My first solo apartment occupied the front right-hand corner of a stately purple house on the downtown edge of Grand Rapids’ historic Heritage Hill. I lived there when I started this blog, and I’ve surely mentioned it before. It was a special little place, after all.
I moved in at the very beginning of 2010, just half a year or so after I’d graduated from college, the act a concrete commitment to stay in my home state of Michigan for at least a little while longer. Lucky for my fragile post-college, deep-in-the-first-job, single lady, recession-weary soul, this was the sort of home that greeted you warmly. It had a very nice stoop, for one. Through the first set of doors, there was a tiny, square screened-in porch, a rather dreary place that was mainly reserved for my recycling bin. Continuing on through the next door, there was an even tinier room, a foyer of sorts with two weathered wooden doors to the front and the right and a heavy metal coat rack on the bright red wall to the left. Through the door to the right was a sizable front room; the door straight ahead led to the bedroom. The two big rooms were separated by a pocket door that I always kept partway open. Paired with the soaring ceilings, I might as well have lived in a mansion for how expansive it seemed.
A narrow hallway ran through the middle of the apartment, along the length of the bedroom, leading first to a compact kitchen painted a lively, rusty shade of orange and then to a bathroom with a built-in tub, walls seafoam green. There were closets in surprising places, wood floors all the way through and antique doorknobs that my mother said reminded her of the ones in her grandparents’ home. On the long wall of the bedroom was a big bay window, and I tucked my bed right alongside it, investing in thick curtains to keep out the Michigan chill.
The kitchen was already outfitted with a sweet little hutch where I stocked my cookbooks and colorful glass bowls from Spain. I filled the dark brown cupboards myself, the first time I’d ever had such a pleasure, with spices and flours and sugars and cans of tomatoes and beans. I didn’t know yet how hot that little kitchen could get with the oven cranked on in the height of summer, but with that as its greatest flaw, there was never all that much to complain about.
When one of my landlords asked me to be sure to regularly take out the trash because they did not have mice in this house (which turned out to be not entirely true) and told me they had all of the paint colors to touch up the walls once I’d decorated and explained that I could call if it got too cold and they would come adjust the heat, I wanted to throw my arms around him and embrace him and burst into tears of pure joy. I didn’t. But let me tell you, I was very close.
I christened my kitchen with a birthday potluck. I gave very few specifics when asking people to bring something to share, which resulted in a meal consisting of my big pot of chili, a batch of Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace Cookies and guests’ contributions of eight bottles of red wine, five types of bread, two batches of hummus and one package of Oreos. As one guest aptly put it, it looked like a glorified communion.
I still remember how proud I felt, talking to my friend Abby as we stood in the kitchen, wine glasses in hand, while I pulled another pan of freshly baked cookies from the oven. I was an adult. I was living my life—working, paying my rent, cooking for my friends. And it was actually pretty great.
I reveled in the occasional festive gathering, and the more mellow dinners when we’d tuck a whole group around my four-by-four-foot table, covering the entirety of its surface with food. But this apartment was also where I learned how to properly dine alone. My table sat squarely in front of the one narrow window in the apartment’s front room, a perch to eat my solo meals while watching the goings on of my quiet street or reading a book with the light streaming in. I cooked what I craved and ate just what I wanted for dinner: whatever vegetables were in season, plenty of leafy greens, garbanzo beans, lentils, warming soups, grainy toast and hearty crackers. I’d buy oozing stinky cheeses when the craving struck, to be enjoyed by me alone. I’d buy big red wines, my preference at the time, drinking them over several days, and I stocked my freezer with little tubs of Jeni’s ice cream that would last me for weeks. I always had some good jam on hand to stir into yogurt or top my afternoon toast. On the weekends, I left the coffee pot on to enjoy steaming mugs all the day long, behavior now prohibited by my husband, who is actually right on that count. I would make everyday cakes and simple quick breads that I’d slice right away, wrapping the pieces individually and tucking them into my freezer to have on hand for dreary days at work. I figured out what I loved, and who I was when left alone.
And I made this dish, over and over again, leaning over the stove in my little orange kitchen late at night, often after a long run in the falling darkness, streaming the NPR Talk of the Nation program from the day. It filled my apartment with the scent of ginger and garlic and my bones with the indisputable sense that I was, by some fantastic grace, home.
Warm Chickpea Salad with Arugula
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
This book was one of my first cooking bibles, along with a now-weathered Moosewood cookbook and Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite. I don’t pick it up all that often anymore, as I’ve learned many of these basics well enough that I don’t need a recipe—which is, of course, the point! I don’t remember why I chose to try this recipe in the first place, but I know why I returned to it again and again. First of all, it includes chickpeas and arugula, two of my favorite ingredients. I also love that it’s healthful but delicious and (somewhat) filling. Most importantly, however, it is full of flavor. This is my preference for most things, and something I was just realizing while living in that Grand Rapids apartment and cooking for myself more than I ever had before.
I mentioned this dish on my blog a little while back, and a few of you asked for the recipe, so here it is, with just a few tweaks to Bittman’s original edition. I wish I could say I’ve been making this ever since I discovered it, but the truth is that it fell out of rotation some time ago. However, I couldn’t get it out of my head after it came to mind, and I’ve now revived it. I’m happy to say it’s as good as I remember, and my more recently acquired love for soft-boiled eggs means that I’m reveling in this optional addition, too. I hope it fills your belly and brings you as much comfort as it does me.
Also note that spinach can be substituted for the arugula with similarly delicious results. Next time I make this, I plan to quick-pickle the red onion to eliminate the harsh bite it can have when raw. Thickly sliced toast or hearty crackers would be a welcome addition if you’d like to make this into a meal.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
Freshly ground black pepper
1 can drained and rinsed chickpeas (or a generous 1 1/2 cup freshly cooked)
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
About 4 cups arugula
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
4 soft-boiled eggs, halved
Warm the olive oil in a deep skillet or cast iron pan over medium heat. Once hot, add the garlic, ginger and cumin seeds and cook, stirring, until the mixture is fragrant and the ginger and garlic are soft, about 1-2 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then stir in the chickpeas. Cook until the chickpeas are hot and coated in the oil and seasonings, about 3 minutes more.
Remove the pan from the heat. With a fork, stir in the vinegar, honey and 1 tablespoon water. Mash a few chickpeas as you stir to add texture.
Place the arugula, onion and chickpea mixture in a large bowl and toss to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed. Serve warm, with soft-cooked eggs alongside if you like.