Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Lemony Two-Bean Penne with Butter-Fried Breadcrumbs

Between my shrewy kvetching, Ben's squeaky whatever, and this dreary photograph, I will understand if you don't sprint to the kitchen to make this. But please, take my word for it: you should.

I like to say that picky eating is a state of mind: a rigid pre-emptive contempt for the unfamiliar; a kind of cringing, inflexible certainty that things will not be to your liking; a facial expression that says, “I hate this so much that I actually kind of hate you for putting it on my plate.” Thankfully, there are no picky eaters in my family, because here’s how much tolerance I have for it: [holds up thumb and forefinger pressed together]. That said, there are turning out to be many individual dislikes in my family, and if the kids didn’t manage them with so much grace and humor, I would probably have killed myself by now.

Ben likes eggs but not if they’re hard-boiled, and not quiche or frittata or other egg dishes with “things in them” unless those things are ham or ham. Birdy doesn’t like mushrooms, though she is friendly to the idea of them, likes to see them growing in the woods, and plans to like them at some point. Ben and Michael don’t like polenta, while Birdy and I could happily lie down on the couch and never get up again, so long as there was an Ikea catalogue and a hose spraying polenta into our mouths. Michael loathes other porridges as well: oatmeal, cream of wheat, rice pudding. He also hates tea, goat cheese, olives, and hearts of palm. His dislike of Twizzlers and caramel bull’s-eyes comes up only infrequently and never inconveniences me. Ben despises raw tomatoes so profoundly that he is not sure he could eat a pint of cherry tomatoes even if you paid him fifty dollars. Ben also hates melon as a rule, but is becoming less hostile towards really good cantaloupe. Both children dislike raw celery, but with no real passion. Birdy announced recently that she doesn’t really like soup (WTF?). Ben likes guacamole but not avocado; he likes onions but not scallions; he doesn't like sesame seeds or sesame oil. Birdy dislikes barbecue sauce because the taste reminds her of meat (fair enough). Everybody but me gets the willies from tempeh. The only thing I don’t like, besides organ meats and one kind of cheese I once ate that smelled like ammonia and tasted like the smell of human pee, is under-cooked eggplant. Birdy is also, I should add, a strict vegetarian—to the point where she won’t eat even candy or marshmallows that have gelatin in them. (“So, it has a little horse hoof!” Ben likes to say, shrugging, in a parody of Jewy dismissiveness.)

And yet. And yet I very rarely experience this family as difficult to feed, and I think it’s because they happily eat around most of the things they don’t love, and also they have a cheerful outlook about food in general. I mention that because after dinner last night, I looked at Ben’s plate—and it was full of green beans. “Tell me you’re saving those for last,” I said, and he smiled sheepishly. “The pasta was so, so delicious. But I’m turning out not to really like green beans. The way they squeak in my teeth.” He shuddered. I was, I should point out, having a bad day: frustrating work interactions, frustrating marital interactions (not the sex kind), frustrating dirty house, frustrating chimney needing to be fixed for $4000. “Do I have to do every single fucking thing?” is a (rhetorical) question I actually uttered out loud at some point yesterday. Seriously. Michael should have been wearing a t-shirt with an arrow that said, “I’m with jerkhole.”
I'm so busy pissing and moaning I forgot to mention that Birdy, my baby, turned 11.
Where was I? Oh. The beans. Did I look like I was about to storm away from the table? I hope not. But if I was, Ben saved me. “I mean,” he added, tipping his peachy, grinning face, his green-bean-filled bowl, towards me, “I was saving them for you, dear Mama.”
Don’t let Ben dissuade you from making this. I know it’s a variation on a million bean-and-pasta recipes I’ve published over the years, but it’s easy, it’s wholesome, and it’s got that perfect balance of salty-citrusy-tender-crunchy-herby-rich-funky that I always crave.

Lemony Two-Bean Penne with Butter-Fried Breadcrumbs
Serves 6

If I'd had fresh herbs, I would have used them. If I'd had a mint teabag, I would have used dried mint. Instead I used this beautiful California bay leaf that I stole from Ava's family's holiday wreath. It was outrageously fragrant. Probably everybody secretly hated the flavor but me. [Sighs self-pityingly.] A secret: you could make this without the fresh beans: add another can of beans, or use 3/4 of the pasta.

