Way Back, and More Chard Love

[Spinach fettuccine, revisited, August 2008.]

Way back when I lived in DC (as I’ve been living in San Francisco for over two years, my Washington days are now ‘way back’), during my first year out of college I lived with a friend in a huge and lovely apartment in Adams Morgan, right on Columbia Road and 18th St. The perks of this location were that it was right on the bus line I took to work, bars and clubs were just steps away, and there was an organic market downstairs. The downsides of this location were that I heard the bus every single morning in the summer outside my window (left open because we had no air conditioning. Take a breath. Yes, that’s no air conditioning in Washington, DC, in the summer. I can’t believe I did it, either.), bars and clubs were just steps away, as were their loud and drunken patrons, and the organic market downstairs was overpriced and consumed too much of my paycheck.

But really, these were minor issues compared to the reality that I finally had a kitchen nearly of my own. While it was small it did not entirely lack counter space, and the cabinets were painted a smart white with clear glass so we could see our meager dish ware. We moved in on a sweltering Saturday morning in early September and after unpacking our few kitchen implements I did what any rational person would do after just moving in to a new place: I invited my boyfriend and his sister over for a dinner party the next night.

I have a thing with unpacking — I want to get it all done, quickly, even if I stay up all night to do it. I remember that first day after we moved in we went to Tryst (definitely a perk), a funky-cool coffee house on 18th St. that never failed to make me miss San Francisco and the West Coast because it was the only place I ever found that came close to the myriad of coffee places scattered around this caffeine-addicted city, for veggie burgers (note: I still miss those veggie burgers; more on this another time). Fueled by moving euphoria, coffee, and exhaustion, I unpacked my boxes late into the night (though to be honest there weren’t many given that I’d been a college student living in a room in group house for quite awhile) all the while planning what I’d cook the next night (please see: food, obsession with).

When I lived in College Park, the last few years I lived in a sprawling and messy house with some of my best friends; most of us, being in our last year of university, somehow managed to work our schedules so we had Fridays off from classes and work during the semester. I’d sometimes have to stay on the copy desk at the Diamondback, the daily where I worked as a copy editor, or pulled a long night if I was filing a story (I was the ‘diversity’ beat reporter), but most of the time Thursday nights were left free and clear for gatherings. For a long time, if I remember correctly, we had a sort of standing dinner party once a week — I used to be in charge of dessert (I once made a birthday peach pie because it was my room mate’s favorite, back in the days when I felt it OK to buy peaches in the middle of winter ripe or not) and sometimes the rest of the meal, too. We were always open to contributions which was a good thing because sometimes the guest list hit 20 or more.

So while maybe back then it was more about the people and the party and the socializing rather than intricacy of the food — we tended to serve things that could be cooked in big batches like lasagna or macaroni and cheese or curries — I think I always had a yearning to branch out, to really cook. When I moved into my own ‘adult’ apartment at last there was only one person with whom to share the kitchen, and though we did cook together a lot, I admittedly was in there solo a good deal of the time. At last! It was like I’d been longing to explore the kitchen fully for my whole life but never realized it. I kept up the dinner party thing for a long time that first year, inviting disparate people who nevertheless always had things to talk about with each other (or maybe it was the wine?) and who made the journey into the city without fail. I cooked fish for the first time, and used a food processor (I’d never before; I know). I took every excuse I could to get in there, and fed whoever happened to be over at the time.

[Wine for a party, February 2008.]

Perhaps that’s where my love for dinner parties was born — as we all know, I love to throw a dinner (or a lunch or a breakfast or or or) — back in those hazy DC days when I was just starting out in every sense. To bring it back to the food made the working-a-new-job and paying-one’s-own-rent-each-month less anxious; if I could have people over for dinner, I knew I would be OK.

