I turned 28 on Monday. In the days before, there had been a buzz around our house: on multiple occasions, Raquelle would send me a text to announce her arrival, something like: About to come inside the house! Close your eyes so I can put away one of your gifts! Not wanting to spoil the surprise, I would shut my eyes and engage in a brief meditation on materialism, or the origin of joy. It should come as no surprise that, more than once, as I sat there with my legs crossed and my eyes closed, I heard not the opening and closing of the closet, but rather the refrigerator door. In our house, we don’t often give gifts that will stand the test of time, the ones that will decorate our wrists until we’re grey, or hang around in the bottom of our dressers until we’ve outgrown them. We give gifts that are not wrapped in bright colors or festooned with great big bows. Ours are wrapped in butcher paper, or held tightly under glass and cork. Ours grace the table, not the back of the closet.On Monday morning, I was woken early. Raquelle had to teach her classes in the city and she wanted to share breakfast with me. It felt a little like Christmas morning, walking down the stairs in my pajamas, my eyes heavy with sleep, the windows still covered with the darkness of the night. The table was filled with smoked salmon and capers, thinly sliced red onion and crème fraiche, and great big pieces of warm toast. After breakfast, Raquelle cleared the table and set down a few sheets of paper in front of me. She left without saying what it was, and at first my eyes struggled to see in the dim light of the kitchen.There on the page were letters written to me from my mother and father, my brother and sisters, my closest friends. It was a sort of out-of-body experience, all of these great souls with whom I connect to the world, speaking to me at once, wishing me well. I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon thinking of them.I sat at the Café Festival, had a coffee and watched the people, and the pigeons, and the trees. Not long after, my coffee had gone cold. I paid the bill and left. My birthday gifts too, neatly wrapped and stored in the fridge, would meet the same end: they’d be eaten, or spoiled, or trashed. This is a great lesson to me. Especially on a birthday, a chance I have to consider my entry into this body and this life. And, morbid as it may sound, a chance to consider my exit. A life is a very beautiful and fleeting thing. I don’t know how many more times I’ll put on my watch or admire the way my coat hugs my shoulders. But a table filled with good things doesn’t ask me to look forward. It allows me to be here, comfortably seated.That evening, after Raquelle had returned home from work, we sat down to a table filled with good things. There was homemade bread, a cheese plate with gruyere, morbier, brie, and croquet, sliced and cured ham, the most beautiful red and white radishes, seared foie gras served with a fig-rosé reduction, cold Crémant, an Absinthe cake, and a bottle of good Kentucky Bourbon. Even before we began to eat, I was already full.
Because there is no recipe for happiness, I’ll share with you something more practical, something that you can certainly create in your own kitchen. Of all the things we ate for my birthday dinner, there were two dishes in the running for the tastiest bite. One was the foie gras that was seared and served with a little rosé and fig jam that had been reduced down until it became sweet and syrupy. The other was what you see here: a richly spiced sort of stew that was made with fried chickpeas and garlic, blistered tomatoes, and fresh celery tops. It was spiced with fried cumin, oregano and smoked paprika. And just as so many of the most satisfying dishes are made, this one was thrown together without too much consideration. But it was so delicious, and warming, and perfect for a cold Fall night that I had to share it with you. Alternatively, you could throw this into a food processor at the last minute for a warm and spicy chickpea-tomato hummus to be slathered on charred bread with lots of olive oil and black pepper. Here’s the recipe:Smoky Chickpea-Tomato Stew with Celery Tops (serves 3-4)
1 lb cooked chickpeas
1 lb cherry tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp whole cumin, coarsely chopped
1 tsp fresh-ground black pepper
3 tsp smoked paprika(it’s crucial to use ‘smoked’ paprika in this case)
1 tsp dried oregano
1 cup sliced celery tops
To start, heat a large pan on medium heat. When the pan is hot, pour in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and then the cherry tomatoes. They should sizzle and pop and blister slightly. You can put a lid or a pop screen over them to prevent splattering. After about 5 minutes of cooking, lower the heat to medium and let the tomatoes cook for another 15 minutes. Keep an eye on them so that they don’t burn too much.
Meanwhile, heat another pan on medium-high heat. Add the coarsely chopped cumin and the black pepper to the dry pan and let it toast for a minute or so. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Once it’s good and hot, add the chickpeas to the pan. They will sizzle and they should crisp up slightly. Let them cook for about 10 minutes. In the last 5 minutes, add the minced garlic and the oregano and the smoked paprika.
After the tomatoes have cooked for about 20 minutes, add the chickpeas, the apple cider vinegar, and salt to taste. Let it simmer for another 5 or 10 minutes. You could also continue to let this stew. It will only improve with time.
At the moment when you’re ready to eat, chop the celery tops and scatter them over the stew.