Crafty Cooking

Let’s say it’s time for you to whip up something for your next meal, and the menu is set: Vietnamese. As you don an apron, smiling women pad into the kitchen bearing trays set up with little bowls of chopped and measured ingredients. You turn to the preparation space and reach for the elegant jar full of small spoons, each destined to be used once and then put on a side along with used bowls and empty plates for more smiling women to spirit way. There are no knives, no vegetables peels; there is no accumulation of mess. You toss a few things together, adjust the gas burner once in a while, taste the dishes-in-progress thoughtfully, and the meal is served: crisp spring rolls wrapped in a lacy mesh of rice paper; tender caramel pork cooked in a clay pot and served over coconut rice; a palate-cleansing clam soup with starfruit and dill; firm banana slices cooked in coconut milk for dessert. Afterward, a beaming man (‘a real chef’) comes out from a back room to shake your hand and tell you how well you did.

The fantasy can be made real in Ho Chi Minh City for thirty-nine US dollars and a pre-booking at the Vietnam Cookery Centre on Ung Van Khiem Street. Within the purview of an Oxford student or any normal home cook, however, the incircumventable realities of life mean that preparing a four-course meal like that one would be no joke. Or maybe a really funny joke, depending on the margin of sanity that remains at the end of a long day. A weeknight dinner should be a soothing but streamlined affair, filling and nutritious with a minimum of before-or-after fuss. So here’s a one-pan recipe for creamy pasta with spinach and chickpeas, cooked a la risotto to create a flavourful, rich-tasting dish that’s excellent for anyone too fat for cream, too impoverished for meat, or too demoralized to clean more than one piece of cookware after the meal. There are no congratulatory handshakes involved, but also no sky-high stacks of washing-up. Plus, you can easily get by without a knife.

Creamy Pasta with Spinach and Chickpeas

Preparation time: approximately 30 minutes

Serves 3-4. Because of the way the pasta is cooked, the recipe doesn’t work very well with large quantities, so save it for intimates. Use the largest pot or pan you have–surface area is important for this dish.

Inspired by Mark Bittman of the New York Times

250 g of pasta that isn’t too shapely or three-dimensional (i.e. bow ties or fusilli), since you want it to cook evenly in the pan. Penne or spaghetti broken into 2-3 inch segments are both good options.
2 tablespoons oil
3 cloves garlic
I can of chickpeas
250 g of spinach
3 cups vegetable or chicken broth, supplemented by water if necessary.
salt and pepper, to taste
Parmesan cheese (optional)

If you’ve gone with long-line pasta, break it into pieces into the bowl you’re going to eat out of later. Peel your garlic cloves and either mince them or, if you want to make things much easier for yourself, grate them. Heat up your oil in a large frying pan over low heat and sauté the garlic. Give it a stir once in a while–the goal is to coax out the fragrance without letting the garlic bits get brown. In the meantime, wash your spinach and drain the chickpeas but save the liquid–in another dinner bowl, of course. Crush the chickpeas and add them to the pan, then turn the heat up to medium and add the pasta, stirring for a few minutes to coat the strands with oil and get the cooking process started. Start adding your liquid a teacupful at a time, pouring more in as it gets absorbed: begin with the chickpea liquid and go on to broth, graduating to water if that runs out before the pasta is cooked. As you continue to stir in the liquid, the starches from the surface of the pasta will gradually release to coat everything in a creamy sauce. Fifteen minutes or twenty minutes later, when the pasta is just a shade more firm than your preferred texture, add the spinach and stir until wilted. Season it with salt and pepper, then top with a bit of Parmesan cheese if you wish.