not coloring, then add the chickpeas and their liquid or broth. Turn the heat up a bit to simmer the chickpeas, and add the lemon juice and zest, the salt, and a bit of freshly ground black pepper.

Let the chickpeas simmer gently while you drain the pasta, which should be cooked around now--taste it and see, and save a cup of the cooking water, in case the sauce needs it. Butter all of the pasta with the remaining tablespoon of butter, then dump about 2/3 of it into the pan with the chickpeas. Stir it all together, add the parsley and parmesan, then stir it again. Now taste it: does it need a bit more liquid? (Add some broth or pasta cooking water.) More lemon or salt? It should be very tasty and saucy.

Serve in the warmed bowls with parmesan and breadcrumbs for passing.

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