February 9, 2009

Food Memory

This weekend was one of homesick meals. Or maybe just nostalgic ones. Will and I have had either the good fortune or the bad luck to move many times since our marriage. We have had only twice celebrated Christmas in a house more than once. This year was the first that Briton had his birthday party with the same group of friends two years running. Moving can be problematic, it can also be a great adventure. It has certainly made our marriage stronger, our family stronger as we rely on each other for friendship and companionship while we get our feet on the ground at yet another new town. It has given us a chance to see places we may never have seen by staying on one place. It has also given us lots of places to miss.

Several years ago, when Briton was still a baby, we sat on the pool terrace of a small hotel in Columbia Missouri, where we were living at the time, and discussed this with a group of journalists visiting from Austria. Most of them had, at some point in their lives, lived outside their country. All of them had left the towns they grew up in for the lure of a bigger place, a better job. Will and I were, at that point, four moves into our marriage, and contemplating another. After several glasses of wine, we came to the conclusion that the only real problem with living a vaguely nomadic lifestyle is that once you leave where you are from, you will never really be at home anywhere. This is especially true when you leave your country for another, as we have since found out. By moving to Dublin, we became something not quite, normal. We became expats. And while we would never be “Irish” we would come to blend in and settle comfortably in a very different lifestyle. And then, by moving back, we always had the tinge, maybe even the taint, of having been expats. Of have forsaken our country for another. It’s a cycle that can’t really be broken. We will never be wholly European; even if we moved back and lived there our whole lives. We would always be “the Americans”. But we will also never be “Just Americans” again. None of this is really problematic; it’s just an odd sense being comfortable everywhere, but not quite belonging anywhere.

Similarly, once you leave a place, you always have something to miss. Even if you hated living there, there will be something, some food, some place, some characteristic that crops up in your mind from time to time. You think “I really wish I could go to that museum today.” Or “Boy, I could go for some food from this place right now!”

And that’s how this weekend went for us. We love Charlottesville. We really do. We have great friends, a lovely home, a fabulous neighborhood, and a wonderful school for our children, but there are times when we miss things that we had somewhere else. And for once, I decided to indulge in the homesicks.

It started Friday afternoon. I had been craving a dish from my favorite dinner spot in Portland, Pastini. When Will and I started going there it was just a small neighborhood restaurant down the street form our house. The food was great, the atmosphere was relaxed, and although we didn’t have kids yet, we couldn’t help but notice the unusual mix of excellent adult food and true kids food, things like cheese pizza and pasta with butter and nothing else. Over the years, though both of our stints living there, we have frequented the place. It has now grown into a chain, something I feel slightly weary of, not wanting it to loose the charm that drew us to it in the first place. I can, without even opening the menu, order for my entire family. Seafood cannelloni for Will, Perfectly Plain Pasta for Briton and Evie with a side of Broccolini, and Rigatoni Zuccati for me. I always intended to try something different, but every time we went I worried that I wouldn’t have a chance to go for ages and then I would regret not having my favorite when I had my chance. And so, Friday afternoon, I was idly clicking through the online menu, wishing I could walk down the road for Pastini Takeout when inspiration hit. Maybe, just maybe, there was a recipe online for my beloved Zuccati. And as chance would have it, one of the local news stations had done a cooking segment with the head chef, and there was the recipe, staring out from the screen.

Normally I wouldn’t have messed with something that I know is perfect, but I was out of spinach so I made a few small changes, things that wouldn’t make enough difference to keep me from being satisfied, but enough so that I could whip up what I craved then and there without making an extra trip to the store.

Rigatoni Zuccati
Adapted from the original recipe from Pastini

1 small roasted butternut squash, cut in 1-inch cubes
Rigatoni pasta (the kind with grooves!)
Fresh rosemary
Tablespoon of pesto
The dark green part of two leaves of bok choy, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
Olive oil
Two handfuls of mushrooms (I used brown, it would be better with wild)

I microwaved the squash for 5 minutes while the oven was heating to speed up the process, then brushed the juices that had formed in the hollow all over the flesh, sprinkling it with salt and the rosemary before putting it in the oven to finish roasting.

Toss the garlic and oil in a large saucier or frying pan and cook on medium until the garlic just begins to brown. Add the squash (with rosemary), pesto, mushrooms and bok choy and cook for about one minute to meld the flavors then pour enough cream over to make a slightly runny sauce. Let it boil away until it thickens slightly, adding more cream if you want it runnier. Season to taste and toss in cooked pasta. Garnish with Parmesan cheese.

*It’s extremely fast once you get things in the pan so don’t cook it ahead. Also, you have to stir gently, almost folding the ingredients in so that the squash doesn’t just turn to mush. You want it to break down a little, but still have some meat to it.

After an excellent dinner (Will did complain that I didn’t attempt the cannelloni frutti di mare, but really, I wasn’t quite up for that!) We continued on our stroll down memory lane.

“remember when we used to eat at Zell’s on Saturday mornings? Will commented the next morning as we lay in bed listening to our children run like wild things through the house and debating if we really want ed to get up and face the day. Zell’s had been a favorite pre-kids, lazy weekend eatery of ours, also in Portland.

“I could try to make Eggs Benedict. “ I told him, thinking to myself, aha! Another use for my beloved bain-marie!

“Go for it!” He agreed. So while he corralled the kids and made cinnamon toast for them, I attempted my first ever hollandaise sauce. I have to say, it turned out surprisingly well, thanks to a hint my cookbook had about dropping an ice cube in to lower the temperature if curdling threatens, which it did. So we had a second Portland meal in 12 hours while we watched our kids, watching “Click, Clack, Moo!” and sipped coffee (us, of course, not the kids, like they need any more energy!)

But we had one more stroll down culinary memory lane.

I am notoriously lazy on Sundays when it comes to cooking. I always intend to cook a big Sunday dinner. But usually 6 o’clock rolls around and nothing has been started (or sometimes even de-thawed) and I really don’t have any desire to cook anything. Last night, was one of those nights.

“Ugg, I don’t want to cook what’s on the menu.” I grumped.
“Cook something else.” Will suggested
“Actually, I mean I just don’t want to cook.” I continued. “If we were in Dublin, we could go out for a curry.”
“So go get a curry.”

And we did.

It wasn’t great but it was good. There isn’t quite the tradition of fabulous cheap Indian food here that there is in the UK and Ireland. But it was good enough, and I could sit out on our patio (it was a BEAUTIFUL and very un February 60 degrees yesterday) and eat Chicken Korma and Mulligatawny soup with garlicky naan for sopping up the sauce. Divine.