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Archive for the ‘pasta’ Category

spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and tarragon

In autumn, Italian, late summer, pasta, summer on 11 March, 2013 at 10:38 pm

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I’ve taken to drinking a lot of coffee on the weekends.

This leads, predictably, to the two o’clock jitters and empty stomach panic: I want to eat anything! everything! right this instant! I start flipping through cookbooks in a haze of craving and indecision, passing over recipes that take fifteen or twenty minutes or more, because I want something now, fifteen minutes is too long, I don’t have this or that ingredient, this looks like too much work and oh I might faint I’m too hungry now. (Fifteen or twenty minutes passes in this manner.)

The lifesaver comes in the form of Nigel Slater’s really handy book Real Fast Food and a recipe in it called “tomatoes fried in butter and sugar” or something like that, which immediately appeals to me for two reasons: 1) I have all the ingredients, having just bought a punnet of cherry tomatoes at the vege market, and 2) it’s called “tomatoes fried in butter and sugar”. Oh, also it takes just two minutes to make, according to the recipe. Excellent.

The problem is, I’ve got the empty-stomach caffeine shakes and I feel like I need to eat with these tomatoes some kind of substantial carb to settle me down, and I’ve got no bread (I’m kicking myself for not buying a loaf earlier, but what can you do). I do, however, have spaghetti and with that realisation I put down the book and get to work.

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Nigel’s recipe is really simple – to paraphrase: fry some tomatoes in butter and sprinkle a bit of sugar over at the end – but I feel like adding a little tarragon and parsley from the garden because I can. I add a little anchovy paste too, mostly because I’m excited about the lovely old-fashioned tube it comes in, but also to add a bit of extra oomph, because I can. I add the spaghetti to the skillet with the semi-saucy tomatoes and eat most of it out of the pan before changing my mind and transferring the rest to a plate (I really have no idea why. It tasted great either way).

My cherry tomatoes were mostly really big so I cut them in half, but if you can leave at least some of yours whole I recommend you do it: the whole ones sort of burst as you pierce them with your fork and spill their juices all over the mouthful of spaghetti you’re about to take. It’s glorious. The sugar gives it this sort of gentle sweetness reminiscent of slow-roasted tomatoes, and the softly sweet tarragon brings this out even more. And if you cook your pasta just a little past al dente then it almost becomes like a grown-ups’ version of tinned spaghetti. This is something I totally can get behind.

The best part about this meal? It was ready in the time it took to boil the jug and cook some pasta, and that’s really great when you’re shaky and hungry and must-eat-something-now. It’s super easy but I’ve posted some instructions below, for those who’d like a bit of guidance.

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SPAGHETTI WITH CHERRY TOMATOES & TARRAGON

Bring a pot of water to the boil (make sure you use plenty of salt) and chuck some spaghetti in there. In a skillet or heavy-bottomed frying pan, melt two or three tablespoons butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add some chopped tarragon (I used about a teaspoon worth but you could easily use a bit more) and about half a teaspoon (or more) anchovy paste*, fry for a few seconds, then add 250g cherry tomatoes. Cook for a couple minutes or until the spaghetti’s done. Reserve some of the pasta cooking water in case you need it to loosen up the sauce; drain pasta, add to the pan with the tomatoes, toss to coat. Add a bit of parsley before serving.

Serves 1 but can easily be doubled or tripled as needed. 

*You can easily omit the anchovy paste and make this dish vegetarian, if you’re so inclined.

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Tomato party

In autumn, pasta, salads, summer on 30 April, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Now, I realise tomato season’s pretty much drawing to a close for most of us in the Southern Hemisphere, but I’ve been hearing reports of some late-season harvests in gardens around here; helped, no doubt, by the Indian summer days we’ve been having this autumn. And I’ve spotted some nice-looking heirloom varieties at the organic store – surely a sign that it’s still seasonally appropriate to be posting this recipe this late?

And if there’s one last thing you make with fresh tomatoes before winter sets in, let it be this: Yotam Ottolenghi’s aptly named Tomato Party from his most excellent cookbook Plenty. Apt, because, really, a party is what this is: as many different kinds of tomato you can get your hands on, cooked to varying degrees, every mouthful is full of different incarnations of the tomato. Juicy roast tomatoes? Check. Savoury-sweet balsamic-glazed tomatoes? Check. Raw, tangy and sweet tomatoes? Yep. And you could keep going, too, adding different varieties of tomato or changing up the cooking method. It’s a fitting farewell for this summer fruit that frankly, I wouldn’t bother buying all winter.

I was lucky enough to be given a paper bag full of beautiful tomatoes* from the very generous Sue of Five Course Garden, who has what is possibly the most productive compact garden of anyone I know. It’s tiny and huge all at once, and is truly a joy to poke your nose around (and I’m not just saying this because both times I’ve been to see Sue I’ve left laden with fresh produce!) – it seems like every nook and cranny has got something edible growing in it.

And these tomatoes – just look at them! They’re the exact opposite of the bland supermarket tomatoes that get especially blander and more average as autumn fades into winter. They were stripey and purple and green and juicy and sweet, with so much more flavour than anything you could buy. And what better way to celebrate them than this tomato-rich couscous salad?

