Friday, January 18, 2008

It feels good to return the favor

It is hard to believe, but today my sister turns 41. 41! Even though I know I am not far behind her, I am still required by law to point and laugh at her advanced age. Ha! You are old, Sister.

But, even given your extreme decrepitude, I still love you.

One of the benefits of the eight-year age difference between the two of us is that we never really fought. While growing up, she was older than me to a degree that made her way cool. She was my role model, and I aspired to like and do the things she liked and did, such as Pink Floyd and driving foolish high school friends home from Randall Park Mall even though she wasn't supposed to have other kids in the car. She was an exchange student, so I made it my goal to get myself involved in an international program, too. She went to Northwestern, so when the time came for me to apply to colleges, I applied only to Northwestern without any sort of back-up plan. She became a vegetarian, I became a vegetarian. She stopped being a vegetarian, I stopped being a vegetarian. She loved "The Man With Two Brains" and so did I, even though some of the jokes were over my head. ("Those aren't assholes, honey, they're azaleas.") Everything that I knew at an age before I should have known it is because of Sister's influence.

Even now, our combined jackasserie continues:

You might imagine, then, my thrill upon growing up and learning that the road goes both ways: there are areas of my expertise -- if you can call any of our foolishness "expertise" -- that Sister covets as well. I love it when she calls on me for something, or stops at my house when she's on her way somewhere and gets a migraine and needs to rest because she knows it is cozy and I'll take care of her, or craves a dish that I like to cook. I love that sometimes she needs me, or looks up to something I'm doing. Because after a life of being inspired by her -- attempting to be as smart, as funny, as accomplished -- it feels good to return the favor.

Which brings us to cumin-dusted pasta. I'm not sure when or how I developed this recipe -- just that it was during the time I lived in Chicago in the late '90s -- but it quickly became one of Sister's favorites. The dish's formal name is Cumin-Dusted Pasta with Curried Black Beans; Freshly Chopped Parsley, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Finish. The lengthy title comes from the menu standards of my family's former favorite restaurant, The Inn at Turner's Mill, which, sadly, went out of business last August. Their food was quite fine, and the verbiage used to describe it even finer. Each item would follow the same formulation: Main Component of Dish with Primary Flavor (semicolon); Secondary Flavor, Sauce or Garnish. One particularly cosmopolitan-fueled night, we decided it would be fun to name my (at the time) signature dish following this code.

Hence, cumin-dusted pasta with blah blah blah....What it really should be called is, simply, delicious.

In addition to reminding me of Sister, this dish also recalls many of the nights spent in my diminutive Chicago kitchen. It was there that I really began cutting my culinary teeth, if you will. Trying out new things, watching a lot of Food Network (R.I.P., David Rosengarten's "Taste," most excellent show ever), exploring recipes, forcing friends to eat the results and sing my praises. But when it was just me, alone in that kitchen, this was the dish to which I always turned. (Well, this and baked ziti, but that's another post.) I can still see myself cleaning turmeric-colored droplets of olive oil off the wall that was RightNextToTheTinyStove. I can still hear my mind wondering if the neighboring apartment dwellers minded the wafting curry smells. I can still feel my inexperienced hands trying to flip the T-Fal frying pan full of sizzling black beans, you know, like chefs do, without utensils.

Even though I haven't made cumin-dusted pasta for Sister in quite some time, the mere mention of its name still elicits a Pavlovian chorus of "yummmm......cumin-dusted pasta....." from her lips. I guarantee, if I called her right now and said I was thinking of making it, that is what she would say. With good reason. The black beans, fried with the spices until their edges turn crispy, receive an extra hit of salty texture at the last moment, when they're tossed with sharp Pecorino cheese while still in the pan -- resulting in a crunchy, curry-y, gooey, cheesy concoction that just begs for some angel hair pasta with which to party. I could eat the entire dish myself, but since it is Sister's birthday, I guess I'll share.

Here's to you, Sister. Though subject to the inexorable and unforgiving march of time, may your tastebuds never be dulled to the excellence that is cumin-dusted pasta.

Happy birthday.



3 T. olive oil

1 15.5-oz. can of black beans

1 1/2 t. ground cumin

1 1/2 t. ground coriander

1 t. ground turmeric

1/4 t. kosher salt

Pinch freshly-ground black pepper

1 lb. angel hair pasta or spaghetti

1/3 c. Pecorino cheese, shredded

3 T. flat-leaf parsley, chopped

For a spice-heavy dish like this, I prefer to toast and grind my own spices (well, except for the turmeric). Actually, I should say: where possible, I always prefer to toast and grind my own spices. So, if you haven't already done this step and don't have home-toasted and -ground spices in your cabinet at the ready, take the time to toast up a few tablespoons each of cumin and coriander in a dry frying pan until they are fragrant but not burnt. Grind in a spice grinder, and store tightly covered in a dark cupboard.

Drain and thoroughly rinse the black beans. Heat the olive oil over medium-low heat in a large skillet. Put a large pot of thoroughly salted water on to boil.

Place black beans in skillet, along with cumin, coriander, turmeric, salt and black pepper. Turn up the heat to medium. Fry the beans until they start to get crispy on their little legume edges and the spices are cooked and aromatic.

When the water is boiling, cook the pasta according to package directions. If using angel hair, keep a close eye on it, as it cooks very quickly. When the pasta is al dente, drain into a strainer set over a large liquid measuring cup or bowl, to reserve some of the starch-rich pasta water. Deglaze the frying pan with about 1/4 c. of the reserved pasta water to release the yummy crunchy bits into the mixture. Add the Pecorino to the beans, stirring to combine and melt. Add the cooked pasta to the beans, tossing to mix thoroughly. (You will probably need to add a little more reserved pasta water to "loosen" the mixture.)

Garnish with the chopped parsley and serve, topped with a generous drizzle of olive oil and extra Pecorino to taste.

Serves 2. Note: Though, technically, you could use any shape of pasta you like in this dish, I have learned through years of experimentation that long pasta works and tastes much better than shorter varieties like penne or rigatoni. Also, if you are so inclined, you might want to stir in 1/8 t. cayenne pepper with the black bean mixture. (Sometimes I'm just not in the mood to have it this way.) Finally, this recipe is even yummier the second day, after the flavors have had some time to get to know each other.

1 comment:

Unknown said...



Dinner and cake tomorrow night, too!