On Monday, after months and months of work and a million sleepless nights, I finally passed in the first draft of Voracious to Little, Brown—all 240 pages of it. At first, I felt giddy, elated, free! A few hours later, though, I was completely lost. I had no idea what to do with my day. There was nothing looming over my head, no need to lock myself in my tiny office and put clean x’s next to my myriad checklists. I went out to drink a beer with my friends and, after months of solitary confinement, felt completely overwhelmed by the number of people around me—all that noise! Eye contact is weird! What do people talk about, anyway! I scurried back to my kitchen with comfort food on my mind.
There are a handful of foods that my mom made us when we were kids that I crave whenever I’m feeling sad or overwhelmed. One is a dish we called “mushgush”—a casserole made of potato coins, ground beef, sharp cheese, buttery Ritz crackers, and sweet onions. It looks as unappealing as its name sounds, but even the thought of it can steady my breathing. Another is a dish we called “Mrs. Peevey’s Chicken,” chicken breasts pounded thin, dredged in egg and flour and breadcrumbs, fried and simmered in butter and lemon juice and chicken stock and white wine and spooned over egg noodles. I don’t know who Mrs. Peevey is or why this is her chicken. That feels weird to admit.
(Update: The mystery has been solved by one Christina Rodriguez! Mrs. Peevey appears in Ruth Reichl’s first book, The Family Cook, where she teaches the kids how to make schnitzel. I like this chicken even more now)
A third is manicotti, which we ate a lot in my house, because it’s easy to make in huge batches and it freezes well. I’ve made it twice so far this week, because this week has been thrilling—worth celebrating and basking in, but hard and sad too, for a million reasons not at all book-related. Big changes, big goodbyes, these are the times we reached for the food we know.
The manicotti in The Goldfinch is significantly less comforting. It is eaten in an unfamiliar midtown Manhattan restaurant with Theo’s deadbeat father and his new girlfriend, Xandra. Theo washes it down with champagne despite the fact that he’s only thirteen—neither of his new guardians seem to care.
The food had arrived and I’d poured myself another large but surreptitious glass of champagne before they returned. “Yum!” said Xandra, looking glazed and a bit shiny, tugging her short skirt down, edging around and slithering back into her seat without bothering to pull her massive, bright-red plate of manicotti towards her. “Looks awesome!”
“So does mine,” said my dad, who was picky about his Italian food, and whom I’d often known to complain about overly tomatoey, marinara-drenched pasta dishes exactly like the plate in front of him. (198)
When we want to celebrate but we also want to wallow a little, champagne and manicotti seem like the perfect combination. Make this for your friends, drink all the champagne and try to remember how to make eye contact and carry on a normal conversation. Let’s think about all there is to celebrate, how sometimes big losses are only big changes and big changes can be blessings if we allow ourselves to look at them that way.
5 Tablespoons butter
1 28 oz can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 yellow onion, sliced in half and peeled
2 sprigs fresh basil
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
salt and pepper to taste
10 manicotti shells
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small shallot, diced very fine
5 oz fresh baby spinach
1 ½ cups full fat ricotta
1 ½ cups shredded parmesan, divided
1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella, divided
salt and fresh black pepper to taste
Melt butter in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir together until combined. Simmer over low heat until onions are soft and falling apart—about 25-30 minutes. Discard onions and set sauce aside.
Boil your manicotti to al dente in salted water for the time specified on the package instructions. While they are boiling, prepare your filling and preheat your oven to 350F.
In a small saucepan, melt butter. Add shallots and cook until translucent and soft—3-5 minutes. Add spinach and stir until wilted. Set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 ½ cups ricotta, 1 cup parmesan and 1 cup mozzarella. Chop your cooled spinach and mix it into the cheese mixture. Taste this mixture and add salt and pepper to taste. Whisk in your eggs and stir until fully combined and transfer the mixture to a large piping bag.
Strain manicotti and allow it to cool.
Spread a little more than half of the tomato sauce into the bottom of a 10×13” casserole dish. Using the piping bag, stuff all of the manicotti shells with filling and place on top of the tomato sauce in the baking dish. Cover with the remaining tomato sauce and top with ½ cup mozzarella and ½ cup parmesan and bake for 30 minutes.