The Recipes We Remember + Penne for Erin

Penne with Cherry Tomatoes and Arugula | Eat This Poem

Today is Erin's virtual baby shower! A few of us who know and love her decided to shower her with easy vegetarian meals to celebrate the upcoming birth of her baby boy.

It's a strange world we live in sometimes, and it's lucky when those of us who get to know each other online become real life friends, too. Relationships are hard work, wherever they are, and since most of us don't live close by, we supplement with blog reading, email writing, and brief meals whenever we can. I shared one of these meals with Erin last October when she was visiting LA to pick up a very special rocking chair, and I'm so grateful we could catch up in person! 

Penne with Cherry Tomatoes and Arugula | Eat This Poem

In thinking about an easy vegetarian recipe to share, my mind reached way, way back. 

Recently, I've gone on somewhat of a pilgrimage in search of old recipes, the ones I relied on in the early days of learning how to cook. It's very nostalgic now to flip through old meal planning journals, or cookbooks from Giada de Laurentiis, reminding me how uncertain I was at the beginning, and what little strength my intuition had. But I'm grateful for the recipes during this time, because they helped me learn, and helped me trust.

Penne with Cherry Tomatoes and Arugula | Eat This Poem
Penne with Cherry Tomatoes and Arugula | Eat This Poem

The first year after college, Andrew and I spent a lot of time cooking together. As it happened, my roommate managed a restaurant which kept her gone most evenings, so when Andrew and I both finished work, we would watch Everyday Italian and decide which recipe looked best. Then we'd walk over to Albertson's, buy the ingredients, and follow the recipe.

One recipe I clung to early on was a penne with beef and arugula. What I still love about this dish is the sauce, a combination of tart mustard and balsamic vinegar that makes your mouth pucker a little bit, softened by the salty bite of cheese, peppery greens, and bursting tomatoes. These days I omit the beef (although it's a really wonderful addition when you're feeling like adding it), and add toasted pine nuts for another layer of texture and buttery flavor. Although this isn't a recipe I make as frequently as I used to, it's one I still haven't grown out of, and I like having a few of these recipes around, because it helps me fondly remember where my food journey began.

Early recipes offer the same comfort as poems. Over the course of our lives we cook more recipes and read more poems, but there are always markers that defined something in our lives, like when I read "The Piano" by D.H. Lawrence in 10th grade and started writing poetry, or discovered Elizabeth Bishop in college. It's nice to reflect, to see a bit of your journey in the food you eat and the words you read, offering fuel for what might be around the next turn. 

Every now and again we all need some welcome reflection as cooks, as friends, as parents. And so to Erin, I wish you well on this new journey! 

Penne with Cherry Tomatoes and Arugula | Eat This Poem
Penne with Cherry Tomatoes and Arugula | Eat This Poem


Adapted from Giada de Laurentiis

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly cracked pepper
5-6 large basil leaves, julienned
1 pound penne
2 cups lightly packed arugula
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved (or quartered if large)
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
Parmesan cheese, for serving

Whisk the mustard and balsamic vinegar together, then slowly whisk in the oil. Add the salt, a few grinds of freshly cracked pepper, and basil. Stir to combine.

Cook penne until al dente, about 7-8 minutes, in a large pot of salted water. Drain, reserving a bit of the cooking liquid. Pour the sauce over the penne, and add a splash of the cooking water. Stir to combine, then add the arugula, cherry tomatoes, and a small handful of grated cheese. Stir gently, and the heat from the pasta will help wilt the arugula and melt the cheese.

To serve, top bowls with additional cheese and a sprinkle of pine nuts. 

Preludes and Pasta

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Our sense of smell can be transporting.

Years unfold.

We tumble back to childhood. 

On the second day of fall, I was making soup. It was still a pot of ingredientscelery, onion, crushed tomatoeswhen I walked outside with Emma where the air had started to feel different. September is often our warmest month in Los Angeles, and even though the temperatures hadn't dropped significantly, the sun was shifting. 

By dusk or just before, a crispness emerged. Not cold or brisk, just a whisper of the cooler days to come, when the sun lets us down gently that soon it will set at the unfortunate hour of 5 pm. 

Out of the blue that afternoon I'd suddenly craved spaghetti and meatballs. It's a quintessential fall dish, and for this Italian, something of a comfort food. Who am I kidding. It's the comfort food. But I had no spaghetti and no pork and no beef. I wasn't prepared for this fierce a craving, so I went on making another Italian comfort food, the minestrone I've been making for the past couple of years with chard and plump white beans. Sometimes squash or sweet potato. 

There I was outside, letting my dog sniff the grass and search for pinecones, sorting through the long week, hungry for pasta. When she pulled me back inside (and she has this habit of pulling down the hall only on the way back, like she can't wait to get home) I started smelling something familiar, perfumes of the Italian restaurant I grew up eating at, and very specifically of their minestrone. It was composed of a thin broth with translucent onions and soft carrots gathering at the bottom of the bowl that I used to dip saltine crackers into and tentatively take small sips of from a silver spoon. 

When we arrived at our door, I realized I had been smelling my soup the entire time. Not a neighbor's dinner as I had assumed, but the one I'd put on the stove and poured homemade beef stock over and slipped a Parmesan rind into before slipping outside. I somehow managed to comfort myself that night, in the simplest yet profound way. 

Spaghetti and Meatballs #italian #eatthispoem

But I still needed the meatballs and two days later, the kitchen filled once again with the scent of tomatoes and garlic and parsley and meat simmering away in a sauce laced with butter and onion. 

