When the Critic is away (and he is away a lot these days, working in Fontainebleau) I tend to go almost vegetarian. Bacon or ham frequently creeps into my cooking as an accent, but there is rarely a hunk of protein playing a starring role in the center of my plate. In recent weeks, I've had vegetarian Thai green curry, mammoth spinach salads with a warm vinaigrette, egg salad, a big fat steamed artichoke with lemon butter and even the occasional dinner of cheese and crackers. The one dish I come back to again and again when I'm not cooking for an audience, though, is a kind of a garlicky noodle and mushroom pie that dates back to my college days.
Tonight, as I was making it, I was more thoughtful than usual. Last night a friend of mine called to say that her cousin, one of my oldest friends in Paris, had died unexpectedly. I haven't seen Charles in almost a year. The last time I spoke with him he was on the point of returning to California for a few months to help his sister find a nursing home for their father and help with the move. I have asked mutual friends a few times in the last year if they had any news, but no one did and so I assumed he was still with his family back in California. I was wrong; he was back in Paris and I could have seen him. But now it is too late. And so I was thinking of Charles, and the many meals I have made for him. Back when I was dating his best friend, I had to keep track of his many food allergies and balance them with the best friend's food aversions. Later, he was a regular guest at Easter or Thanksgiving, always showing up with a bag of potato chips as a contribution - a bit like a college student, for all that he was four or five years older than me. Another food memory came to mind - being invited to dinner by Charles' cousin Eileen, whose speciality was a kind of pasta with cheese and nutmeg sauce. So I added some nutmeg to the dish. And when it was done and ready to eat, I thought of another of my oldest friends in Paris, Claire. Claire and Charles and I went on a memorable trip to Oktoberfest some ten years ago and at the end of it I think we were close to strangling Charles. He had many wonderful qualities (for example, he would never drink wine when he went out with us because he knew that our friend Ken would throw the keys at him at some point in the evening and declare "YOU are driving us home") but they didn't come out that weekend in Munich. But we were friends many years ago, even if life had pulled us in different directions of late. So I opened a bottle of Gewurztraminer while I thought of Claire, who spent a year studying in Alsace and sometimes would buy us a nice bottle of sweet wine when we were feeling flush.
All day long, I have been feeling a bit emotional, a bit more inclined to cuddle with my boys as I remember this friend who died alone in a flat in Paris. I guess it's not surprising that making dinner brought back more memories - there isn't much in this world that is more emotionally charged for me than making food. It reminded me that I should call Claire tomorrow and ask how she is. I sent a message to my friend Martin in London. My friend Tom, who shared this simple spaghetti and garlic dish with me more times than I care to remember when we were at university surely deserves a call.
Mushroom and spaghetti noodle pie (serves one nostalgic friend)
I smile when I remember making this dish with my friend Tom, back when we were in our early 20s. I would see him get out the pasta and inquire, "Do you mind if I have some too?" and a pained look would come across his face as he held up the full box of dried spaghetti and said "I only have one pound of pasta..." Tom loves his pasta and back then he could eat a full box (feeds four) at a single sitting and feel like it was - just about - enough.
5-6 garlic cloves
3-4 Tbs butter
1 egg, beaten with a tablespoon of water
a pinch of salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg (optional)
small handful of freshly grated Parmesan (about 50 g)
175 g spaghetti
Set water to boil in a deep sauce pan. In a thick-bottomed frying pan - preferably one which can be put in the oven - melt the butter. Slice the garlic thinly and add to the butter. While the garlic begins to sizzle, wash and slice the mushrooms. Add them to the butter and garlic and stir. By now, the water should be boiling. Add the pasta and gently push the pasta down into the water as it softens. Stir the garlic and mushrooms. Stir the nutmeg into the beaten egg. Remove the garlic and mushrooms to a plate. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the frying pan. Spread the mushroom and garlic over the noodles and then drizzle the egg evenly over the noodles. Cook for a few minutes and then sprinkle the grated cheese over the top. If the pan is oven-safe, place it under a grill for a few minutes. If not, cover and allow to finish cooking to the point where the egg is completely set. Sprinkle with salt and remove to a plate - for example, the one that you used to reserve the mushrooms and garlic.
If you get it right, the noodles on the bottom of the dish will be a bit tough and the ones on the top a little crispy and deliciously cheesy. It's a very satisfying comfort dish. With all that garlic, it's just as well if you make it when your partner is away.