My father died last December. In his final months, he wasn’t the dad I’d known — always terrifically absorbed in anything that came up in conversation. No matter who he was talking to, he would find something genuinely engrossing, an opportunity to learn a fact or communicate one. He also lost his appetite, which was equally shocking, because food remained a spring of little joys for him, even when everything else seemed pointless, painful and confusing.
A couple of weeks before he died, I cooked him Jerusalem artichoke soup. I say that I cooked, but, once he found out, through the mist of bewilderment that enfolded him, that someone was about to prepare one of his favorite dishes, he began telling my niece, who was sitting next to him, how to make it. “Saute half an onion in olive oil,” he said in his barely heard voice. “Then add two small potatoes, and two artichokes and cook them, but not too much, with a little water and chicken bouillon. Add raw garlic, and process with a stick blender. You can add some parsley.” That’s all.
I was listening closely and followed his instructions to the letter.
My niece walked him to the kitchen to check if I had done a good job. My dad looked inside the pan and seemed uncertain. He sat down, had a couple of spoonfuls, and then, in an uninhibited way reserved for the very old (or the very young), passed his verdict. I hadn’t gotten it right.
Remarkably, his judgment didn’t get to me. By then, we had reversed roles: I was the father, and he was the son. He could say whatever he wanted with the brutal honesty of a child. I really didn’t mind. My father had given me, over five decades, a love of good food, curiosity for cooking and respect for anything perfectly done. Nothing he said could take that away. I also suspected that his disappointment wasn’t with the actual soup, but the loss of joy from eating. (Years earlier, he’d stopped tasting the aroma of olive oil, which agonized him.) The satisfaction he got out of teaching was not, frustratingly, matched by the eating.
Not long after my father’s death, I went into lockdown with my husband and our two young boys, but I was far from over grieving. The loss was still alive, replaced only by more urgent needs. Lockdown also coincided with the first time my kids showed a real interest in cooking. Let’s make crispy pasta, they would say, referring to pasta al forno, the cheesy-crunchy-swirly gratin my dad used to prepare with leftover spaghetti.
Recreating this textural bliss, even when with no leftovers around, was the impetus behind my one-pan crispy spaghetti and chicken. It has a crunchy layer on top, helped by Parmesan crumbs, and another one at the bottom, where the pasta touches the hot pan and fries a little.
I loved it that my boys were keen to learn to cook. Like my father, I got gratification from cooking food that could only be surpassed by talking about it. The lessons, though, were normally not terribly successful. My boys’ attention span did not come anywhere near the time it actually takes to cook a dish.
It didn’t matter. Whatever “they” cooked gave my boys great pleasure, the kind of joy my dad was so irritated at losing. Seeing them hunched over the pan, fighting over the crispy bits and then devouring them with urgency, gave me all the comfort I needed. The teaching could wait.
ONE-PAN CRISPY SPAGHETTI AND CHICKEN
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2-1/2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (4 to 6 thighs), deboned
- 1-1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 3/4 teaspoon pepper, divided
- 1 large yellow onion (about 8 ounces), diced into 1/2-inch pieces
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
- 2 cups boiling water
- 8 ounces spaghetti, broken into thirds
- >> Topping:
- 1/3 lightly packed cup finely grated Parmesan (about 3/4 ounce)
- 3 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
- 1-1/2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to large, ovenproof skillet that has a lid; heat over high.
Season chicken with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, then add to hot oil, skin-side down. Cook 7 minutes, without turning, to brown well.
Reduce heat to medium-high, then stir in onion and turn chicken. Cook 5 minutes, until the onion has softened and is lightly browned.
Add tomato paste, garlic and thyme. Cook, stirring paste into onions, 2 minutes, until fragrant and everything is nicely browned.
Add boiling water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, then add spaghetti, stirring to submerge and evenly distribute.
Use tongs to lift chicken pieces so they sit on top of the spaghetti, skin-side up. Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid and transfer to oven for 30 minutes, until liquid is absorbed.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together topping ingredients.
Remove pasta from oven; set oven temperature to a high broil. Sprinkle topping mixture over pasta and chicken; drizzle with remaining oil and return to center rack to broil for 3 to 4 minutes, until nicely browned and crisp. Let settle about 5 minutes before serving warm, directly from the pan. Serves 4.
Nutritional information unavailable.