LONDON — “What’s for dinner?”
It’s a question we ask ourselves (or is asked of us) every day. The intonation varies. Some days, it’s energized anticipation: “What’s for dinner?! The world is our oyster: Where shall we go?”
Other days, it’s a bit less of an exclamation, and more a case of standing in front of the fridge and wondering, “What on earth is for dinner?” Chances are, it’s dried pasta. Add pesto and some grated Parmesan, and it’s a job done.
For all the ways we could go with every meal (and for all the cookbooks encouraging us to experiment), it’s very easy to get stuck in a kitchen rut. Everyone’s rut — or routine — looks different. For my part, there are nine or 10 meals in fairly constant rotation at home: New meals are tried, of course, but we as a family largely default to the dishes that can be made with half an eye on something else and that, crucially, get everyone happily and effectively fed.
There’s a tendency to be a bit down on ourselves for this approach to cooking and eating. My thinking, though, is the opposite. I’ve always been a huge believer in the paradoxical freedom that results from imposing structure. Rather than seeing it as a limitation, I think there’s a huge release in having this routine, this template — this “rut” — as a firm starting point.
And so it is with our time-honored classic: the tried-and-tested-and-much-loved pesto pasta. It is precisely because dried pasta is such a kitchen staple we can cook pretty much blindfolded that we should have the confidence to play around.
We know the pasta is going to be robust enough to handle, say, a can of white beans added to the pot. We know that white beans love thyme, so this hardy herb can follow in without anything going wrong. Have a can of anchovies or some cubes of pancetta you want to add? Go for it! As for cheese, so long as it is firm enough to grate, you can experiment with all sorts other than Parmesan without the whole thing falling apart.
So, too, with the pesto we’ve made so many times. The longer we’ve been in the so-called rut, the more confidence we should have to know that so many things can be used in place of the basil. Arugula leaves and parsley, as here, kale or watercress both work well. Almonds or other nuts work in place of the pine nuts. And so on.
Instead of seeing the dishes in your repertoire as limitations, see them as freedoms: They’re the ones you can improvise on without judgment, the ones you can play around with without having to try too hard. That, my friends, is what’s for dinner.
And to Drink …
The peppery, bitter flavor of the arugula, the richness of the beans and the saltiness of the halloumi call for an incisive white wine that can stand up to the assertive flavors and refresh. An assyrtiko from Santorini would be a great choice. So would a restrained sauvignon blanc, whether from the Loire Valley, South Africa, New Zealand or anywhere else. Italy is full of good options — Gavi from the Piedmont region and Etna Bianco are two. You could try a vermentino from Corsica, my favorite source for these wines, and where the grape is rendered vermentinu. A crisp albariño would be nice. Several producers on the West Coast are doing great things with picpoul, an obscure Rhône grape. It has great acidity and would go beautifully with this dish, if you can find one. ERIC ASIMOV