On May 5th, a certain apartment-mate of mine celebrated his birthday. Now, we aren't really the type to do big blow-out birthday celebrations, but we are the type to use birthdays as an excuse to spend a little more time in the kitchen, and to eat a few things that might not ordinarily work their way into our weekly rotation.
We considered going out to a nice restaurant on Jonathan's birthday, but in the end it was quite rainy and yucky and we felt like staying in. Instead, I made something I've never made before: real, Italian, saucy, juicy meatballs. I bought ground pork (for the first time, ever) and ground beef (if not for the first time, then for the first time in quite a while), and went to town with some fresh breadcrumbs, garlic, herbs, and tomatoes. And olive oil. Let us not forget the olive oil. I'm pleased to report that they were a hit. A heavy, don't-eat-more-than-2-at-a-time kind of hit, but a hit all the same.
And for dessert? Well, what's lighter than homemade ice cream to round out a heavy meal? I made mint chocolate chip, which, I must admit, is a flavor that I've always hated. It's not the mint so much as the chocolate chips that have always bothered me; I like chocolate, but big chunks of frozen chocolate in my ice cream is quite unappealing. My version, instead of big chunks, had lovely, delicate shavings of Scharffen Berger (70%, no less), and was completely out of this world. Instead of mint extract (any store-bought ice cream and most ice cream parlors use extract), I used only fresh mint leaves, which steeped in the cream and left a soft, herbal flavor to the ice cream instead of the sharp and assertive one that you get with most mint chocolate chips.
Oh, and then there was the dense chocolate whiskey cake that came later in the week, which laced the steam in the oven so aggressively with booze that I practically got sloshed just by reaching in and taking it out of the oven. But surely you wouldn't want to hear about that, would you? (Or, check here for the recipe).
But I'm not posting today to tantalize you with last week's birthday treats, I swear. What I'm here to tell you about isn't chocolate or cream or ground pork, but salad. Yes, salad. (If you're a bit disappointed, just wait until my next post, which is full of fat and sugar. I promise.)
But back to the salad. My salad today is really much more than a salad, because it was built not around vegetables, but around pasta. So, I suppose it's a pasta salad. But really, it is not a regular "pasta salad," which is often just a sorry mush of macaroni drowned in mayonnaise, with maybe a stalk of celery or a rib of red pepper thrown in to remind the eater that "yes, this is indeed supposed to be food."
The idea for a salad, with pasta, was born on Saturday afternoon, right before I was to head to Cambridge for Jonathan's birthday party/cookout with a few friends (several of whom had birthdays last week, meaning it was quite the event!). I always volunteer to bring food to these cookouts, not only because I love bringing food, but also because the menu is usually geared toward those who enjoy meat quite a bit more than I do. If you haven't noticed, I'm not exactly a hot dogs and hamburgers kind of gal. And, while I usually manage to scrape by on what I've brought (usually a salad, or some other vegetable dish), it's not quite a meal.
I was prepared this time around, and planned to make both a pasta dish and a salad. However, I was heading to Cambridge by myself, on the bus, and didn't really want to fuss with so many separate dishes (I also had to carry that boozy cake, remember). And thus my Greek pasta salad was born. Essentially, I made a Greek salad, complete with crunchy-fresh vegetables, fresh herbs, and a lemony zing, and added some cooked, olive-oil-slicked, whole wheat pasta shells to the mix. Fat (cheese, olive oil), protein (chickpeas, pasta), starch (pasta), and vegetables sing harmoniously in this easy dish, which also happens to be perfect for a cookout spread. It serves as a much-needed salad for the burger-eaters, and a welcome, filling respite for everyone else.
A few notes on the recipe: this dish is yummy and great for a regular old warm-weather dinner, in which case you don't need to do anything special to prepare it: make the pasta, chop the vegetables, dress generously, and toss everything together, perhaps over some baby greens.
To bring this dish to a barbecue, it's best to keep the elements (pasta, chopped vegetables, greens) separate until just before serving, to prevent general sogginess. If the pasta sits for too long in the vegetable mixture (which contains a fair amount of liquid), it can lost its al dente bite. So, here is what I suggest: make the pasta, and rinse with cold water until cool. Drizzle with some olive oil (only when cool; if hot, the pasta will tend to absorb the oil and clump a bit), and store in the fridge in a sealed zip-top bag. Chop the vegetables and dump directly into a portable food-storage container (with tight lid). Dress the vegetables, cover, and store in the fridge. Keep greens in a plastic bag, separate from other elements. Bring the whole ensemble to your barbecue, and just before everyone digs in, mix everything together in a big salad bowl.
And a few other things: The key to flavorful pasta is very generously salted pasta water. Don't be shy! Use sea salt, and add lots. Like, a couple tablespoons lots. Trust me. I prefer shells for this dish, because they are roughly the same size as the chopped vegetables. Farfalle would also be good, but I can never find a whole wheat variety. Although I suggest parsley and mint to flavor the salad, other herbs (oregano, basil, maybe dill) could be used as well. Roasted red peppers and/or kalamata olives would also be good additions, though I didn't have any on hand. Oh, and although I forgot to add the feta before photographing this dish, it was delicious. Yum!
Cookout-friendly Salad with Pasta (makes a whole bunch; can be halved)
1 lb. whole wheat pasta shells
1 can chickpeas, drained
6 small or 3 large carrots, peeled and sliced on the bias
3-4 green onions, sliced thinly
1 English cucumber, diced
~1 c. halved grape tomatoes
1 small block feta cheese, diced or crumbled
1 large handful fresh herbs, minced (I used mint and parsley)
1 tsp. dried oregano (use fresh if you have it)
2 tbs. mustard
1-2 tsp. honey
juice of 2 lemons
generous splash of sherry or white wine vinegar
plentiful olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
baby salad greens, for serving
Boil pasta in generously salted water until al dente. Drain and rinse immediately in cold water until cool to the touch. When fully cool, drizzle with olive oil and set aside in the refrigerator. In a large bowl or container, combine chopped carrots, cucumber, tomatoes, green onions, chickpeas, and herbs. Prepare dressing: mix mustard, honey, lemon juice, vinegar and a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Pour over chopped vegetables and stir to combine. Add cheese. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Add more vinegar or lemon juice if necessary. When ready to serve, combine pasta with chopped vegetables and stir to combine. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil, if desired. Serve over salad greens.