For much of my adult life (starting, even, when I was more adult-ish, than adult), I’ve wanted to have a restaurant or cafe where I was recognized. All Cheers-like, where everybody – or, more realistically, at least somebody – would know my name, and I would know theirs. I’d be a regular.
Perhaps it comes from my small-town girl core, which craves to be situated in a community small enough where you can’t help but bump into someone you know on every grocery store visit. Perhaps it comes from the more universal human desire to belong, to be part of something, to be known. Either way, it’s been a borderline compulsion for years, but mostly just an internal one. I’ve never really intentionally played it out. Either my tendency to explore and try new places would thwart my quest to become a regular, or a high turnover rate in the staff would. (Technically with the latter, I guess I still was a regular, but it doesn’t count if there is no one that greets you with that smile of the eyes that says, ‘hey, I know you! I’m glad you’re back. How’s the family/kids/dog…?’)
Until now. I realized a few weeks ago that, by accident really, Joel and I have become regulars at one of our neighborhood restaurants. One of our favorite destinations for date night or the night that inevitably comes mid-week when I simply can’t wrap my brain around the idea of cooking something and Joel is not quite prepared for the impromptu demand, “will you make dinner.” (It’s a demand, not a question, in those cases.)
We go there most often on Mondays or Wednesdays, and the wonderful staff welcomes us warmly, jokes with us, checks in about things we were talking about last time. We know their names. They know ours. Those few weeks ago, I forgot a sweater there after supper, and they called to say, “Emily forgot her white sweater. We’ll just hang onto it until next time you guys are here.” I felt like I’d made it, somehow. We were in. I love it! I love them!
Interestingly, a different set of staff works at the restaurant Tuesdays and Thursdays. Last week, we had one of our rare Tuesday visits, and the servers, while still wonderful, didn’t recognize us. It was oddly disappointing. But, the food made up for it. Not to mention the wine. (It was Spanish wine night. Ole!)
We had several lovely courses, to go with our several lovely wines, but early in the meal I became enamored with our pasta and don’t remember any of the other things we ate. It was a simple, but powerfully flavored, dish of linguine, anchovies, and cauliflower. It had its own ring of familiarity to it, and I realized it was somewhat similar to a dish that I recently dog-eared in my copy of Sunday Suppers at Lucques, marked out for trying. Clearly anchovies and cauliflower were in cahoots, putting on a show to catch my attention. I gave it willingly.
I decided to make my own version, but using spaghetti squash instead of linguine. I read somewhere once that easily amused people live longer. Give me an endless supply of spaghetti squash and I’d probably rival Methuselah for longevity. I find the stuff fascinating. It’s a squash, but it acts like noodles! It’s one of nature’s greatest twofers!
And on occasion, given spaghetti squash’s mild, almost reedy sweetness, I find I even prefer it to true pasta. (Except when that pasta is homemade. That’s a trump card.)
I drew inspiration from Suzanne Goin’s dish, meaning that a richly sweet, sticky currant and pine nut relish joined the squash, briny anchovies, and caramelized cauliflower, in a fantastically plump, crunchy swirl. The distinctive nuttiness of pine nuts rounds out the other savory flavors, but then sweet fruit of the currants sharpens them again, tuning and refining them up to a level of satisfying that one doesn’t tend to expect from dishes that are mostly vegetables.
This is also a good dish to try if you’ve still got your anchovy training-wheels on. The anchovies literally melt into everything else and coat them with opulent oceany flavor, but no terribly discernable fishiness. Of course, I say this about most things I make with anchovies. And it’s true about most things made with anchovies.
The one drawback of taking inspiration from world-class chefs, is that you may find, after dinner, that you have also made a world-class pile of dishes. I’ve tried to streamline this to use fewer, but the more shortcuts taken, the less the various flavors are able to make themselves known out of the mix. The optimal situation is when each element is tasted distinctly from the others, but where their sum creates a whole, a community of flavors. Which is not to say it isn’t also optimal when you can find someone else to do the clean-up.
Spaghetti Squash with Cauliflower, Anchovies, Pine Nuts, and Currants (serves 4)
- 1 large spaghetti squash
- olive oil
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 1 sprig rosemary, divided in half
- a couple pinches of red pepper flakes
- 1 red onion, finely diced
- 1/3 cup dried currants
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 2 Tbs. flat leaf parsley, chopped
- 1 head of cauliflower, cut into bite sized florets
- 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
- about 8-9 oil packed anchovies, minced
- 1 tsp. thyme
- salt and pepper
- Parmesan for serving (optional)
- Spread the pine nuts on a baking sheet, and toast in the oven at 375F (stirring a couple times during the process) until they’re golden and fragrant. This doesn’t take long, around 7 minutes. Keep an eye on them so they don’t burn. Remove from the oven and set aside.
- Turn the oven up to 425F. Cut the spaghetti squash in half and remove the seeds. Rub the cut sides with olive oil, and put the halves (cut side down) in a baking pan. Put them in the oven and roast until they are tender enough to be pierced with a fork, around 45 minutes.
- Meanwhile put the currants in a small bowl with some water to plump. In a smallish saute pan, heat a couple Tbs. olive oil over medium-high heat until it is shimmering. Add in a pinch of red pepper flakes and half a sprig of rosemary and allow to sizzle for a moment, then stir in the onions and sprinkle with salt. After about 2-3 minutes of cooking, when the onions are starting to soften, turn the heat down to low and let the onions cook slowly until they’re quite tender, around 8 minutes. Fish the rosemary out of the onions. Drain the currants, and add them and the balsamic vinegar to the pan with the onions. Continue cooking until the vinegar has become thick and sticky.
- Remove from the heat and stir in the toasted pine nuts and parsley. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower and blanch until just tender, 4-5 minutes. Drain and spread the cauliflower out on the baking sheet you used for the pine nuts to allow it to cool and dry out a bit.
- When the spaghetti squash is tender, remove it from the oven. When it is just cool enough to handle, use a fork to scoop out the flesh, which should come out in long spaghetti like threads. Put the squash in a colander in the sink for about 10 minutes to let some moisture drain out.
- When you’re ready for supper, heat about 1/4 cup olive oil in a large saute pan until it shimmers. Add the garlic, anchovies, thyme, remaining rosemary sprig half, and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and cook on medium-high for about 2 minutes. Then, stir in the cauliflower and sautee for about 8 minutes, until the cauliflower starts to brown on the edges. Next, stir in the spaghetti squash, and cook, stirring to coat the squash with everything else, and cook for a couple minutes, until the squash is warmed through. Fish out the rosemary sprig.
- Then, stir in about half of the currant-pine nut mixture, reserving the remaining relish for another use (may I suggest crostini with some chevre?) Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with grated Parmesan, if desired.