3 tablespoons butter, divided use
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs (made from crumbling, blendering, or food-processing a slice of whole-wheat bread)
1 pound whole-wheat penne, or a different shape that won't echo the beans (I like Bionaturae)
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 fragrant bay leaf or ½ teaspoon dried mint (and/or ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley or mint)
1 cup vegetable broth (I like Rapunzel bouillon) or chicken broth
¾ pound green beans or haricots verts, cut at an angle into penne-sized lengths (I’ve been buying the 12-ounce bags from Trader Joe’s and they are so easy and good and cheap.)
1 (15-ounce) can pinto, pink, or white beans, drained
Juice and grated zest of 1 small lemon
½ teaspoon kosher salt (half as much table salt) or more or less to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup crumbled feta

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water (taste it—if it doesn’t taste like seawater, add more salt) to a boil while you prepare your other ingredients. Like the breadcrumbs! Melt one tablespoon of the butter in a very small pan, and fry the breadcrumbs over medium heat until they are brown and crisp, around 5 minutes. Scrape them into a bowl when they’re done, so they don’t burn in the still-hot pan.

Pop your bowls or plates in a 200-degree oven to warm. Really do this, so the pasta won’t get cold before you even pick up a fork.

Now heat the oil over low heat in a wide pan. Add the garlic, and stir it around a bit until it is fragrant but not coloring. Stir in the bay leaf or dried mint, then add the broth and green beans and turn the heat to medium.

Put your pasta in to boil.

When the green beans are half-tender (you can cover the pan for a while, if they are being slow-pokes), add the canned beans and lemon juice. Taste for salt: the feta will add some, but not enough to compensate if it is radically under-salted. Season robustly with black pepper.

When the pasta is done, reserve a cup of the cooking water, then drain it. Put the pasta back in the pot with the rest of the butter and stir it around. The green beans should be tender by now. Dump the panful of beans and their liquid into the pasta, along with the lemon zest and feta and, if you’re using them, the fresh herbs. Stir it. Add some or all of the cooking liquid and/or some more olive oil if it seems dry. Taste for salt and lemon and herbs and feta, adding more of whatever it needs.

Serve in the warmed bowls with breadcrumbs for passing.


  1. That whole second paragraph reminds me so much of Natalia Ginzberg's "He and I." I love it! And I love you (in a platonic and not at all stalkey you say exactly what I think only better kind of way). Sigh. Yeah, kids that don't appreciate the food you slam in front of them after slaving over a hot stove. I've got a houseful of them. I also think I have frozen green beans from last summer's garden, so I think I'll buy some penne (or just use elbow macaroni--would that be wrong?) and try this!

  2. We've always called green beans "squeaky beans." Funny.

  3. This post helped my mental state SO much today. First off, the fact that even your extremely hardcore food-loving kids do have a few things they don't love makes me feel less like an alimentary failure at my house. (I have one extremely picky, food-averse child, one slightly picky, doesn't like everything child and two "if it's not covered in mold I'll eat it, on second thought, if it's covered in funky amazing gorgonzola mold, I'll eat two helpings" children). Secondly, the fact that you sometimes completely lose it on your family makes me feel a little less alone (I believe I, too, have used the rhetorical: "Am I the only one who does ANYTHING around here??" with a few fun curses mixed in.) For all the years I've followed your writing, I've held you up as the perfect, shining example of how I should be hand-crafting birthday gifts and making exotic and healthful meals while simultaneously playing intelligent gender-neutral games during a camping trip in the wilderness, humming kumbaya under my breath. And yet this week, despite my best intentions, as the day unraveled, I let my kids eat ice cream for dinner while watching Infested on Animal Planet. And I'm okay with that. We all survived for another day.

  4. Anonymous1:12 PM

    Chimneys! I had mine re-lined and capped to the tune of several thousands of dollars. Who knew such a thing could even need repairing? It's one of those grown-up moments that I wish I did not have to face, you mean we have to fix The Chimney?? How many of your friends will want to come see your NEW chimney? Zero. Because even if they did, you can't see it. Fixed, but looks the same. Those are my least favorite house-hold repairs. Venting! Thanks Catherine, you are not alone!

