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June 19, 2009

My Favorite Things

in vegetarian

Last summer I ate a lot of chard for various reasons — mostly because it’s so damned good you’d be crazy not to but also because it helped smooth out my finicky stomach during a rough patch (break-ups, even if necessary, are usually never easy) when I didn’t feel like eating much of anything at all. These days I still eat a lot of my favorite leafy green but I’m happy to say it’s a more cheerful consumption-of; chard and I, well, I think we’re set for life for better or worse, through thick and thin, until death (or the end of the growing season) do us part and etc.

These days I also eat a lot of feta. I can blame this on my Greeks in upstate, an enduring love affair with my grandfather’s country, or just simply — again — because it’s so damned good I’d be a fool not to indulge myself. Lately, and inspired by my best friend’s diner-owning friend of Greek ancestry, I’ve been scattering feta liberally in scrambled eggs, sometimes along with a tomato roughly sliced and dumped into the pan at the last minute or with a bit of wilted spinach, most times seasoned well with dried rosemary and oregano. I’ve been crumbling it into couscous salads and piling slices atop fresh bread drizzled with olive oil.

So a dish that combines two of my very favorite things — and while we’re at it we might as throw pine nuts as a favorite into the mix, too — is pretty much my idea of perfection. That it comes together in about 15 minutes is an added bonus.

The inspiration for this bit of pasta perfection came when an old friend was visiting me in March. We were bowling around the back roads of West Marin with me at the wheel in one of the few times a year I actually get to drive (I don’t have a car so I’m limited to special occasions). I think we’d just come back from Keyho Beach where the fog had blown in and the earlier sun on the Limantour dunes was unfortunately just a distant memory. There, we’d stuffed ourselves on cheese-and-avocado sandwiches, apples, and banana bread while talking about the things girls do when they haven’t seen each other in over a year (love, food, work, siblings, where to go on a summer trip).

Rather unsurprisingly, though we’d eaten that big lunch, we were hungry again and started talking about where we’d go for dinner (the Station House Cafe, of course, for plates of polenta and grilled oysters). The conversation turned to quick and easy meals we’d thrown together recently and how she’ll often arrive home after to work to find her boyfriend firmly ensconced in the kitchen and dinner nearly done (lucky, lucky girl she. Also please note: I’m on the lookout for an able and willing sous-chef but I’d be quite content with someone who cooks me dinner on a regular basis, dog not required but certainly welcome. Ahem.).

Anyway, we were hungry. And when girls get to being hungry — especially if they like to cook — they talk (and talk) about food.

As I drove past the cow fields and back toward Inverness the sun drifted out from the fog — a coincidence, perhaps, but I’d rather think not because it was just about then she described a penne pasta with pine nuts, chard, lemon, and feta she’d come up with one weekday eve. My ears attuned to those beloved words feta and chard, I exclaimed excitedly that I had a bunch of chard and a bit of feta as well as a box of whole wheat penne at home — how fortuitous. Was it Fate? Or just random babble and good luck?

Well, no matter. After we returned to the city the following afternoon and she went to her hotel for the night — a work conference had brought her to San Francisco from New York (hi, E! Please move here! You know you want to!) — I got to feeling a little melancholy as sometimes happens on a Sunday when I’ve been out of town. Then I remembered our conversation and pulled the feta from the fridge, washed and chopped the chard quickly, and toasted a handful of pine nuts. I left out the lemon just because I didn’t feel like tossing it in there, but oh man. That was some good stuff.

This has in fact become one of my favorite meals (and I’ve made it twice for my parents and then for my girlfriends last weekend so you know I really like it) — it’s hearty, simple, and absolutely delicious. I think the best part about it for me is that the feta, added right at the end, slightly melts into the pasta, salting it perfectly and adding just a bit of creaminess which is then countered by the satisfying crunch of the pine nuts.

I swear I could eat this almost every night. Lucky me that my farmers’ market is covered with swathes of beautiful green chard — the best I’ve ever tasted, really — and I can indulge in my favorite things as often as I’d like.

It’s a good life.

Penne with Chard, Feta and Pine Nuts

You could make this vegan — really, it would probably taste quite good even without the cheese, though I’d then add more herbs to flavor it up a bit more. But for me the best part about this (well, besides the chard) is the feta, and I would advise not leaving it out unless absolutely necessary.

Note: Sometimes I play fast and loose with the quantities depending on how many people are eating and how much cheese (or onion or or or) I have on hand. Whatever the proportions, however, it’s always perfect.

1 bunch rainbow chard, washed, rolled, and chopped
1 red onion, chopped
1 cup crumbled feta
1/2 cup pine nuts
4 Tb. olive oil
1/2 cup tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, or 2 small tomatoes coarsely chopped
salt and pepper
1 tsp. dried oregano (or 2 Tb. fresh)

Cook the pasta. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan over medium heat, toast the pine nuts. Stir or shake the pan frequently to make sure they don’t burn — watch carefully for about 5 minutes. Put in a bowl and set aside.

Return the pan to medium heat and sautee the onion in the olive oil, adding more if necessary. Cook the onion for about 5 minutes until soft. Add the chard and a spoonful or two of the pasta water and cook until chard is wilted and tender. Add the tomatoes or tomato sauce, the herbs, and salt and pepper to taste.

Add the feta and a bit more pasta water, stirring well to incorporate the flavors and create a thick sauce. The feta just be a little melted. Remove from heat and stir in the pine nuts.

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