And it happened that I read T.S. Eliot's preludes that morning, as delivered from The Poetry Foundation to my inbox. I couldn't deny the timing, and the fierce connection I felt to the poem with its "smell of stems in passageways" and "burnt-out ends of smoky days." If there were ever a perfect meal (and poem) to usher in the new season, I believe I have found it.


The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o'clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.

-T.S. Eliot, from Preludes

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Adapted from Molly Wizenberg's recipe. (Serves 6)

A few notes.

  • Definitely chill the meatballs. They'll be slightly damp beforehand and will need the chilly air to firm up before forming.
  • I doubled the recipe, making approximately 22 golfball-sized meatballs, offering plenty to freeze for later.
  • I followed her sauce recipe, too, a version I make often, but added a Parmesan rind to the sauce as well. If you have one on hand, slip it in for added depth of flavor.

For the sauce
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
4 ounces unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 onion, peeled and halved through root end
3/4 teaspoon salt
Parmesan rind (optional) 

For the meatballs
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/3 cup whole milk
8 ounces grass fed ground beef
8 ounces ground pork
1 cup finely ground Parmesan (plus more for serving)
1/3 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
2 plump garlic cloves, grated
2 eggs
1 pound spaghetti

To make the sauce, combine the tomatoes, butter, onion, salt, Parmesan rind (if using), and 1 cup water in a heavy stockpot. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with more salt and freshly ground pepper if needed. 

While the sauce bubbles away, start on the meatballs. Combine the breadcrumbs and milk in a small bowl; stir until well combined. Let stand 10 minutes.

Dump the beef and pork into a large bowl. Add the Parmesan, parsley, salt, pepper, and garlic. Whisk the eggs, then pour into the bowl. Use your hands to squeeze milk from the breadcrumbs, then add them to the bowl. This is when the real work starts. Dig your hands into the bowl and quickly and gently mix until all ingredients are evenly combined. Chill for at least 15 minutes. 

Turn the sauce onto low heat. While it warms up, roll clumps of meat into golf ball-sized balls and arrange them in a single layer in the pot. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a bowl. 

Cook spaghetti in a large pot of salted water until al dente, about 7-8 minutes. Drain, reserving a bit of the cooking liquid. Add spaghetti to the sauce, along with a bit of the reserved water, and stir to coat. Divide pasta among plates and top each serving with meatballs and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. 

Living With Poetry | Recipes and Repetition

Living with Poetry is an occasional series where we explore how poetry infuses our everyday lives. Catch up with past features here.

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I've always held on to the belief that recipes and poems are not very different from one another. They both begin with building blocks like a turn of phrase or the turn of a whisk in a mixing bowl. A recipe cooked in my kitchen might look slightly different than in your kitchen, even if we use the same ingredients. A poem read today might resonate more when read again in six months. All of this is to say that I've been thinking about how recipes become part of you, the same way a poem might burrow itself under your skin when you've read it enough times and memorized a line or two. It's about turning over and over.

When we had friends over for dinner a few weeks ago, I set out to make pumpkin mac and cheese as a nod to the new season. I didn't use a recipe, because I've made mac and cheese so many times before that I knew it by heart. This is a time when the kitchen becomes a more magical place, because you're freed from standing over the counter, pointing with one finger at the list of ingredients before grating the cheese. You just move in one fluid motion from grating to whisking to stirring to boiling, and the meal comes together because you're steady.

Also, because you've likely made a mistake or two in the past.

You burnt the chocolate or smudged a word with an eraser. You boiled the pasta for two minutes too long or couldn't conceive of the right word to end the line. You learn. You grow. Wendell Berry puts it well in his poem "The Sycamore."

"Over all its scars has come the seamless white
of the bark. It bears the gnarls of its history
healed over. It has risen to a strange perfection
in the wrap and bending of its long growth. 
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose."

-Wendell Berry, from "The Sycamore" 

pumpkin mac and cheese2.jpg

It has gathered all accidents into its purpose. I repeat this line again and again and think of writing, of cooking, of relationships, of false starts or wrong turns. It's a powerful reminder that there is a reason for everything.

For its part in this lesson, pumpkin has arrived. It's presence is why I didn't look at a recipe, and instead added a few heaping spoonfuls into the pot and whisked and whisked, and why I found myself realizing that all the recipes and repetition have become something else entirely. The recipes do not live on paper alone. They exist for us to make something of them, to know them, to become something we can trust and love and hold on to.


4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup all purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2/3 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly cracked pepper
1 pound pasta
8 ounces gruyere, grated
4 ounces aged cheddar, grated
1/2 a baguette, torn into large pieces
4 to 5 sage leaves
2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Melt the butter in a large stock pot over medium heat and whisk in the flour to combine. Cook for 30 seconds, then slowly whisk in the milk. Cook, whisking occasionally, until the sauce has thickened and can coat the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the pumpkin, nutmeg, salt, and a few cracks of freshly cracked pepper. Whisk in the cheese.

While the sauce thickens, bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta for 6 minutes. (You want the noodles to be slightly undercooked; they'll finish cooking in the oven.) Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.

Add the pasta to the sauce and stir to combine. You'll hear a gooey, satisfying sound as the sauce begins clinging to the noodles. Pour the pasta into a large baking dish and set off to make the breadcrumbs.

Pulse the bread and sage in a food processor until small crumbs form. Add a pinch of salt, then drizzle in the oil until evenly coated. Spread the crumbs over the pasta.

You can prepare everything earlier in the day and keep the dish in the fridge until ready to bake. Before serving, bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and the breadcrumbs are golden brown.