The Upside of a Sad Meal, A Recipe
It was a spectacularly bad day.
A close friend died unexpectedly, leaving me alternating between feeling fine and being hit with the realization that I would never see him again. Lightning bolts of grief kept punching a hole in the thin veil of normalcy that came from going through the motions. Life would seem like the day before as I worked along, and then, boom. Never again.
Casting about for some appropriate thing to do at a time like this, we opted to have dinner at a restaurant where we once shared a happy time with him. He was Italian and loved Italian food. He would have urged me to have wine, but honestly, I didn’t feel up to it yet.
Feeling somewhat lost, I looked at the menu boards and just couldn’t think. Just had pizza, too much pizza, something else. I latched onto a pasta al aglio. With a side of salad, it would be comforting, simple. It might just make me feel better.
I should have had the wine.
My pasta came, and I dug in. White spaghetti, drenched in bland oil, barely garlicky to my morose palate. I wanted fruity extra virgin, sweet roasted garlic, or even bitingly fresh crushed garlic to slap me in the mouth. Sassy, like his humor. Maybe my taste buds were too sad to care, but I just couldn’t taste the things I was hoping for. A few limp basil leaves, some chips of nondescript cheese, and a deep slick of pale oil. Just looking at it I knew it was the canola cut with cheap olive oil that the restaurant supply place used to swear that nobody would detect. Slices of un-toasted white baguette flanked the bowl, offering me a carb-oblivion.
Of course, I ate it all. Every lame bite. My stomach ached for hours after, just from stuffing it so full.Of course, I was eating for comfort, overeating to make myself feel better. And the pang in my belly just reminded me of my folly.
If he had been there, we would have been chatting and laughing, I would hardly have cared about the pasta. I might have gotten something else. Mostly, he would have been there.
Instead of that greasy bowl of noodles.
So there it was, hard reality like a rock in my stomach. I really should have had the wine, then I could have lamented trying to drink my troubles away the next day instead.
I’ll never have the dinner I wanted, because he is gone.
But I did have some time to think about why I as so mad at that damn bowl of pasta. As much as I go out to eat to be inspired, and to taste things I want to make at home, sometimes I have something that makes me want to go home and make the dish I thought I was going to get. Maybe my critique of the pasta was a sign, a sign that I might still be me.
I’m still waiting for something good to emerge from this loss. In my life, I have found that in hindsight, something almost always does. Love is lost, new love comes, a door closes another opens. Of course, it takes time, and hindsight. Right now its just senseless and stupid.
So to make it just a little better, I’ll make the pasta I wish I had had that night. I might have been just as unhappy with it, I might have felt just as sick after stuffing it in. But at least this one has some garlic.
He would have wanted it that way.
Pasta al Aglio for John
John was not vegetarian, but he ate and enjoyed veg food at my house. This is plenty cheesey, vegans can sub 2 tablespoons of toasted and chopped hazelnuts tossed with a few tablespoons of toasted breadcrumbs and a pinch of salt for the cheese.
Serves 4 as a side, 3 for a main course
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 bulb garlic, peeled but whole
1 large carrot, julienned
1 cup snap peas
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more if needed
8 ounces angelhair pasta, whole wheat
3 ounces tangy, aged local cheese or asiago, finely shredded
1/2 cup fresh basil, torn
1/2 teaspoon salt
coarsely cracked black pepper
Put on a pot of water for the pasta, salt it liberally, and preheat the oven to 400 F. Place the whole peeled garlic cloves in a small metal bowl or a piece of oil and drizzle with one tbs of olive oil. Cover or wrap and bake for 15-20 minutes, shaking occasionally and testing by piercing the cloves with a paring knife. When they are butter-soft and tender they are done, cool. In a large saute pan, heat 2 Tbs of the remaining olive oil and add the carrots, saute for a minute, then add the peas, pepper flakes and lemon zest and heat. Cook the pasta one minute less than the package says and drain, saving half a cup of pasta water.
In a bowl, mash the garlic with the salt and lemon juice, then add to the saute pan. Toss the hot pasta with the garlic, the saute in the pan, and 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water, cooking over medium high heat until the sauce has coated the pasta, then add half of the cheese and the basil. Crack pepper and sprinkle with salt, to taste. Serve topped with the remaining shredded cheese.