Notebook pasta

I was flipping through old notebooks and found this recipe scribbled down in smudged black ink. There’s no date on the journal entry.

Boil a 4 qt pot of pasta water. Salt generously. Thinly slice 3 cloves of garlic. In a skillet, gently heat 2T XVO. Add garlic. Watch it dance. After a min or two, it will start to shrink a bit and begin to color. Add a (big!) pinch of chili flake. Watch that dance and pop, then add a flourish of chopped parsley to the pan. Kiss it with a splash of pasta water – turn down heat. Once pasta is al dente – check package, usually 6-7 mins – scoop it directly from pot to skillet. You want some h2o clinging to pasta. Turn the heat up. Toss toss toss – you’re creating an emulsion btw oil & water to coat noodles. Twirl with fork + serve. Optional: Sprinkle w/ gratuitous amount of grated parm. Also optional: Glass of chilled Pinot gris.

It’s basically the classic Roman pasta dish, Spaghetti con Aglio, Olio e Pepperoncino, but with parsley. I made it last week and added a can of cherry tomatoes for color and some extra acid. Tomatoes + garlic + chili flake is truly an unstoppable combo.

I prefer to read and write recipes in narrative form. It feels like talking to an old friend. I can imagine Domenico, one of my chef-mentors, standing behind me, whispering sensorial cues as I work my way through the recipe – watch it dance, listen for the hiss, wait till it smells like a toasted s’mores marshmallow. Cooking is intimate. Recipes should reflect that.

I started the journal entry with: I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy. I was in the middle of Seth Godin’s online marketing course; he talks a lot about empathy as a central tenet to successful marketing.

Farther down the page, I found this: Our greatest joys are born from our greatest sorrows.

I found cooking out of desperation, really. I was stuck in a legal job that didn’t suit me, feeling lost, unmoored and hopeless. I started cooking to distract myself from a low-grade depression that felt like an undertow threatening to disappear me if I swam in the wrong direction on any given day.

At the time, I was living in a long, skinny apartment shaped like a martini glass. My roommate wasn’t much of a cook, and our kitchen was the size of a 3X5 card. I didn’t know much about cooking either, aside from what I learned from years of eating voraciously and watching my mother cook.

Farther down the page of that same journal entry, I wrote: You begin where you are. At the time, I was overwhelmed with all the actions I knew I needed to take: quit my job, find a vocation, move to an apartment where I could have a bedroom with a window, organize my bookshelf … Cooking was one of the only things that didn’t make me want to cry, so I started chopping.

At first, I was pretty terrible. I tried recreating my mom’s peach-raspberry crisp by eye and instead made peach soup with a soggy crumble topping that was about as appetizing as a boiled gym shoe. I invited friends over and made them gazpacho with so much vinegar it made their lips pucker. One of my guests coughed after taking her first sip, the overpowering aroma assaulting her nasal passages. I attempted to sear chicken on the electric stovetop from circa 1981 and set the fire alarm off.

I eventually left that legal job in D.C. and moved to Italy for a year. I went back to school, fell in – and out – of love, co-authored a book. I cooked, and cooked, and cooked. I can’t track when it happened, but at some point, I stopped clinging to recipes and started improvising. One of my friends who’s a chef in San Francisco recently told me he’s cooked professionally for more than 40,000 hours. Cooking, just like any other skill, rewards repetition. Time put in translates to subtle shifts in competency; experience compounds on itself.

Now when I make a fruit crisp, I know to add some kind of starch to bind the filling. I’ve seared countless chickens, and usually, remember to turn on the overhead fan and control my heat source to avoid triggering the fire alarm. I generally use recipes for inspiration and cook mostly by feel and memory. My favorite cooking is the kind done a la minute using whatever I can dig out of my fridge and pantry.

To this day, when I need a break, a pick-me-up, when I need to be saved — most of all from myself — I go back to the kitchen.


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