I am thinking about my old life today because the other night I made a dish that I ‘came up with’ in those early days of kitchen experimentation, a sort of spinach fettuccine pasta alfredo, though I updated it this time ’round to include my current summer-love chard instead of the spinach. It’s funny because I clearly remember the day I made this for the first time: it was a Saturday and I’d worked all day, coming home a bit exhausted and wanting to eat something that was both sort of healthful but also comforting and nourishing. And I remember I also really wanted to cook something I’d never made before.

So I got home and pulled out a bunch of spinach from the fridge, as well as a little milk and Parmesan. I wilted the spinach quickly and in another pot melted a bit of butter. I threw in the milk and brought it up to almost-boiling, then whisked in the cheese. I poured the whole thing into the food processor, along with the spinach, and whirled it until it was green and smooth. I think that first time I tossed it with a steaming pile of linguine, but it worked equally as well with fettuccine earlier this week, and I think either is fine (you do want a wider noodle so it will hold the sauce). That gray day in Washington I sat on the couch with my bowl of pasta and twirled my fork through the bright green strands of pasta, pleasantly surprised by how good it was (remember, I was just starting out here). I made it often after that — for quick weeknight suppers seule or with the salmon I was learning how to cook just so for hungry guests. I even passed on the recipe to my mom, who makes it for her own dinner parties (perhaps my first ever foray into recipe-writing?).

I don’t make this too often anymore, but every time I do I think, I should for it’s so good. Velvety and rich without being cloying, it’s an alfredo sauce that won’t leave you holding your stomach and wishing you’d only eaten one-fourth of your portion rather than the entire plate. I’ve cut way down on the cheese, and rarely use butter, and sometimes I swap soy milk for regular milk if that’s all I’ve got, but it never seems to matter it’s still so good. The sharp greens is really what I’m hankering for; the rest is just the proverbial … icing. It is so simple to throw together yet tastes as if you’ve spent if not hours at least a few thoughtful 20 minutes preparing it. I used chard here because — did I mention? — I’m loving it lately, but spinach is my standby and cooks up gently without that certain bite chard can have.

And if I get a bit of nostalgia for my DC life every time I make this dish — well, it’s good to be reminded it was a good time while it lasted, though I am still so glad to be here in Northern California again. It was gray the other night, too, and flaking out on the couch to watch the last few episodes of ‘Rome’ with a heaping bowl of pasta and a glass of red wine did much to ease the vacation-ending transition.

Though I would argue this will hit the spot any night of the week, wherever in the world you happen to be.

Fettuccine with Chard ‘Alfredo’ Sauce

The chard obsession clearly continues apace, possibly not helped by reading an article in last week’s NY Times Dining section about a restaurant so “magic” and “mesmerizing” I want to pack my bags and immediately take off for Nice to try the chard-stuffed risotto (you can bet at the very least I’ll be making it at home at some point in the very near future). I would point out that the ingredient amounts are fairly loose here, depending on personal taste and what you have on hand.

1 bunch chard or spinach, chopped and stems removed
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1 cup milk or soy milk
fettuccine or linguine pasta

In a frying pan, sautée the chard in a bit of water until it is wilted. Drain any remaining liquid and set aside.

In a saucepan over low heat, warm the milk until it is hot but not boiling. Whisk in the cheese and whisk until it is melted (do not let it get clumpy). Remove from heat and pour into a food processor along with the greens and pulse until well blended (hand blenders are very handy here) and very smooth. Salt and pepper to taste.

Toss with the pasta and serve hot, with lots of grated Parmesan on the side.

Serves 4.

Join the Conversation

  1. Coming here always makes me want to make more time to cook. To cook good things, I guess, rather than stir fry and crockpot stand-bys.

  2. nicolina! i remember that pasta “way back” when and boy, was it ever deeeelicious. something you forgot to mention were those huuuuuge slices of pizza we used to get at 1am on 18th st. mmm-mmm-mmmm those were the days–no calorie counting and staying up on school nights ;)

  3. Your post made me miss DC (we must have lived there at the same time…I was there from 2003 to 2005); yearn for this fettucine; nostalgic for the feeling-my-way early days in the kitchen; and impatient for my next dinner party. Good stuff.

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