Every day I pick my kids up at the babysitter after work and every day I get the same cranky question:
“Moooooom, what’s for dinner?”
They’re not even completely inside the car before they’re hounding me about what we’re having to eat. And for the record, it’s not just a casual question. There’s no “Hey Mom, how are you? What’s for dinner?” or “You’ll never guess what happened at lunch today! By the way, what’s for dinner?” No, there is none of that. It is a daily query, raised with the explicit expectation that they will be disappointed, so it is therefore asked in a tone dripping with contempt. Dripping, because there is so much disdain for the as-yet-unknown dinner, it can’t be contained by a simple question. As they sit there in the backseat, every part of their being is exhibiting a hostility with regard to the dinner, that mind you, I haven’t even disclosed yet. But when I respond with “We’re having tacos!” then I get cheers and all is well…for the time being.
My Nana was a most extraordinary lady. Tomorrow, it will be two weeks since we lost her. As this is Holy Week there are surely parallels to be made about resurrection and new life. But frankly, they do not bring me comfort because they do not bring back her smile or her dancing or her enthusiasm for life which was contagious to those around her. I feel like I should do more here in tribute to her; I want to do more here in tribute to her, given the profound impact she has had on my life. At her memorial service I talked about how I believed that Nana’s legacy was that she taught us the language of food. She showed us how we can channel our feelings of grief, joy, and frustration into the preparation of food and use it to show other people that we care about them. It would seem fitting then, that tomorrow we plan a huge dinner in honor and remembrance of her. But the idea of doing so seems like an overwhelming task because there is simply so much to say, both with words and with food. Where do you even begin?
Answer: You begin with bunnies. Pear bunnies, to be exact.
The idea for this salad came from dinner that I recently had at my sister’s house. I had traveled down with the kids for our first overnight at their new house (which is an old schoolhouse, how cool is that?!) and she made delicious Mexican rice bowls for dinner. It was perfect because she knew how much I love Mexican flavors and my husband who may or may not have a cumin allergy (long story), was not with us, so we had ourselves a little fiesta! There was seasoned rice and black beans, guacamole, fresh salsa, and pickled cabbage and you just piled whatever you wanted in your bowl, which of course, was everything. I had a bowl and a half and I had to force myself to stay in my seat and not allow myself to go back for a third helping.
Arugula pesto, you are one of my new favorite things.
Sidenote: Arugula is also known as salad rocket, garden rocket, or simply, rocket. Doesn’t that make you laugh? What a funny name! Apparently this name is due to arugula’s lightning-fast growth rate. It makes me wonder if even I, Allison of the Black Thumb, could grow it. But then, a plant that is fast-growing doesn’t necessarily make it an easy-to-grow plant. And by easy, I mean that the said plant has to be able to survive and thrive through drought and intrusion of weeds, aka a general neglect on the part of the gardener –>me.
Pesto is a genius creation, don’t you think? Basil, which can have sweet, floral undertones is way different than arugula but substituting arugula is just as good. Instead of sweet and floral, you get grassy and peppery, which works very well with the earthiness of roasted beets. Adding arugula pesto to some quinoa and beets makes a salad that is a fantastic combination of grains, vegetables, and nuts. I first made this with barley instead of quinoa, and I loved it with barley too, but if you are gluten free, quinoa works just as well as is pictured here.
It is my dream to visit Provence. I imagine that I’ll find a quaint little house to rent with a bright blue door and window boxes overflowing with flowers. The house will sit on a lane just a short walk from town (What town? I have no idea; does it matter? This is a dream after all.) and border a lavender farm so every night as I go to sleep with my windows open (blissfully unconcerned about mosquitoes or would-be intruders), the warm air will carry with it the soothing scent of lavender. Next to my bright blue door, I’ll have a giant rosemary bush and whenever I pass by it I’ll pull off a few springs and stuff them in my pockets, because I have a strange tendency to do that. I think it’s an excellent plan. Who wants to join me? You are extra specially welcome to come if you know French….since I don’t….and it would probably be helpful.
Let’s be honest, a great watermelon is basically perfect on its own. So I consider the star of the show here to be the mint vinaigrette. After all, how many things can you add to a watermelon that only serve to magnify it’s perfection? Exactly.
Sweet watermelon, salty feta cheese, invigorating mint vinaigrette – every time I eat this, I feel like my taste buds are about to do a happy dance inside my mouth. Admittedly, the whole party in your mouth verbiage is completely cliche and I’m actually kind of embarrassed that I just wrote it. But in this very specific instance, it really fits! I don’t know who originally decided to put mint, watermelon, and feta together but they really were a genius, don’t you think? I found a sweet yellow watermelon at a local farm stand and as I was driving it home, the bees in my head started buzzing: “I love watermelon salad, I must make one!” “What if I took the mint and onions and incorporated them into a vinaigrette to simplify the whole shebang?” “No onions, use shallots so it’s not so oniony.” “Yes, great idea! I must do it!”
So I did, and it is delicious, and you must try it.
My mom makes a very particular pasta salad which she calls Asian Chicken Pasta Salad. There is grilled teriyaki chicken, nuts, pasta, snow peas, and mandarin oranges, and altogether its a salty-sweet, chewy-crunchy flavor bonanza. All of those different elements and textures come together and make something that’s really delightful and I love it. I love it so much that I’ve tried making it over and over for the past 10+ years but I can never seem to get it quite right. After getting myself all amped up about the fact that “this time” it’s going to be perfect and then find my soul crushed because once again it is missing some mysterious element that I can’t identify I have just given up entirely. I am putting my hand over my heart and solemnly swearing to the entire cyber universe that I will never attempt to make it again for as long as I live. My ego is rather fragile and I just can’t deal with any more pasta salad-induced disappointment. My only consolation is that I’ve never attempted to make the pasta salad at a time when Mom was going to eat it so until now she was blissfully unaware of the degree to which I have failed at this particular endeavor.