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.
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
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
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.
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.
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