Linguine spins like a top in a whirlpool pot of bubbling seawater. My brother and I sit on yellow wood and wicker at our parents’ no-frills countertop on short legs, leaned over on elbows, and hungry. There is nothing to nosh but a ramekin of un-pitted, oil-cured olives of which we take turns smelling for the hundredth time. We are children. No one knows if tonight will be the night we resolve to like them. In this house you either eat what you are fed or you slowly learn to love what is given to you. A plastic bottle of seltzer stands still for the drinking. A small, too-loud television showing Walker, Texas Ranger stays on for the watching. My father, his rear to us, is peeling back a tin of anchovies, the whiff of fishy salt scaring the pants off us kids. “You won’t even see them,” he promises. “It’s just for flavor.” My mother is collecting bits of broccoli stalk and floret with a wet paper towel. The linguine spins until it must drain and when it does my father combs it out like hair into the pan of olive oil, raisins, broccoli and melted anchovies. Later, on a plate I made in class, hoping no one will notice I carefully push away the raisins. “Don’t think about it, just taste,” he says. “Would I make you eat anything that wasn’t delicious?” Unhurriedly but with trust, my fork twirls.
It would feel quixotic to sing my praise for the long-form pasta a long-time family tradition. Because while there may have been a roving Jewish ancestor who took with him that lone recipe for linguine with garlicky broccoli, raisins and anchovies, all the while clutching his wine-stained Kiddush cup, my gut tells me I don’t come from an extended family strand of spaghetti and meatballs. Your affection for anything, however, begins with your parents, and it begins with what they love together. Heavy, metal pans of angel hair, capellini, fettuccine, spaghetti – all tossed with light, oil-based sauces with the slightest pan-fried crunch – is what I remember learning to love and, for that reason alone, the side of the pasta family tree I am comfortable climbing. When we sit down to eat, the forks twirl like ballerinas. They have to.
Now that I’m married, pasta takes me in two directions, up another tree, and just six brownstone blocks away.
At my in-laws’ there is no twirling. Rather the forks stick and stab at the ditalini, at the farfalle, at the fusilli, at the penne rigate. The small and shaped pastas are the stars here. My mother-in-law doesn’t think about why except to say, “Because cook. What else are you going to do?” And yet I know it has everything to do with the love of a rich, buttery tomato sauce. The shell, the tube, the smallest crease of the tortellini will catch and hold that sauce a lot better than the longest, plumpest bucatini.
Aside from one more chair at my father-in-law’s old Illinoisan dining table, little has changed for this clan. My husband still plays soccer into the eventide of Sunday and when the clack of a cleat on the iron gate is heard, his mother gets up from the same red rocking chair her mother-in-law sat in, tightens the string of her apron, and goes to put a flame under the tortellini. A wooden spoon dressed in tomato sauce goes in for the stir while pink squares of crispy prosciutto go to rest on paper towel. My sister-in-law is still charged with the first taste to test readiness. Basil from outside is brought in; homemade wine from the basement is brought up. Salut, they say. For the nosh, still with the ball of fresh mozzarella alone in the shiny wet of its milky brine, but not for long; to the right a knife, to the left some salt. A seeded twist. In wool slippers and weighty step, my father-in-law still carries an aged cutting board into the living room and down sets his palette – the arugula and red tomato, the soft avocado and toasted squash seeds, the raspberries — still with their green leaves — that will get mashed between farmed fingers just seconds before the drizzle of lemon and extra virgin. A mason jar of pecorino romano and a long, silver spoon is fetched and placed on the leaf of the table like a vase of flowers. The torts just need another twenty seconds. Everyone, come sit down. In years, a meal has not gone by without a round of applause.
Our food preferences are learned. When I think about why I like to eat what I like to eat, I think first on the memory of its preparation. The champagne sizzles of garlic against the chorus of “Uncle John’s Band”; the warm strand of linguine my mother blew on before she wrapped it like a scarf around my small neck. I try to consider the lingering sentiment of the little things that get said, overheard, even missed. There’s a quick story being told about nothing in particular while the garlic butter melts into the ciabatta, and that story will stay with me. Long pasta or short pasta, it is the small details – on the plate and in the room – that make up the key ingredients of a fondly remembered family recipe.
Linguine with Garlicky Broccoli, Raisins and Anchovies
- 1 lb. linguine
- 1 tin anchovies, rinsed and chopped
- 1 large head broccoli, trimmed to florets
- 4 cloves chopped garlic
- 2 large handfuls raisins
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus a little more at the very end to finish off the linguine
- 1 tbsp. butter
- Fresh pepper to taste
- Grated parmesan cheese
Over high heat, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the linguine and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 7-9 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water to keep from sticking. Meanwhile, bring another large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook and stir the florets until they turn a bright, beautiful green. Drain and set aside.
In a small pan, heat the pine nuts over low heat, giving the pan a shake every so often. Cook for 8-10 minutes, or until they begin to toast brown.
Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped garlic and anchovies, stirring well, watching it melt down. When the anchovies have dissolved into paste, drop in a tbsp. of butter and continue to mix. Add the raisins. If you like it on the sweeter side, go ahead and add more. In 3-5 minutes, once the raisins have plumped up, bring the linguine, broccoli, and pine nuts to the pan and coat all together with a little more olive oil.
Season with fresh pepper; a little grated parmesan cheese never hurts.