POTUS’s Lucky Pasta


Since I’m sure you’ve all spent the weekend poring over my summer cookbook rundown in Sunday’s book review, you know that one of the books I was most enthusiastic about this year was Eat a Little Better, by Sam Kass, who cooked for the Obama family when they were in the White House. The book is filled with insider anecdotes and (not surprisingly) the kinds of recipes that ground and nourish busy families. It was also one of those cookbooks that was as satisfying to read as it was to cook from. Exhibit A on that claim? This story he wrote about the President’s “lucky pasta.” It’s an excerpt from the book, in Kass’s words. 

Even if you weren’t following politics during the 2012 election, you probably heard about the first presidential debate. The president faced off against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in Denver, and let’s just say it didn’t go as planned. One of President Obama’s weaknesses, as he readily admits, was his impatience with the show of politics. In that debate, he delivered a sober, detailed discussion of policy. And he paid the price. His performance was universally panned in the media and Governor Romney’s poll numbers surged. The pundits declared that if Obama tanked another debate, he would probably lose the election. Needless to say, the pressure was on.

I was on food and hangout duty during debate season, traveling with the president and helping to feed him in the run-up to all three. After the unfortunate first contest, his staff spent three days holed up at a hotel in Virginia as he battled through grueling practice sessions. Practically the only breaks he took were to eat. Finally, the day of the second debate arrived. The plan was to head to Hofstra University, on Long Island, around lunchtime. By late morning, I still hadn’t gotten word on whether the president, who’d eaten a late breakfast, would want food on the plane ride, so just in case, I started cooking. In the hotel kitchen, I prepped and packed the makings of a simple lunch: I cooked a chicken breast, whipped up a classic pesto, and boiled mini penne just shy of al dente. I grabbed some raw spinach and Parmesan, then loaded into the motorcade with the rest of the president’s staff, all of us wearing our best “We’re totally relaxed and confident” faces, but all of us nervous.

When Air Force One took off, I stopped by the plane’s conference room to see if the president wanted something to eat. In the middle of a game of Spades, he hemmed and hawed a bit, then said, “Sure, just nothing too heavy.” I had my marching orders, so off I went to the kitchen to prepare the first and only meal I cooked on the president’s plane.

The kitchen on Air Force One is surprisingly tiny and intimidatingly immaculate. When I got there, it was crammed with the two Air Force chefs prepping to serve lunch to the hundred-plus people—including White House staff, Secret Service, and press—onboard. They stopped work when they spotted me, as they did whenever the boss needed to eat. I wedged my way in, turned on one of the four induction burners, and got to work. I resuscitated the penne in a pan with a little olive oil and water, tossed in the chicken, and then the spinach. I hit it with some pesto, trying my best to avoid defiling the pristine stove with green spatter, threw on a handful of grated Parm, and hustled a plate to the president, who was both deep in Spades mode and reviewing a stack of papers.

After a few minutes, I popped back in to see if he was happy, assuming I’d get a simple “solid.” Instead, he beamed at me. “Sam, it’s perfect!” he raved. “Sometimes you don’t know what you want until someone gives it to you, and you realize, ‘That’s exactly what I wanted.’”

I had never seen him react quite like that to anything I’d cooked. After he’d finished, I returned to hang out and he delivered another round of praise for the pasta. Later, just before he took the stage at Hofstra, I bumped into my friend Pete Souza, the president’s photographer, who told me, “I don’t know what you put in the pasta but the president has been talking about it all afternoon.”

He did well that night, dominating the debate and making his case to the American people with clarity and passion. He shifted the election’s momentum and all of us in the administration had a rare restful night’s sleep. Before I turned in, I sent him an email: “It doesn’t get better than that! One more left.” He replied with one line: “It was the pasta!”

From then on, it became known as “Lucky Pasta.” I made it for him again before the third and final debate, and he turned in a stellar performance— no thanks I’m sure to rigorous prep and a firm command of the subjects of foreign policy and national security. Come on, it was the pasta! Because I’ll tell you what: I also made it on Election Day.


