Extemporizing Pasta Salad (announcing foodie fridays)
It snuck up on me as most truly lovely things do.
For a long while, I've been a nervous food writer, starting off with reviews for a local magazine, eventually becoming food editor, and meeting with chefs and restaurant owners, people who make dip, and a woman who makes her own yogurt from freeze-dried cultures from around the world.
All of this was before I started to learn to cook.
As soon as I started to try to make actual food for myself, I realized that I was terrified of doing it wrong. I was so paralyzed by this fear that I ate far too many containers of Trader Joe's spicy guacamole, or Syrah soaked cheese with water crackers, for dinner.
But I am a fighter. Once I get an idea in my head, there is no talking me out of it.
I came to the kitchen trembling, nervous about things like roasting (what is roasting anyway?). Slowly, I made friends with my stove, my pans, my spatula. I learned about roasting.
My repertoire is small and perhaps not very adventurous, but it is growing, little by little. Along with that, I am learning lessons about what food really means, deep in my gut. For me, it's not just about sustenance, or staying alive. It's about love, community, family, and home. Food is a tangible expression of care and belonging. Food is a gift that needs to be given multiple times a day. Food never lets us forget that we are dependent on each other, and on ourselves.
I didn't choose to be a food writer. I was in the right place at the right time, and it chose me. Now, I'm choosing back.
On Fridays, I'll be writing about food in this space, which naturally means that I'll be writing about life, and faith, relationships and community.
To start things off, I'd like to tell you a little bit about my pasta salad.
A pasta salad might not seem like a big deal. They are the stuff of potlucks and picnics and my childhood fridge in the summer. It seems like everybody has a recipe for it they can access only through their tastebuds. They know that one strange ingredient their grandma always added, that special touch that makes it theirs.
This past weekend, I was in Portland, tasked with making a pasta salad. The only one I've ever made was created using a recipe my mom wrote down for me. In involves cubes of cheddar cheese, slivered almonds, dill, and tiny shell pasta. I made it during finals week in college, because when I'm stressed I don't eat, unless it's easy to do so.
But this past weekend, there were no slivered almonds and no shell pasta. I didn't have my recipe with me.
I looked through the fridge as the water boiled for the radiatore. I took out two kinds of vinegar, red wine, and balsamic. I selected an orange and a yellow bell pepper, salami, a block of cheddar cheese, and a bag of tart green grapes.
Somewhere along the way, chopping became a place of zen for me. I lose track of time cutting vegetables and fruits into small manageable pieces.
I cut the bell peppers in half, then into candy canes before chopping them small. I cut the salami with scissors. I've never put grapes into a pasta salad before, nor can I remember ever eating one with them, but my boyfriend has texted me: don't forget the grapes so I quarter them and scoop them into my hands, sprinkling them into the bowl.
I cut the cheddar cheese into cubes, just like in my mom's pasta salad. Though this is a new thing, I want it to still taste recognizable. I want to be able to close my eyes and think: this is a pasta salad.
I add a little olive oil and both kinds of vinegar, a little dried basil and salt and pepper.
A few hours later, I try it. Believe it or not, it tastes like pasta salad.