something out of nothing: pasta with long-cooked broccoli

there's this thing i love to do:

i'll go over to a friend's house for a visit, and then, as it tends to do, the afternoon will give way to evening.  the rumbling sounds of protesting stomachs join our conversation, steering it to the question of dinner.

and because i am the cook, the answer is almost always up to me.

i become a forager, an indoor forager with years of experience under my belt: housesitting, cat sitting, dog sitting, baby sitting, and every other type of sitting have all prepared me well for this moment.

dank, forgotten corners of cupboards, refrigerator drawers filled with flagging produce from seasons past, freezers whose icicles compete with those of february cliffs in nova scotia all become my territory as i search for the parts that will make a whole and more for us to share.

i take greatest pleasure when my friend repeatedly insists (and apologetically, no less!) that there is nothing to be found and offers to order a pizza or take me out for a bowl of noodle soup.

it might be because i'm a contrarian, which i don't deny, but i prefer to think it's because i love showing people how so much can be made out of what they perceive to be so little.

it's the way i cook, making something out of nothing.

this week, i'm not visiting any friends because i'm away, desperately trying to work things out with the book proposal i'm writing.  i'm having a hard time, which might explain all of the blog posts.

i'm having a hard time deciding, not on the content which is clear as day, but on the format.  should i teach the lessons as part of a narrative, or just simplify the story and present the meat of the matter?

my friend tamar's beautiful new book, an everlasting meal, does both masterfully, somehow.  she has a way with words that one can only be endowed with and never learn.  and so for her it made sense to write such a lyrical story (do yourself a favor and buy this gorgeous book!), but me?  i don't know.

if the point is to give people the simple tools they need in the kitchen, in their arsenal of cooking know-how, to be able to cook with a confident hand, then shouldn't i just spell things out in the clearest possible way?

that's what i thought.

but then as i sat down to write the introduction and proposal, i got carried away with writing the stories of how i came to know, love, and understand cooking.  isn't storytelling part of what makes me me?  isn't it part of what makes students come to my classes?  i feel like it is, and that it would be a disservice to choose the sterile version.  but i'm worried--always so worried--about muddying the content with too much narrative.

can i get what i want to get across across and still be me?

ay, there's the rub.

i'm sure you're wondering what the heck this has to do with broccoli pasta.

at this point, so am i.

oh tangents, how i love you so,

so here i am, in this lovely place, with nothing on my plate but writing.  i had some goals for these two weeks, but i've let them go.  all of them except for this: to come away with a proposal i will fight to the end for.

this place is heaven.  we are fed lovely dinners, given endless space (and dozens of surfaces upon which) to read and write, and best of all, there is no phone.  the sunsets are a different color each evening, brilliant  pinks and oranges.  there are beaches and mountains nearby, and last night we stumbled upon a little shack made entirely of driftwood on a quiet, forgotten beach. improbably, it had a dining table with a centerpiece made of kelp, iceplant and found feathers, and a cast iron candelabra mounted on the wall.  someone, or many someones, had spent a lot of time and care creating this little hideaway, and it was an honor to discover it.

our dinners are generous and quite delicious, but for breakfast and lunch, we're on our own.  before i left, i emptied my fridge and arrived with a few groceries, and the larder here is well-stocked.  but we've been here nearly a week (yikes!) and have worked through much of that.  after a little digging, i managed to round up a couple stalks of broccoli i got from blue heron farm last week, a bag of penne pasta, and a piece of parmesan i was smart enough to bring.  i also snatched up half an onion and a few garlic cloves, left on the counter by one of my co-residents and set out to make lunch.

everything i collected: 

two stalks of broccoli
250g pasta (half a package)
1/2 medium onion, sliced
3 small garlic cloves, minced
cayenne pepper or chile flakes
olive oil

put on a big pot of water to boil for the pasta, and next to it, heat a large saute pan over high heat.

when the pan is hot, coat the bottom with a generous splash of olive oil.  let it get hot before adding the sliced onion.  there should be a big sizzle, and you should see the onions on the edge of the pan start to brown almost immediately.  reduce the heat to medium, give it a stir, and turn your attention to the broccoli.

trim the florets of broccoli and set them aside.  peel the stems with a vegetable peeler and paring knife before slicing them thinly and adding them to the onions.

when the water has come to a boil, salt it generously and then drop in the florets.  let them cook for a few minutes, until tender, while you keep an eye on the onions and stems to make sure they don't burn.  add a sprinkle of chile flakes and a pinch of salt to the pan, and maybe a splash of the broccoli water, if it looks like it needs it.  now might be a good time to cover the pan to encourage the steam to stay in there and prod the onions into tenderness.

when the florets are cooked, or nearly so, remove them from the pot with a strainer or sieve and add them directly to the pan of onions and stems.  if the pan looks dry, add another splash of water or perhaps olive oil.  add the minced garlic.

now, the real cooking begins.

the florets will break down, mixing with the water and oil to become part of the sauce, while the stems and onions continue to caramelize.

add the pasta to water, and stir.  it'll take about eight or ten minutes, enough time for the broccoli to break down and become really creamy.  the key is to make sure there's enough water in the pan so the broccoli, oil, and water emulsify and become saucy and sweet.  keep cooking, and stirring.  keep the pan covered, or add water as needed, to get where you need to go.

when the pasta is cooked, drain it, reserving a cup of the cooking water.  toss the hot noodles into the pan with the broccoli, and stir.  add another, final splash of olive oil and the salty pasta water to ensure the noodles are all well-coated, moist, and seasoned.  taste and adjust the salt and cayenne as needed.

serve with generous amounts of snowy, grated parmesan.

as i ate, i wondered, what was the difference between this most delicious bowl of pasta, and the many sad, bland versions of broccoli and noodles i've encountered so many times before?

this wasn't a fancy dish at all, nor was it complicated.  the whole thing took less than twenty minutes.  what did i know, or have, that allowed me to cook this way?  that's the question i'm trying to answer as i return to working on this proposal.   wish me luck in my writing.  i need it so very much!


  1. The difference is that you know your way forward with food. You have years of experience, instincts that have been honed. It's your art and craft.

    Writing is just a new art and craft. You don't yet have the years of experience, but you do have instincts, drive, vision. It's harder because it calls upon you (all of us who try) to be vulnerable, it brings up our fears. Especially in the early days.

    The only thing to do is to do it. To do it so much it becomes easier. Like knife skills—the handle of the blade comfortable in the palm, the hand confident, the rhythm relaxed.

    We make the path by walking. Just keep at it. You'll get there.

  2. your story has me totally inspired. water is boiling now.

    your writing has warranted a new fan.

    keep on keepin' on.

  3. earlier today nothing sounded tasty and I was uninspired to cook...until I came across this post. just made this for dinner and it was delicious. thanks Samin!