Lucky Pasta
Serves 4-6
From Eat a Little Better: Great Flavor, Good Health, Better World, by Sam Kass

You may not have an election or debate coming up, but we all need a lucky charm, or at least a meal that comes together in minutes. Feel free to cook the chicken, boil the pasta, and even make the pesto the night before. If you do, undercook the pasta slightly or reheat it in just a little water in a saute pan. Store the pesto in the fridge with plastic wrap pressed against the surface to keep natural discoloration at a minimum. Serves 4-6.

1 pound mini penne or any pasta shape you like
Kosher salt
½ garlic clove
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
¼ cup pine nuts or pecans, toasted
¹⁄₃ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more to finish
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 roasted chicken breasts (see below), cut into bite-sized pieces, warm or room temperature
½ pound baby spinach

Cook the pasta in boiling salty water until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the water.

While the pasta cooks, drop the garlic into a food processor with the motor running and process until the garlic is finely chopped. Add the basil, nuts, cheese, half the oil, and ½ teaspoon of salt and pulse to a coarse puree. With the motor running, add the remaining oil in a slow stream and keep processing until pretty smooth.

Toss the hot pasta with the pesto, chicken, spinach, and ⅓ cup of the reserved pasta water. Gradually add more of the pasta water if the dish seems dry. Season with salt to taste and top with more grated or shaved parmesan.

Simply Roasted Chicken Breasts

2 skin-on chicken breasts, about 6 ounces each
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Put the chicken breasts on a parchment-lined baking sheet and coat with the oil. Season generously all over with salt, about 1 teaspoon total. Roast them skin-side up until lightly browned and fully cooked but still juicy, about 20 minutes. Let them rest on a cutting board for a few minutes, then cut into bite-sized pieces.

Thanks Sam!

Reprinted from Eat A Little Better. Copyright c 2018 by Sam Kass. Photographs copyright c 2017 by Aubrie Pick. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Giveaway winner has been chosen. (Congrats Kati!) Thanks for playing everyone.

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212 Comments

Kathleen

Yum, that’s just about how we make pesto, except we toss with cherry tomatoes instead of spinach, but spinach is a good idea too.

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Julie

I just ordered this from the library, because I’ve already exhausted my cookbook budget for the year. I would love my own copy of Sam’s book that can absorb a few spills! Haha!

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Jen

A cookbook and history book all in one? I want it so badly! Plus, pesto is my absolute favorite, I can’t wait to try this recipe.

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Maggie H.

This recipe sounds delish, and the cookbook sounds like a balm for our crazy-making weeknights. (I’ve loved your cookbooks too!)

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Ashley-Dior Thomas

What a great story and recipe! That’s what cooking does: reminds you of things that’s happened in your life.

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ND

My mom used to make something just like this but she also added raisins and pine nuts, which was great. I wish my kids would eat this! Love to read this book…..

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Kati

On the one hand, this is an awesome (and well-told) story and I love it. On the other hand, I’m in tears because it’s a window to a time when we weren’t all experiencing the current collective trauma. And on another foot (since I’m a parent, we have to use all the tools at our disposable- two hands are never enough), I know what I’m bringing picnic style for that absurdly short period of time between when aftercare ends and soccer practice begins…

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Meaghan

This sounds like the perfect lucky dish to me! I can’t eait to make it for my family.

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Lauren

oh my goodness, that Lucky Pasta sounds incredible! And as a full time working mom, with a preschooler who still has an early bedtime, easy nourishing meals are exactly what my busy family needs.

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Becca

Thanks for sharing this story! Reason 832987938573987 we miss President Obama….and, the pesto sounds perfectly prepared. Would love to add this cookbook to our collection

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Joanna

Oh, I have to try this. If Obama liked it that much I bet I can get my kids to at least taste it 😉

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Nicole Correia

Oooh I love cookbooks in which recipes are accompanied by stories – it’s why I’ve always loved your cookbooks. And being in an ongoing stay of Obama-stalgia, this sounds perfect.

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Sarah G

I love this! Sounds like a great summer book to cook-thru with family!

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Emma

In the current political reality we’re living in, it’s so lovely and soul refreshing to be reminded that we’ve had presidents who treat others with kindness, dignity, and respect – even in extremely stressful times. Can pasta change the world? Unclear, but when coupled with kindness even a simple bowl of pasta can remind us that anything is possible.

