Let’s face it: cooking is work. It means picking ingredients, figuring out how to put them together in ways that taste good, keeping everything as warm or cool as it needs to be, and then washing up the mess you’ve just made. If you’re a working stiff, and you’re coming home exhausted, that’s sometimes the last thing you want to do.
When I went to my parents’ house on a recent Monday to do laundry (shut up, I’m totally a grown-up), my mom was in just such a state. She’s a self-employed consultant, working insane hours, and on that particular day she was having technology issues that had her nearly yanking her hair straight from her scalp. She was even more exhausted than I was after a full workday. But, of course, in long-ingrained Mom mode, she dragged herself to the kitchen to look for dinner ingredients. So I stepped in.
“Mom, I’ll make dinner. Don’t worry about it.”
When you’re throwing together a weekday meal, fancy is not the order of the day. The ingredients in your larder have to serve as your roadmap. “There are some greens in the fridge,” my mom said. “Do whatever you like with them.” Sure enough, there was a beautiful bunch of red chard, fresh from the farmer’s market the previous day. But what to do with it?
I immediately thought of a recipe I’d seen in the New York Times health section earlier that week, for baked beans with kale. It was a slow-cooking dish, with a laundry list of ingredients, and I wanted something fast and simple. But it was an idea I could riff on. I dove into the pantry and found a can of white beans and another of tomato sauce. Project Dinner For Mom was a go.
When you want something simple and tasty on short notice, it’s especially useful to have an arsenal of cooking techniques to rely on. I knew the greens would cook faster and more evenly if I blanched them first, by plunging them into boiling water, then draining them and giving them a cold rinse. I also had whole fennel seeds on hand, and knew that toasting them would add flavor, but that would take time and attention. Instead, I ground them straight from the jar and then warmed them lightly in the same olive oil I was sauteing some garlic in, releasing their essence straight into the foundations of the dish.
Cooking this way, quickly and by the seat of your pants, also means you have to taste as you go, or you’ll miss the mark entirely. The canned tomato sauce was entirely too tart, and threatened to overwhelm the butter-soft greens. I spotted a jar of molasses in the cabinet, remembered that it’s often a key ingredient in baked beans, and drizzled some in. It was perfect, taking the edge off the tomato sauce and adding a mysterious depth.
Once the beans and chard stewed together in the tomato sauce, we dumped the resulting mishmash onto a plate and ate it with fried eggs. I’ll admit, it wasn’t the most knockout meal I’ve ever made. But it was warm and comforting, and entirely serviceable for a tired, chilly weeknight dinner. Plus, it didn’t feel remotely like a chore.
Greens and Beans (serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side)
6-8 large chard leaves
1 tbsp olive oil
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp ground fennel seed
1/2 tsp ground coriander
Red chili flake (as much as you like)
1 16 oz. can cannellini beans, drained and thoroughly rinsed
1 cup tomato sauce (storebought or homemade)
1 tsp molasses
Cut the chard leaves away from the thick stems and discard the stems. Cut leaves crosswise into strips about 2 inches wide. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and drop in chard leaves. Let the leaves sit in the boiling water for about 3 minutes, until they’re just soft, then drain them.
In a saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add garlic, fennel, coriander and chili flake and stir, just until the garlic turns golden and the spices are fragrant. Add chard, beans, tomato sauce, and molasses, and stir until everything is well combined. Heat until the tomato sauce bubbles, then turn heat down to low and simmer 10-15 minutes, or until everything coalesces and gets thick and stewy. Serve warm.