Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Litererapy Presents: Spinach and Chickpeas

When I close my eyes and try to imagine myself in one single image, it is this: seated, glasses on, book open, world ignored.

In fact, if you could watch my life in time lapse, there I would be -- from early childhood to present day, the clothes and book and backdrop changing, but little else. More than anything, I define myself as A Reader. To call it a pastime is to call breathing a hobby; books are as much a part of me as my own skin, my own thoughts.

In grade school, I remember being completely grateful for the chicken pox, which gifted me with two weeks of undisturbed reading. Who can notice an itch when The Secret Garden is open in front of you, with all its tricky apostrophes and exotic cockney? By junior high I could walk and read at the same time, shuffling blindly into the kitchen, making a cheese sandwich with one hand while holding Charlotte Bronte open in the other, never missing a word, my heart and soul on those dreary moors while my body was in wretchedly pleasant San Diego. In high school, it was my escape -- from parents, from decisions, from boys who weren't noticing me. I sought out dark tour guides to lead me to their secret hiding places: Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore and my beloved Alice Munro.

All my life, I've stayed up full nights to finish a book, never understanding how some people read to fall asleep. I've sat straight up in bed until dawn, my body still and silent, an entire life spinning ferociously inside my head. I've sobbed and wept grievously, guffawed and snorted out loud like a hyena, my voice sounding misplaced within the quiet room (but drowned out by the world within the pages). When the book is good, and the pages are open, there is no time or place, and the only thing that exists is the life that I am reading.

And all of this can unfortunately wreak havoc on your real, present life.

Halfway through college, I realized that if were to die at that moment, my tombstone would have said: Sara read.

Which is lovely, I suppose. But I'd prefer: Sara lived.

So, I weened myself from my pages, and have maintained a much more respectable rapport with my books. I read often, but only in between living. Books, which were once my main course, are now a condiment. A delicious, deeply-satisfying, finger-licking dipping sauce for my life.

And yet still, the right book can come along and grasp me in its glorious clutches. And when that happens, hypothetical tombstone be damned, I'm not putting it down until I'm done. And when this happens, I will find myself being pulled by my ignored hunger into the kitchen, nose lodged in my book, reaching blindly into the pantry or fridge for whatever can be made without interfering with what's happening inside my pages. And this last week, I hit pay dirt.

Rightly, the idea comes from a fellow reader, Shauna of Gluten-Free Girl. It's the simplest, most effortless, truly satisfying meal -- sauteed spinach and chickpeas with an egg on top -- and it comes together in minutes. It's so good, I actually put down my book for a moment to moan in appreciation.

The egg is optional, but I highly recommend it, be it poached or fried, but make sure the yolk is a little runny. The rich yellow oozes out and forms a gravy for the spinach and chickpeas. I also recommend a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. But even without these additions, the spinach and chickpeas alone is ALARMINGLY delicious. I ate it three times in a week. And twice, I wasn't even reading.

Some people escape through knitting, or crossword puzzles, or The Bachelor. I read. But now, that doesn't mean sacrificing a chance for a good meal. (No offense to cheese sandwiches.)

(In case you're wondering, the books that still have a hold on my heart, no matter where I am in my real life: Jane Eyre, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and every story written by Alice Munro, who can do in ten pages what few can do in three hundred. I'd love to know what your favorites are, if you feel like sharing.)

Sauteed Spinach and Chickpeas
Adapted from Shauna Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl

1 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 can chickpeas, drained well
1 bag (or about 6 ounces) fresh spinach
Fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper
1 egg, poached or fried, yolk still runny (optional)
Parmesan cheese to taste (optional)

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Slice garlic and add to oil, saute about 30 seconds, or until you can smell the aroma from the garlic coming off the heat. Add the spinach and stir until leaved are about half way to wilted. Then add well-drained chickpeas, and cook until chickpeas are warmed through and spinach is wilted. Add salt and pepper, and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

(I highly, highly recommend a poached egg and Parmesan cheese, but I suppose this optional step depends on how close you are to finishing that crossword puzzle, the scarf, the Bachelor finale, or whatever book you're reading.)


  1. People often ask me (and it's a reasonable question, given that I have a full time job and a toddler and a husband and, oh, a food blog too), "How do you find the time to read?" And my answer is "How do I not?" This year my count is woefully low (I blame the Omnivore's Dilemma -- a book club selection that took what felt like years to slog through) but every night, I manage.

    Books I have loved: Anything and everything by Robertson Davies, but especially the Lyre of Orpheus, anything and everything by Laurie Colwin, but especially Happy All the Time, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, and more recently, Julia Child's marvelous autobiography.

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  3. I must admit that I am one who falls asleep while reading. I have occasionally found a book that so keeps my attention and can't bear to put it done. But this usually coincides with a beach vacation and that is only once a year.

    Thanks for my dinner recipe for tonight.

  4. My Greek Grandmother made this without the egg or parmesan, but with the addition of a Depression Era's amount of meat ....guess it was beef..... and lemon, always lemon.

  5. This looks absolutely delicious (and similar to the stunningly simple and amazing kale with a fried egg from Orangette).

    Also, I've read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn double-digit times and can recite entire passages from memory. Still. That's a book with some great cooking food descriptions too, by the way...

  6. *sigh* i love books, too. where did you live in san diego? i graduated from torrey pines hs.

  7. Lovely post. I have always thought of myself as a reader. Now that I have two young kids, I can't fall as easily into fiction as I used to. I read the New Yorker to keep my mind working but haven't read a book I've loved in a long time. My mom recommended A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to me at a time when we weren't getting along and I've always been grateful to her for that.

  8. I just found your site through Twitter - or rather, through a recommendation by that Twitter suggestion tool, Mr. Tweet? - and I'm so glad! I can tell I'll feel right at home here.

    BTW since you asked so nicely, the literature that grabs my attention is still anything (anything!) by Jhumpa Lahiri, but I'd have to agree also about Alice Munro. I've only read her in the Best American books, but her stories stood out for being to do just what you said.

    Loved your line about wanting the tombstone to say you lived. I will be thinking about that for a while.

  9. I laughed and nodded my way through this one. Oh yes, oh yes.

    I recently read Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott, and realized--as she talked about her chemical addictions--that when I was a kid I used books the same way: to drown out a life that had too many rough edges. Funny to think of it that way.

    When I was a kid the tombstone definitely would have said she read. I'm hoping I get to a point where it would say: She danced.

    The best book I've read recently was School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermister. Gorgeous, and especially if you like food. Also love The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong. Perhaps my all time favorite is West With the Night, by Beryl Markham.