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pasta salads of days gone by

August 19, 2012

Two pieces that have been stuck in my mind lately: “getting off the aspirational treadmill,” and the new homeownership: buying a house not as a dazzling, incredibly high-return investment, but for the pleasures it can give you.

In my mind, they tie together into this thing, this idea of slowing down, and making the most of the life you have, as it is. Truly inhabiting where you live, getting to know your neighbors, and other “medium chill” pursuits. Drinking coffee while staring out your window and getting to know your yard throughout changing seasons. Canning produce from your garden and tucking it away in your pantry, giving it away to loved ones who come for potlucks in the backyard. Enjoying small household tasks, because they’re small household tasks.

I’m disgustingly taken with this overly-romanticized idea, as you might have noticed.

It might have something to do with being a few years out of college, when we start to realize that making friends isn’t as easy as getting to know the cool girl from two dorm doors down. Putting down roots is hard, and community, it turns out, is something you have to nurture, torturously slowly, through years of meeting new people and asking them on awkward friend dates and trading secrets and shared experiences, and finally weaving them together with others into a cohesive group.

I’ve always been a traveler, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Recently, though, a friend of mine told me about how her parents have a group of friends that’s incredibly tight-knit because they’ve all lived in Boston since their 20s, going to drinks and parties together for decades. That idea appeals to me, and I’ve started to realize that those kinds of strong bonds take time.

So when Lee and I started talking about buying a house, and when we bought one last month***, it didn’t seem terrifying, like settling down forever before I’ve finished exploring, but rather like setting up a framework that I can return to, leaving if we have to for school or jobs, but always returning to see the neighbor kids growing up, the plants I’ve put in get bigger, and to have dinner with friends.

And while we’re on the topic of dinners with friends, and potlucks, and grilling in the backyard: I recently re-created a mainstay of summer potlucks from when I was a kid. My friend Miah’s mother always brought the most amazing pasta salad to dinners, and after some begging, she taught me how to make them. I started thinking about those salads again, after more than a decade, and started to wonder if I could make them without the store-bought “Italian” dressing and processed cheese shreds. Shockingly, I got it on my first try, and unless my memory is failing me, it bears an uncanny resemblance to those Kraft pasta salads of days gone by.

*** Yes, this is an announcement that we have bought a house. Yes, yes, yes.

Non-Kraft Pasta Salad

For the vinaigrette:
¼ c. vinegar
¼ c. olive oil
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon honey
pinch of thyme
pinch of celery salt
pinch of dried basil (or a pinch of minced fresh)
½ teaspoon of dried parsley (or 1 teaspoon of minced fresh)
1 teaspoon salt
several grinds of black pepper

For the salad:
1 lb pasta (2 cups dried pasta/8 cups cooked)
2 cups chopped broccoli (I used a combination of florets and peeled stem)
½ cup oven-roasted tomatoes or 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
¾ cup finely grated parmesan
3.5 tablespoons capers or ½ cup black olives (the basic kind, like the ones you stick on your fingers when you’re five.) (Or twenty-five.)

– If it’s not already cooked, cook pasta until it’s al dente. Drain, and rinse in cool water. Toss with a little olive oil to keep it from sticking, if desired, and set aside.
– Rinse broccoli, and steam it: Bring about an inch of salted water to boil in a medium-sized saucepan. Add broccoli, cover, and reduce the heat to medium. Steam it for about 5-6 minutes, or until it turns a bright green (after this, it will continue cooking until it turns that dark green-brown color of overly cooked, soggy broccoli known in cafeterias the world over). Drain, and rinse with cold water.
– While the broccoli is cooking, make the vinaigrette: whisk all the ingredients together (or put them all in a mason jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake) until the oil and vinegar have emulsified.
– Combine the cooked pasta, cooked broccoli, tomatoes, parmesan, and capers/olives. Mix until they’re all friendly with each other. Add the vinaigrette, and stir until all the salad ingredients are evenly coated.
– Chill and let the flavors mingle for at least an hour or two (preferably four or five, but to be honest, I ate it immediately after finishing it, and it was still good, un-mingled and lukewarm).

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