We sat around the table together, filling our plates with piles of angel hair pasta topped with homemade sauce. A basket of garlic bread made its way around the table, and we dished out salads with romaine, tomatoes, bell peppers, and carrots.
It was the beginning of my senior year of high school, and several friends and I decided it’d be fun to hang out on Monday nights to eat dinner and watch football. A few of us actually planned to watch the game, but mostly, we wanted to hang out. (Despite the early onset of senioritis, we did promise our parents we’d finish homework during commercial breaks.) I thought it was the perfect idea: dinner with my friends, study help afterwards, and a little football.
With my five older siblings out of the house by that point, my friends filled the empty chairs as if they’d sat there for the last 17 years. And we ate. Just my mom, dad, me, and a ragtag group of high school kids.
The family routine didn’t change much. Most people at that table weren’t actually family members, but especially on those evenings, they felt like family. We gathered around the table, prayed over the meal, ate, talked, laughed, and then finished the night off by spreading our homework out in front of the television. We interrupted the commentators’ play calling with questions about calculus (I had many and should never have taken that class), and halftime meant we scrambled to read a few pages for English class. Eventually everyone packed up and headed home, stomachs filled with good food and minds energized by friendship and conversation.
Those Monday nights are a tradition I’ll never forget. It seemed effortless at the time, and for me, it probably was. I wasn’t the one cooking. Sure, I helped set the table, and we cleared our dishes, but I didn’t pay for groceries or clean up spills only my parents noticed. It never occurred to me that they likely stayed up later than they would have chosen in order to make those nights happen, or that over the course of the football season, something in our home probably got broken or stained.
Now as a parent, I understand how tiring those meals must have been, how easy it would have been for my mom to say no to cooking for ten other people on an ordinary Monday night. I’m sure there were messes and spills and picky eaters and excess noise I never realized at the time. Although my kids are still young, I get it in a way I couldn’t have back then. I can imagine the work and the cost of feeding hungry teenagers. I can imagine how much we ate and estimate what that would have added to the grocery bill, how many more dishes that created, how much more tired my parents would have been every Tuesday morning.
I can’t remember if I did, but I hope I voiced at the time how grateful I was. I hope I sensed when I was 17 how meaningful those Monday nights were. But most of all, I hope my kids get to experience what it looks like to sit down over plates of pasta and baskets of garlic bread and share a meal with their friends. I hope the dirty dishes and the extra groceries mean there are bodies and souls being nourished at our table, and there’s a safe space for friends to gather as family.
Weeknight Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes + Spinach
Yields 6 servings
1 pound penne pasta
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 pints cherry tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, minced
5-8 ounces fresh spinach (or several large handfuls)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan cheese, shredded or shaved (optional)
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta water. Set the pastas water aside, and return the pasta to the pot.
While the pasta cooks, in a cast-iron or other large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the cherry tomatoes, letting them cook in a single layer in the pan. Be very careful because the tomatoes will splatter a little when they pop. Cook without stirring (resist the urge!) for about 5-7 minutes. You want one side of the tomatoes to be almost seared.
Stir the tomatoes up and add the garlic. Season with a 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Cook for another 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and the tomato juice starts to thicken.
Turn off the heat and pour the tomatoes and all the juices into the pot with the drained pasta. Add the spinach and 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water. Stir well until the spinach wilts. It may help to cover the pot for a minute to help the spinach wilt.
Season with salt and pepper to taste. I generally add at least another 1/2 teaspoon of salt. If the pasta seems too dry, add a little more reserved pasta water, about a tablespoon at a time, until it reaches the right consistency.
Top with Parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes. Serve and enjoy!