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Robin

Without knowing the background to the story, my girls would call this “lucky pasta” because they feel like it’s their lucky day when we make pesto! It started years ago when their daycare/pre-school had a garden. At the end of the growing season, I would buy all the basil that they hadn’t sold at their little farmer’s market (to parents). They always felt lucky to get all of the extra basil and to know we had several months of pesto stockpiled!

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erin

sometimes simple is best! definitely going to have to check out this book!

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Nuria

I read your article and thought it would be a great read (as I sometimes don’t have the time to spend much time in the kitchen now that I have two little ones, and I use cookbooks as a way of daydreaming of what I’d lile to eat or cook). Besides, this one it will make a super present for my 40th birthday !!

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Alyssa Cantarutti

Yum! Who WOULDN’T love a fresh pesto pasta?! Delish. Thanks for sharing!

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Carole

Would love to win this cookbook! Feel like I need to put a couple of more basil plants in the garden!

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Allie

I love thinking of our gracious, kind, and intelligent president taking pleasure in this dish. This is the kind of food and cooking we enjoy, too. And now, we need energy and good recipes to fuel the change that is coming.

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Elizabeth

I love this, and the mention of Pete Souza, one of my favorite photographers! I’d love to win a copy of this book, too! Count me in for the drawing and thank you!

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Adrianne Dyer

This sounds like an amazing read and amazing recipes! How can you go wrong??

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Helena

I have a pesto with penne lover in the house so I’m adding this to our recipe rotation.

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Sarah Konter

I can’t wait to read this book. And Jenny- the review was wonderful (I read it during a brief period of alone time and it was absolutely time well spent!)

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Payal

I love cookbooks with anecdotes and recipes with a back story This was a great one!

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Bea

Loved this post as a reminder to what class and grace and good food are all about. Thanks for the chance to win!

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Brigitte

I watched Sam on The Kitchen (Food Network show on Saturdays) this past week and he seems like such a cool guy. I will DEFINITELY be making this recipe, as well as getting his book – either through this giveaway or I’ll go purchase it!

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Kelsey

This was so fun to read- I would love to win a copy of the book (so I can hold it close and remember better days. Or, I mean, cook some healthy and delicious meals.)

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Lindsay

Reading this story brought so much comfort, I can’t imagine what eating the dish would do!

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Mary H.

During this administration, we could use a little luck! Would love a copy of this cookbook!

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Liane

… I mean, I make this dish on the regular in my house. It’s known as my easy, no thinking required, weeknight dinner. But good to know President Obama and I share a love of pesto, chicken and pasta.

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Elizabeth

Um ,so not the weekend, but I definitely poured over your summer cookbook list and was, also, most excited about this one! Glad to see what gabby’s cooking on the list of what to check out too!

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Dianne

If it’s good enough for Obama, it’s good enough for me. Can’t wait to try this!

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Carley

Reading this excerpt made me feel good. I’ll just leave it at that. 🙂

Just put a request in to the library for the book. Thank you!

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Susie Rawlins

This all sounds so cool and delicious! Would love to win a copy!

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Stephanie Schempp

What a great story! Man, I miss Obama. I would love to win the book!

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Ronda

Pesto is one of my favorite things to make and freeze for a taste of summer in the middle of winter.

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Lisa Rosenkoetter

Swoon! My husband would argue I need no more cookbooks, but cannot argue with a chance to read about anecdotal, insider Obama fam stories! Would love to read this and enjoy Sam’s recipes!

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Jules

Sometimes it’s the simplest meal that satisfies you the most. Awesome story! And thanks for the recipe!

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Hilary

I have a giant bush of basil ready to go for some pesto and I love these anecdotes about Obama!

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Jill

I read cookbooks as if they were novels! Thanks for the chance to win a copy. Hope I’m lucky! : )

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Kathy

This looks like an amazing book. I bet there are some fascinating stories and delicious recipes in there!

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Eileen

Yum. It’s the last week of school…time to plant some basil and cook something!

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Michelle

The recipe sounds great — look forward to eating and reading all that Sam has to offer.

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Christine

Thanks for highlighting his cookbook-can’t wait to read it-even if I don’t win it! By the way – we made Picnic Chicken from How to Celebrate Everything last night. It was a big hit – and so nice to put it together the night before so it was ready and waiting to go on the grill right after work.

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Maureen

I love cookbooks that provide backstory! This dish sounds delicious and easy!

