Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How to cook and dance at the same time

This is a public service announcement: Don't grate cheese and boogie at the same time.

I've been hammering away for days at a tough editing project, so food has gotten kind of short shrift at the homestead (Sorry family). Last night we got takeout. Who knows what we ate the day before. My head has been lost in a thick jungle of words that haven't made a whole lot of sense, and I had been slashing away with my editorial machete until my arms hurt and I lost my sight to a wicked migraine. Finally, today, I saw some light through the trees and finished up a rough section.

In need of a little R&R, I decided to throw on some tunes while cleaning up the kitchen and preparing my favorite go-to pasta dish. Mike and the Boo weren't home yet, so I decided to listen to ABBA--a nostalgia trip (I grew up in Sweden) and an invitation to dance (and not a favorite of my music snob of a husband).

The first song to come up was I Have a Dream, so I start to sway and sing along. Memories of being eight or nine years old, spending the summer with my cousin Tove in Stockholm, and putting on shows for the family with her started to break over me like crashing waves: "I have a dream/a song to sing/To help me cope with anything/If you see the wonder of a fairy tale/You can take the future even if you fail/" Then, the song rises up to "I believe in angels/Something good in everything I see," and my throat chokes up and tears slide down my face, even as I continue to sway and empty the dishwasher. Song after song, it goes like this: I am crying, my throat is too constricted to sing and yet I continue to force the notes out, and I am wondering: What the hell? It's ABBA, for pete's sake. Why am I crying?

But the crying feels good. It has that weird and wonderful cathartic feeling that laughing at a funeral can have when everyone is remembering someone they loved very much, telling goofy stories, and soaking in gratitude for life and the people who are still there with you. It's pain and it's joy rolled into one rich and overwhelming package--like eating something that's sweet and savory at the same time.

Next song up is Gimme Gimme Gimme (a Man After Midnight), the dishes are done. Time to make the pasta. I shimmy over to where I keep the big pasta pot, pick it up, twirl back to the sink and start filling it with water, toss a handful of salt in. While the pot is filling I get some some high kicks (or maybe not so high) going while I holler my head off (of course the back door is wide open, so I am keeping my eyes peeled for the neighbors). I boogie back to the sink, put the pot on the stove to boil. I grab a spring onion, a bundle of asparagus, two carrots, some bacon, and what's left of a box of sweet peas from the fridge.

I slice the spring onion and the carrots; snap the ends off the asparagus and cut it into one-inch pieces; peel some garlic; cut the ends off the peas. The bacon slides from the package, and "Mamma Mia, here I go again/My, my, how can I resist you?/Mamma Mia, does it show again?/My, my, just how much I missed you." Oh bacon, how much I've missed you. I haven't had any since Saturday. I slice it thinly.

The tears have dried up, the sweat is starting to flow, the bacon goes into a hot pan to render and fry into crispy little bits. "If you change your mind, I'm the first in line/Honey I'm still free, take a chance on me/If you need me, let me know, gonna be around." The water is boiling away, a pound of butterflies is in for a dip. The bacon fat has rendered out, the spring onion slices are in the pan, changing the scent in the room. Molecules tickle my nose, my memory, the smell of my Finnish grandmother's kitchen (crazy as a bedbug, I believe, but I remember the mouth feel and taste of her bread, of green salad with some strange but delicious white salad dressing). Mostly, there's a memory of feeling whole, in the right place, family all around, Tove's dad trying to make us laugh and twirling his handlebar mustache, the bowl of salad being passed around the table. Cool Nordic summer light drifts through the window. I am crying again. It all comes from a time when I was little, before my family broke irrevocably, and little has been whole since. In go the carrots, the asparagus, and the peas.

I bring back Gimme Gimme Gimme (a Man After Midnight) and pull out all the stops now. I am dusting off what steps I remember from years of dance classes while the vegetables cook in the pan and the pasta boils. I am busting some serious moves, even though I don't remember my joints being this stiff when I did them before. I am going to hurt tomorrow. I grate the Parmigiano Reggiano while bopping around. Turns out to be a mistake when I slice some skin off my thumb. No blood in the cheese though, and that's what matters.

Pasta is down to about three minutes on the boil, I pour a cup of half and half into the pan with the vegetables and add a cup of grated cheese (more actually, but I always like extra cheese). The sauce thickens in minutes. In go thyme and white pepper. When the pasta is cooked, I strain it, add it to the sauce, and stir. Dinner's done. Mike and the Boo aren't home yet. They went to the park. So I keep on dancing until they get home, and it's time to eat.

Base recipe for go-to pasta (will make enough for at least two dinners, which is helpful if you have little time to cook):

  • 1 lb dried pasta of any variety (butterflies and rotini are my usual picks) (cooked according to package directions--once again, when I make my own pasta, you will know about it)
  • Any combination of vegetables that are in season and hold their shape pretty well (in summer, tomatoes and bell peppers are good; fall, I could go with cauliflower cut into bite-size pieces; spring, asparagus and peas are awesome)
  • 4-5 slices of bacon (or more, if you like), sliced thinly (make sure to render it for the fat to the vegetables in)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 1 cup grated Parmegiano Reggiano
  • thyme, white pepper

Instructions (sans dancing)

  • cook the pasta
  • render the bacon and then let it get crispy
  • add vegetables (start with firmer vegetables that take longer to cook) (keep stirring them)
  • add the half and half and the cheese, season with thyme and white pepper (I don't usually add any salt because there is so much in the cheese and the bacon) and let it thicken
  • strain the pasta
  • add the pasta to the sauce and stir it on the heat
  • You are done! (If you feel like it, you can toss some chopped walnuts, pine nuts, grated cheese, or other things on top, but you really don't need it.)


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