Writing from the Heart: Spaghetti zen

Even with the best intentions, we return to what we know and love.

One-pot spaghetti with your favorite fixings is like culinary zen. — Randi Baird

Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite food is, my answer has, over the decades, consistently been spaghetti. I don’t know when they started calling it pasta, but a rose by any other name …

I never order it at a restaurant because, well, you know how it is, no one can ever match or improve on your own unique recipe. And in my case, probably no one would want to. OK, OK, I’ll give it to you since I know you won’t steal it — or even be tempted to make it.

So here goes; after I pour the al dente noodles into the colander, I stir-fry them in melted browned butter, then I add either homemade sauce or Rao’s (not a lot) and I grate massive amounts of Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. I add red hot pepper flakes and keep stirring. Now comes the secret ingredient that I’m reluctant to and yet will generously share: I add maple syrup … to taste. I see your grimace, but if I hadn’t told you, you would never have known. Instead you would say, Wow, this has a nice sweet flavor. What is it? And I would tell, but I’d wait till you had taken your last bite.

When my kids were little, I went on a health food rampage. We had millet and brown rice and tofu, and I grew my own sprouts on the window sill, and I ground my own almond butter, and I made my own seven-grain bread. I was nuts. But my children would have immune systems that could withstand the germ factory they would daily be entering. Or so I naively thought.

One day I had an errand at the school where my litte fifth grader, Josh, was having lunch. I poked my head in and pulled one of those tiny seats up to his table. The four kids were just unwrapping their lunches. One kid pushed his Nabisco Chips Ahoy cookie bag across the table to another kid, saying “I’ll trade ya. I love Hostess chocolate cream-filled cupcakes.” Another boy was complaining because he liked Pringles, and his mother had packed the wrong kind of potato chip. “Ugg,” he said, “I’m not eating these.” “I’ll take ’em,” the third boy said, ”You can have my Cheez-Its.”

I was horrified. Which kid was I nourishing? Which kid was the beneficiary of my labors of love? Which kid would never get sick because I was fortifying his little body with the best organic everything money could buy?

I said (and they must have heard the fear in my voice): “Do you kids always trade your lunches?”

And the only girl at the table looked at me with such grownup sympathy, and said, “Oh, don’t worry, Mrs. Aronie. No one ever wants Josh’s lunch.”

Josh is 50 now, and I don’t think I’ve bought millet for 40 years. I like to think I’ve come into some kind of balance from my old radical health food approach, and welcoming in a few fried clams and a bit of marshmallow Fluff.

But I think that balance thing has tipped into the wrong column.

Two weeks ago I got a bunch of zucchini and yellow squash that I planned to steam for dinner. And then three days ago I made a golden beet salad with red onions and fennel, and white balsamic and apple cider vinegars. And yesterday I bought a container of shiitake mushrooms that I was going to put in miso soup.

But here’s the thing. The zucchini is getting old, and I gave away the beets, and every time I think of having the miso soup, when I put the water in the saucepan I somehow end up pouring pasta into the boiling water. And like a zombie on autopilot, I start sautḗeing the butter and reach for the tomato sauce and the hot peppers, and, yes, the secret ingredient, and before I know it, I’m in some kind of culinary zen heaven before I realize I’m eating … spaghetti … again.