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Katherine

This is my go-to pasta recipe as well! I sometimes add artichoke hearts, and sometimes I’ll use orzo instead of traditional penne. I’d love a copy of this book, if only for the annecdotes alone! My god do I miss Obama.

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katrina

Simple food plus a ‘new’ perspective on recent history. Sign me up. Icing on the cake would be if it had more than a handful of vegetarian recipes.

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Betsy

Recipes and info about the Obama’s and the White House. Sounds like perfect read for commuting.

Thanks!

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Betsy

Recipes and info about the Obama’s and the White House. Sounds like perfect read for commuting.

Thanks for mentioning!

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Brandee

I came for the recipe – always on the lookout for a simple pesto pasta. I never find what I imagine it to taste like. Maybe, like the president, this is what I need.
What a wonderful story.

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Emma Reyes

Yum, this looks delicious. These kinds of meals are my entire repertoire at the moment (with a 4 and 2 year old) – but most appealing is that I’d be eating food that Obama ate!!

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jenn in GA

this is a great story! thanks for the read and for the opportunity to win the entire book!

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Michelle

What a great story! I can’t wait to give this recipe a try. I’m adding the ingredients to my shopping list. I hope it can bring some great moments to our family as well.

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Lela

Man, I miss President Obama.
The pasta sounds wonderful. We make something similar, but with frozen peas and asparagus subbing for the spinach.

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Angela

Ok I loved that anecdote- makes me smile and miss Obama a little bit more!

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Sarah

I love this! I make pesto every summer and keep it in the freezer to have for the rest of the year.

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Alli

Making this “lucky pasta” for my kids as they power thru preparing for finals! Would love to have Sam’s cookbook in my kitchen for the recipes and the stories…not to mention, Sam is very easy on the eyes!

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Cyn

Simple, delicious recipes and peek into the Obama White House kitchen-I’m in!
Thanks for the giveaway 🙂

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Marie

I love hearing about all the different facets of the Obama administration — the more I hear, the more it sounds like a wonderful group of hard-working and kind people that we were lucky enough to have steering the ship for 8 years. Perhaps a love of pesto pasta would make a good litmus test for future candidates!

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Oneida

For some reason, this made me feel like crying! I love how preparing thoughtful, delicious food for people can not just feed their bellies but their souls as well. And it doesn’t have to be fancy! Also, I agree with others that the story/cookbook combo is amazing and is why I love your books (besides the many recipes we get for the rotation). Would love a copy of this one!

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Kristin Whelan

Thank you for sharing this recipe! I love his philosophy and yours too!

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Stephanie Rawlins

Can’t wait to dive into this cookbook! My favorite combo is part memoir, part cookbook!

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Zach

I love cookbooks and Obama, so this would be a lovely thing to win! Thank you for the opportunity.

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Laura

I’m so excited for this recipe! Simplicity really makes the beauty of the food come out. Thanks for sharing!!

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Wendy Campbell

This has been on my to-get list…always helps to have a recommendation from you!

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SusanH

Oh…how I would love to share this cookbook with my daughter. And she and I will be making this recipe next week–she is a pesto fanatic. Thank you for the opportunity!

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Awads

I am so happy to see pecans can sub for pine nuts b/c pine nuts have been a “page turner” for me for years. have you seen the price? i’m going to make this saturday when my husband is away b/c he thinks pesto is “too herby”. what??!! thanks!

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Judy Herington

I love to “read” cookbooks! All types. But especially those with stories! And pictures! Sometimes wonderful recipes are the bonus.

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Anne Rogers

Looks like great book. I’m always up for some Obama-inspired nostalgia.

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Sarah Pingree

What a great story! And a delicious looking recipe. I can’t wait to try it!

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Kimberly Anderson

Would love a copy! I love cookbooks that not only provide delicious recipes but also provide stories and glimpses into the author’s life (like yours Jen)!

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John Roddy

nice story including the touch about a four burner induction cooktop in AF1

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Jean McKee

Love everything about this – the recipe and the story. Can’t wait for my basil to grow a little more, and also to read this book!

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Allison

This looks like such an interesting book! I love the combination of recipes + personal memoir.

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Stacey

I heard Sam speak at Sixth & I in DC, and he told the story about this pasta – so I’m very excited to see this post!