  5. Anonymous2:59 PM

    I love your definition of not picky!! I thought I had a picky eater and a normal one (sort of a bit fussy round the edges, just). But maybe I should be more charitable and say I have 2 kids with a few foody-DISLIKES, that's all. :)

  6. Anonymous3:04 PM

    Oh and - I loooove squeaky beans! Always have. But I did go through a phase of disliking cheese as a kid, even potatoes, and any meat with soft bits. I guess we all have our likes and dislikes, and luckily we get more flexible with time!!

  7. Happy 11th birthday, what beautiful pictures, and amazingly fast growing hair...and i love these posts because it shows that even during your frustrations, you are just so cool...and ditto what the person above said about you being a perfect, shining true!

  8. Anonymous1:04 PM

    I love this post for all of the same reasons as the above posters, but also think this is the perfect time to tell my story about realizing that you're a genius. I make your Utlimate Kale Salad on a semi-regular basis - it's hard to beat a leafy green vegetable dish that both my husband (picky eater #1) and my daughter (picky eater #2) love. (In fact, my daughter was convinced enough that she likes kale to try the cooked kale during school lunch and remark that it was "good, but not as good as your kale, mom").

    Recently I was making broccolini with dinner. It was going to just be plain, but then I remembered I had leftover toasted breadcrumbs (from the kale salad) and a little knob of asiago sitting in the fridge. I love broccolini plain, but with the breadcrumbs and some cheese, it was incredible! That's your genius - and I see it again in today's recipe - so I know it must be good.

  9. Can I just say that those first sentence is one of the best things I've ever read? I might just make it into a poster with a picture of a kid making 'that face' and hang it in the dining room as a reminder to not be so shitty. Not that I get much of that anymore, but a more subtle attitude about the food I prepare.

  10. Your food recipes are an inspiration Catherine, wholesome and delicious. I also love the way you write but Birdy steals the show this week - she is just adorable. x

  11. Loved it! I think of my 3 boys as not picky eaters. They are very similar to yours. If I serve salad, one picks out the tomatoes, one the green peppers, one the onions. Doesn't bother me at all. They don't fuss, they just handle it. For a few years one would eat veggies raw, or in soup, but not just a pile of corn or peas or carrots on the plate. His younger brother would eat all veggies, fight over cabbage, but when served soup, leave a pile of veggies in the bowl. Never bugged me. One doesn't love burgers...or at least not the crunchy edges that sometimes form. They all are good sports about food and eat many strange exotic things that their mother puts in front of them. All 3 avoid things, but in a good spirited way. Thank goodness. I would have the patience of the thumb pressed to the index finger if they only wanted mac and cheese, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets.
    Thanks for writing the way you do. Real.

  12. Maybe it is the weather or the earths rotation or ovaries or something but I am the jerkhole this week. Happy Birthday Birdy!

  13. Ruby won't eat mushrooms. She will, however, eat champignons. Yes, I know.

  14. Anonymous7:20 AM

    Forget the food..11? Where the helicopter did that time go? I remember following her birth story and it can't have possibly put me in my 20's..ahh yes, my 20's..anyway..happy birthday Birdy! You are lovely as ever, and I admire your dedication to "leading an alternative food lifestyle" (wink wink)..I hope you had a wonderful day! Samara

  15. Samantha G2:13 PM

    I can't believe Birdy turned 11! I mean it makes sense considering my daughter will turn 11 this year and I "met" you online when we were both pregnant, but man it still baffles me how time flies. And I know what you mean about doing every single fucking thing. It's a mom thing.

  16. i like to look at your food but i haven't been able to process gluten for about a year now (i swear i'm not jumping on a trend, doc's orders)- so it's like porn for me.

    i thought birdy was a year older than my daughter, but she's two years older! which is strange because i started reading you at bbc when i was pregnant. ah, well. she is a beautiful soul. and is it lame that i'm slightly jealous of kids with straight teeth?