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No matter how much (or how little) you love cooking—we all need more effortless, make-by-heart dinners.
Part of this unquenchable need for quick dinners is, of course, that we’re all busy, and we all need to eat. But it’s also because we see words like “quick & easy” and “weeknight ___” applied in too-broad strokes. I have a hard time filtering out the noise from the true weeknight companions, and I imagine you do, too.
So I have a proposition: I’ll tell you my regulars, if you’ll tell me yours in the comments. These are the dinners that make me feel like a magician instead of a tired dog, and no matter how hard I try, never take more than a half hour to wing together, or dirty more than a few dishes:
- Softened onion or garlic + dried chili of some sort + can of diced tomatoes + can of black beans = spicy black bean soup.
- Merrill’s steak with arugula + little boiled potatoes, flattened and crisped in the same pan while the steak rests.
- Eggs + nearly anything else: that spicy bean soup, rice, lentils, seared radishes and greens.
- NEW: Superstar food stylist Victoria Granof's Pasta con Ceci
While pasta with chickpeas, a Southern Italian staple, is always meant to be simple comfort food, I had never found one quite as simple (or as comforting) as Granof's. I make it a lot now, and I bet you will, too. “It's turned into the Monday dinner,” she told me. “Because that's my son's heaviest homework day and it's kind of a tonic to his (and my) shattered nerves—after the homework ordeal.”
These days, I make sure I always have canned chickpeas, tiny pasta shapes, garlic, tomato paste, and olive oil on hand—because that’s truly all that this takes. No stock, even. It’s astonishing how much comfort you can derive—and how fast—out of ingredients you’ve used a thousand times.
Here are the secrets to its success: First, you'll start with a generous but not crazy amount of olive oil, and you need to use it all—it gives the soup substance and body, carries the other flavors, and makes up for the fact that you’re making soup with water instead of a rich stock. As Granof says in the recipe's headnote, “It’s what’ll make you think you’re on a balcony in Naples when you eat this.”
Second, you’ll cook smashed garlic in the oil until it’s actually browned a bit, not simply softened. This makes the flavor toasty and nutty, and not bitter, despite what nonna might say.
And third, you'll fry a good amount of tomato paste in the garlicky olive oil to caramelize its soft mass into frizzled, well-dispersed umami. In culinary school, this is called pincé-ing the paste, used to make brown sauces and stocks—but let it be known that fried tomato paste is a flavoring agent we need to put to work more often.*
All that’s left is to dump in the chickpeas, pasta, and boiling water to soak up the flavorful base, till the pasta is cooked and it’s as soupy or stewy as you like. Few dinners could be faster or more soul-soothing—if you have one, let’s hear it.
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 3 tablespoons good tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
- 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (or one 15-ounce can, drained and rinsed)
- 1/2 cup uncooked ditalini pasta (or another small shape, like macaroni)
- 2 cups boiling water
- Crushed red pepper flakes, for serving
*Another example of fried tomato paste at work, from Granof: "The inspiration for this originally came from my Sicilian "Auntie" Connie, who makes the most amazing sauce by frying a bunch of sliced garlic in a load of olive oil till brown and then a big plop of tomato paste that gets fried in the garlicky oil with salt, then she dribbles in water, ("quanto basta") until it reaches the right consistency."
Photos by Mark Weinberg
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps a genius dessert? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thank you to Adam Janofsky, Sarah Jampel, and Dinner: A Love Story for this one!