There is a quiet ingenuity to making a meal on a weeknight, which can easily go unnoticed to those who surface just as the pasta is placed on the table. Even when one likes to cook, dinner on a Tuesday is more about survival than the faraway pleasures of a leisurely Sunday cassoulet.
There is also a lot of labor involved, it just isn’t usually apparent. It starts with a working knowledge of the pantry status quo. This information gets filtered through preferences of the eaters and includes, perhaps, a quick viability scan for lunch leftovers. Nutritional merit can award or subtract stars depending on who is at the table.
The menu may become altered after factoring in the affairs of one’s bank account or the time available to procure necessary ingredients and execute before the eaters get restless and the cook starts to fantasize about drinking a cold glass of gin. All of this eventually, miraculously, gets extracted into a singular meal that slips into the parameters of the evening, all the while treating the brain like it is a card catalogue for 30-minute meals. Unless one is awarded the luxury of being able to stay at home, this mental jujitsu is done at work. And it has to be done every day.
This does not even address the skills required to actually cook something edible. It is not a glamorous job, nor it is one for weaklings.
I mention all of this as a testament to how underappreciated this labor—traditionally defined as women’s work—tends to be. I do not mean to suggest that men do not partake. There are certainly heteronormative households wherein the man is in charge of most of the cooking. But given that it is my job, more or less, to conduct daily ethnographies on household cooking responsibilities I find more often than not, women are still responsible for the majority of meals. I think this contributes to the lack of prestige.
It can be a thankless job for even passionate cooks. These are not meals that most sane individuals would describe as fun to commandeer, when it is one out of one million responsibilities for the day.
Despite all the calculating, the weeknight cook can still feel bad about the results. The broccoli was too firm, or not firm enough, or too salty, or not appropriately seasoned. Yet, when responsibility defaults to the deputy cook, these meals may get subcontracted to outside businesses or factory processing—and tend to include little to no broccoli.
Broccoli is more work.
Which is where this recipe comes in. It does not feature broccoli or, worse, a side salad—which to me is like attempting to debone a chicken on a Tuesday night. Too much effort for too little reward when work looms in the morning. But it does include kale, which only takes a minute or two to clean the leaves and cut out their sturdy middle ribs.
The protein content is fairly low and if that is irksome add some chickpeas or pair the sauce with one of those legume-based pastas, which I tried one night (featured in the photo). The result was edible, but eating pasta made from beans and pea protein made me feel a little out of place, like I was wearing a fedora in the kitchen. I will stick to gluten moving forward.
Anyway, this is really a sneaky salad recipe for those who are not above vegetable bribery. In exchange for the pleasure of eating pasta, one is also awarded a scant half pound of kale. It can easily be made on a weeknight, which is also a joy for fellow cooks who bristle at the thought of having to squat and fish out the salad spinner from a bottom cabinet.
It ensures vegetables make an appearance at dinner and does not award extra dirty dishes in the process. The recipe produces a creamy, slightly vegetal sauce that is a brilliant shade of moss green. I am happy to report that it is unique enough from regular pesto to be its own enjoyable thing.
I don’t have an answer to how we, as a society, can elevate the importance of weeknight cooking, but I do have a response for dinner. And it ends with eating kale in quick and quiet pleasure.
Kale Pesto Pasta
Adapted from The New York Times Magazine courtesy of Tejal Rao and Joshua McFadden
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, slightly smashed and then peeled
- 1 to 2 bunches of lacinato kale (about 12 ounces)
- ½ pound uncooked pasta
- ⅛ teaspoon chili flakes (I use a smoked variety, see notes)
- freshly ground black pepper plus salt, to taste
- ¾ cup Pecorino Romano, plus more for garnish (to taste)
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat.
In a small skillet over medium-low heat, add the olive oil and garlic cloves. Cook until the garlic starts to smell fragrant and turn light golden, about 3 or 4 minutes. (You will need to watch carefully to ensure the garlic does not burn.) Remove from heat and set aside. (If the garlic continues to cook and threatens to get dark brown and burn, remove it from the oil to stop its cooking.)
Wash the kale leaves and run a knife down both sides of the thick stem on each leaf to remove the rib; discard all ribs.
When the water is boiling, add the kale leaves and cook until they turn dark green and are just tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Using tongs, pull the kale leaves out of the pot and into a blender. They will be dripping with water and that is okay—the small amount of hot water will help create the sauce. Add the pasta to the still boiling water.
Add the garlic and oil to the blender with the kale. Add the chili flakes plus a few cranks of black pepper and a couple generous pinches of salt. Blend until the mixture is thick and fully pureed. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt and pepper as needed, and then blend again. (If the mixture is too thick and won’t fully puree, add a little hot water from the pot. Take care not to add too much, I found it can mute the flavor.)
When the pasta is fully cooked, scoop it out of the pot using a slotted spoon and into a serving bowl. (I found this method carried enough water to help meld the sauce and the pasta, so it didn’t require reserving more pasta water to add. Alternatively, you could reserve a little water before draining the pasta into a colander.)
Toss the pasta with the sauce (adding the reserved pasta water, if necessary). Add the Pecorino. Top with extra cheese, if desired.
Makes enough for two or three people as a main course
- The original recipe calls for one pound of kale, but I found that my grocery store reduced the size of their bunches and buying two bunches of kale for one dinner, which was twelve ounces all said and done, felt like enough
- You will need to taste and season at least a few times. The recipe will be bland until you add enough salt.
- I usually reserve about ¼ cup of extra sauce that the pasta doesn’t need and use it as a spread for sandwiches—it could easily be blended with mayo too.
- I love these smoked chili flakes from Daphnis and Chloe, they add an almost meaty quality to otherwise vegetarian dishes.