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Nicole

This is such a good teaser! I can’t wait to delve into this book and get some luck recipes to have up my sleeve!

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Amy

Wow what a great story to go with the recipe! Very inspiring. I’ll be making this tonight. Thank you!

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Emily

I love this remembrance so much. What a class act – both Mr. Kass and President Obama. Would love a copy of this cookbooks!

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Emilie

“How can you miss someone you never even knew?” is a question I ask myself all the time when it comes to President Obama. How I love his family… Hoping to win the cookbook – I’ve heard such good things!

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Samantha MacAvoy

It is heartening to hear what a kind, classy boss President Obama was; I got chills and nearly teared up reading this passage. Perhaps my reaction came from my fond memories of the past administration…or maybe it was the pasta! Sounds like one magical dish, can’t wait to try this recipe.

Thanks so much for sharing Jenny.

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Sabrina Johnson

I have a new way of looking at pasta & pesto: LUCKY me and all who feast on this yummy dish! Thank you!

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Katie

I love and miss Obama’s distaste for the show of politics. (I also love and share his taste for a good bowl of pasta!).

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Simone

I’d love a copy of this book. I used to make pesto more often, and this is great inspiration to make it again. Especially for a day when you need a little extra luck 🙂

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Emily Kaminski

I love this anecdote about Obama. He inspired the people who worked with him in a way I’m sure history will remember. How awesome to help feed the success of a president! I’d love to read this book and try these recipes

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Erica

So many great comments on a really awesome story, It’s hard to add more than all the insights from other readers but I can’t pass up the chance to try to win the book (although I already have it in my Amazon cart in case I don’t win!). Reading the story behind the recipe, with such a lovely glimpse into that world, only confirmed Obama as the smart, kind, funny, (nearly) regular guy I always thought he was. And then my heart broke as I crashed down to reality knowing how far things have fallen since he left office. Thankfully, your blog ALWAYS makes me feel better knowing there are other kindred spirits out there fighting the good fight for better dinners and a better world. Thanks Jenny!

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Ellen

I would love this book just for the stories! I already went on Amazon and read part of the introduction.

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Heidi

Thanks for your summer cookbook rundown! I put several of the books on my library wish list. I love curling up with a cookbook and reading the stories behind recipes. Can’t wait to check this one out!

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Rhonda

What a great story! Recipe sounds delicious too! I think I need this book.

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Amy

Going to be pairing this cookbook with Michelle Obama’s memoir for awesome holiday gifts this December!

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Laura

I love the title of Sam’s book – Eat ALittle Better. It’s aspirational but also manageable. I have a two year old and a two month old and making food seems impossible some days. So “eat a little better” sounds like a good mantra for my little family right now.

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Irma S Moss

I am going to make this for my family; I like the idea if adding halved cherry or grape tomatoes for color. I would LOVE to win this cookbook. It looks delish.

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Susan Otto

Thanks, Sam Kass, for taking such good care of President Obama. I miss him.

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Zoe

I just saw a recipe from this book on Cup of Jo this morning and saved it to my wishlist on amazon. I am notorious for buying cookbooks and never using them which is why I didn’t just buy it outright but this one seems legit! I want it.

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Nancy

What a wonderful story, and what an honor to have cooked for such a lovely family. We miss them so much and I’d love to have this cookbook to both read and cook from!

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Cora

Of all the books you profiled in your NYT piece, this is the one I’m most excited about.

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CarrieH

This sounds like my type of book. I love cookbooks with good recipes and good stories to go along with them.

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Sara Reinthaler

would love a copy of this book. Thank you for introducing it to us!

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Amber H

I’ve seen a few of the recipes on various blogs/websites the past couple days. They all look so yummy! I would love a copy of my own! Thanks 🙂

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Bria Silbert

I am so glad that President Obama loved this pasta (I so enjoy watching Sam Kass on CHOPPED! And I am so glad he didn’t have spinach in his teeth from the pesto. Well done Sam!

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Carol

I love the title of the cookbook. It’s my mantra as I enter the world of retirement. Simple food, put together with flavor and not a zillion calories or hours in the kitchen. After reading this, I ran to my fridge to defrost some pesto I made last year. ( I know, it’s old, but now I am ready to start a new supply of pesto. Will use this recipe this time.). Thank you for a lovely story of sweet memories and a delicious recipe, too…lucky is an understatement.

