Crispy pasta brings com­fort in tough times

Miami Herald - - Tropical Life - BY YO­TAM OT­TOLENGHI New York Times

My fa­ther passed away last De­cem­ber. In his fi­nal months, he wasn’t the dad I’d known — al­ways ter­rif­i­cally ab­sorbed in any­thing that came up in con­ver­sa­tion. Re­gard­less of whom he was talk­ing to, he would find some­thing gen­uinely en­gross­ing, an op­por­tu­nity to learn a fact or com­mu­ni­cate one. He also lost his ap­petite, which was equally shock­ing, be­cause food re­mained a spring of lit­tle joys for him, even when every­thing else seemed point­less, painful and con­fus­ing.

A cou­ple of weeks before he died, I cooked Jerusalem ar­ti­choke soup for him. I say that I cooked, but, once he found out, through the mist of be­wil­der­ment that en­folded him, that some­one was about to pre­pare one of his fa­vorite dishes, he be­gan telling my niece, who was sit­ting next to him, how to make it. “Sauté half an onion in olive oil,” he said in his barely heard voice. “Then add two small pota­toes, and two ar­ti­chokes and cook them, but not too much, with a lit­tle water and chicken bouil­lon. Add raw gar­lic, and process with a stick blender. You can add some pars­ley.” That’s all.

I was lis­ten­ing to this closely and fol­lowed his in­struc­tions to the let­ter.

My niece walked him to the kitchen to check if I had done a good job. My dad looked in­side the pan and seemed un­cer­tain. He sat down, had a cou­ple of spoon­fuls, and then, in an un­in­hib­ited way re­served for the very old (or the very young), passed his

ver­dict. I hadn’t got­ten it right.

Re­mark­ably, his judg­ment didn’t get to me. By then, we had al­ready re­versed roles: I was the fa­ther, and he was the son. He could say what­ever he wanted with the bru­tal hon­esty of a child. I re­ally didn’t mind. My fa­ther had given me, over five decades, a love of good food, cu­rios­ity for cook­ing and re­spect for any­thing per­fectly done. Noth­ing he said could take that away. I also sus­pected that his dis­ap­point­ment didn’t have to do with the ac­tual soup, but the loss of joy from eat­ing. (Years ear­lier, he’d stopped tast­ing the aroma of olive oil, which ag­o­nized him.) The ev­i­dent sat­is­fac­tion he got out of teach­ing was not, frus­trat­ingly, matched by the eat­ing.

Not long after my fa­ther’s death, I went into lock­down with my hus­band and our two young boys, but I was far from over griev­ing. The loss was still alive, re­placed only by more ur­gent needs. Lock­down also co­in­cided with the first time my kids showed a real in­ter­est in cook­ing. Let’s make a lemon driz­zle cake, they would say, or crispy pasta, re­fer­ring to pasta al forno, the cheesy-crunchy-swirly gratin my dad used to pre­pare with left­over spaghetti. Recre­at­ing this tex­tu­ral bliss, even when there aren’t any left­overs around, was the im­pe­tus be­hind my one-pan crispy spaghetti and chicken. It has a crunchy layer on top, helped by a sprin­kle of Parme­san crumbs, and an­other one at the bot­tom, where the pasta touches the hot pan and fries a lit­tle. I, of course, loved it that my boys were keen to learn how to cook. Like my fa­ther, the grat­i­fi­ca­tion I got out of cook­ing food could only be sur­passed by talk­ing about it.

The lessons, though, were nor­mally not ter­ri­bly suc­cess­ful. My boys’ at­ten­tion span did not come any­where near the time it ac­tu­ally takes to cook a dish from start to fin­ish, not to men­tion clean­ing up. So I would re­main in the kitchen, cook­ing, clean­ing and con­ced­ing that the knowl­edge wasn’t quite passed down as in­tended.

It didn’t mat­ter.

What­ever “they” cooked gave my boys great plea­sure, the kind of joy my dad was so ir­ri­tated at los­ing. See­ing them hunched over a pan for pasta, fight­ing over the crispy bits as if they were gold dust and then de­vour­ing them with ur­gency, gave me all the com­fort I needed then. The teach­ing could wait.


One-pan crispy spaghetti and chicken has a crunchy layer on top, helped by a sprin­kle of Parme­san crumbs, and an­other one at the bot­tom, where the pasta touches the hot pan and fries a lit­tle.


One-pan crispy spaghetti and chicken makes a de­li­cious, com­foring meal.

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