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Barbara

That sounds amazing — will have to put it on this weekend’s menu.

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Suzanne Hagen

I have homemade pesto in the freezer and just bought a rotisserie
chicken. I now have a plan for dinner tonight!

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Meredith

I have a busy family. Can we have a giveaway of Sam to come and cook the pasta for us instead? He can tell us lots of Obama stories too, if he likes 😉

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Julie

Loved loved loved this story and would love a copy of the cookbook. Thanks!!

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Barb in Phx

I enjoyed your cookbook roundup in the Times. This one sounds terrific! Would love to win it—and would put it to good use.

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Erin

Assuming all the other recipes also bring luck? Regardless, great story from what looks to be a good read/cook.

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Rachel Schaefer

Oh gosh. I’ve never needed a cookbook more than I need this one!

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Hannah

I loved this story!!! My grandma June used to store up a gondola load of pesto every summer. Luckily!

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Heather

Don’t you love those meals where you’re thinking “I didn’t know what I wanted…but it’s this!” Great story, and I’m excited to try the recipe!

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Sherri Hulcher

My garden is full of basil! I”m going to try this recipe using it!

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Susan

Sam Kass’s book sounds amazing – great recipes and Obama anecdotes all in one book, wow! I am totally making this pesto pasta recipe. Thank you, Jenny, for this post and the great summer cookbook reading review! I have your books, too — thank you for all the great tips, which are much needed for me and my busy, picky-eater family.

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Nicole

There is nothing better than a cookbook that tells a story too (cough, DALS, cough). Definitely would love to get my hands on this one!

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Nicole Youell

I would love a copy – I am definitely making this pasta for my family. We are big Obama and pesto fans!

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Susie

Your review of Eat A Little Better really piqued my interest. The recipes look so great – and the backstory is just fascinating! I’ve put a copy on hold at the library, but would LOVE my own copy! Thank you so much for sharing Sam’s story and work with us.

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Julia

The recipes looks yummy and something reasonable for us non-chefs to make for our families! And… What a sweet story! Warms my heart that in the midst of all he had going on, Obama still had the graciousness to write such an exuberant thank you email. Makes me miss him even more!

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Alice

I LOVE this story- partially because pesto pasta (with chicken if you’re feeling flush) is an absolute student staple here in the UK. I ate many, many meals of it when money or time or enthusiasm for cooking was a bit short during my degree, and it makes me SO happy to know it’s an Obama favourite too!!

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Lindsay

I made this for dinner last night after seeing your post! It was delicious and helped us use some of the fresh spinach we had from our CSA basket! I just returned to work after maternity leave so I’m constantly looking for quick, easy and nutritious meals for me and my husband that still allow us that precious time to soak up with our baby before the bedtime routine begins and last night’s dinner (this one) was a success! Thanks for posting! (and for all your other recipes! I made your special sauce to go with hamburgers on Monday night, so yummy!!)

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Kate Ramos

I never tire of hearing stories about the Obama White House. The pasta too sounds so comforting and perfect. Can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

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Karen

We had pesto pasta last night too- with fresh peas, zucchini, and arugula. I would love a copy of this book!

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Pam Brain

That is an uplifting story – from what little information has been made public, it seems Sam Kass really was an integral part of a strong White House support system. I would love to think that the food I cook is as supportive and strengthening for my family.

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Pam

That is an uplifting story – from what little information has been made public, it seems Sam Kass really was an integral part of a strong White House support system. I would love to think that the food I cook is as supportive and strengthening for my family.

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Betsy

A delicious concept, but also easy to mess it up or to be bland. Thanks for sharing!

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Jaclyn

What a wonderful story! I’m a total believer that sitting down to a meal has the power to reset any day.

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Kat

Looking forward to this book, one way or another! Thanks for the glimpse inside and the chance to win.

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Bridgit

As I was reading the opening of this post, I thought, “I have to get this book for my colleague.” 2 copies is probably a better plan. What a fun story.

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Tom

This, minus the chicken, plus roasted almonds, is on regular rotation at our house as soon as the basil starts. We often add oregeno to early summer pesto, since it is so abundant early in the season.

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