I pretty much followed the recipe straight from the book, adapted to the ingredients I had on hand: I used an assortment of Sue’s tomatoes, supplemented with a handful of orange cherry tomatoes I had lying around the kitchen and some vine tomatoes that were fast-approaching their use-by point. I used whole wheat Palestinian couscous (the stuff I used here) instead of fregola or mograbieh, because it’s what I had, and let’s face it – mograbieh is expensive. (I still got the delightful textural contrast of different-sized couscous, though in a pinch you could just as easily use one type of couscous, I mean, the recipe isn’t called “couscous party”, is it?)

The recipe that follows, though, is going to be more of an imprecise method than Ottolenghi’s instructions, because yesterday something really happened: Kate and Jason came over and we swapped cookbooks, SO, now I have (temporarily) parted ways with Plenty and my other current favourite, Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries, and have got my hands on Ottolenghi: The Cookbook and Thomas Keller’s Bouchonboth of which have been on my cookbook wishlist for what feels like forever. Hooray!

So anyway, I don’t have the book to refer to for this recipe, so I’ve cobbled together bits and pieces from memory and also from the ever-helpful internet (especially this earlier version of the recipe, which appeared in the Guardian in 2007 – actually, that might be pretty much the same as the version in Plenty. But I can’t know for sure). It’s more of  a rough method, anyway – cook some tomatoes a few different ways, mix with a couple different kinds of couscous, enjoy.

*Actually, the purpose of my visit was to pick up some tomatillos Sue had set aside for me – after sampling her harvest last year and making the best salsa verde and chilaquiles I’d had in a long time there was no way I was going to be able to refuse her offer. This year’s crop was great too – more on that later, though!

OTTOLENGHI’S TOMATO PARTY
(adapted from Plenty,and from this earlier version of the recipe)

Preheat the oven to 175C/350F. 

Cook 125g couscous according to the instructions on the packet; fluff with a fork and set aside. Do the same with 150g Palestinian couscous, or mograbieh if you’re lucky enough to have some, or some fregola or Israeli couscous. 

Meanwhile, halve or quarter (depending on size – you want them to be bite-sized when they’re cooked) a good bunch of vine tomatoes, around 300g or so. Put on a baking tray lined with baking paper or tinfoil, season with a bit of salt and pepper, some brown sugar and balsamic vinegar, give it a good drizzle of olive oil. Put in the oven for about 30 minutes until they’re shrivelled but still juicy. The balsamic vinegar, sugar and oil should have melded with the tomato juice and be a little bubbly but not too sticky. Remove from the oven and set aside in a bowl, adding all the juices from the pan.

Next, increase the oven temperature to 200C/400F. Halve about 200g cherry tomatoes and place on a clean piece of baking paper or foil on your baking sheet, season them with salt and pepper and olive oil and stick them in the oven for about 12 minutes.

Cut up some more tomatoes – about 100 to 150g – hopefully you’ve got an assortment of colours and sizes but if not, don’t worry too much.

Once you have all your tomatoes, mix the two types of couscous together and add a whole bunch of chopped herbs – I used tarragon, parsley, oregano & basil – and some crushed garlic, all of the tomatoes and all of their juices.*  Season to taste. Eat at once.**

*Other things you could add at this point that would be very delicious: crumbled feta, torn buffalo mozzarella, shelled & chopped pistachios, bits of streaky bacon. Or nothing else at all. This is, after all, all about the tomatoes.

**I can report this also tastes very, very good served at room temperature the next day, when the flavours have had a chance to mingle overnight.

pappardelle with hot smoked salmon & chives

In pasta, quick, spring, year-round on 22 November, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Last week, when I made this pasta, I had just returned from a busy weekend in Auckland: time spent with new friends, a full-on and utterly fantastic Saturday at the (first ever!) New Zealand Food Bloggers’ Conference, a prolonged boozy Sunday brunch (complete with bubbles and strawberries and peonies and asparagus!) in the big, rambling Ponsonby villa of one dear friend, a catch-up with another over some quick oysters at Depot, subsequently nearly missing my flight and then actually nearly missing my flight after I bumped into another friend outside the airport terminal.

It was a whirlwind weekend, one that reminded me that people* (both new to me and old) are generally wonderful. That there’s nothing that unites us quite like sharing good food. That I love Auckland.

There. I said it. Near-blasphemy coming from someone as stubbornly in love with Wellington as I am, I know. Words I never thought I’d utter but that I’ve slowly been warming to over the last year or so, forming the words silently with my mouth while no one is looking: I actually really love Auckland.

I don’t really know quite how this came about. I mean, I never really was into that whole Auckland-hating business but I did have the occasional sneer: at the traffic jams, at how self-absorbed all those Aucklanders are (well, all the stereotypical ones I’ve never met), at the soulless city centre (it’s getting better). But you know what? It’s actually tiring hating on Auckland when you don’t really hate it, when every time you’re there you can’t wipe that stupid grin off your face, despite the congested roads and the North Shore.**

Because for me, having grown up in a city where bumper-to-bumper traffic is a fact of daily life, where getting across town to meet up with friends is more than a 10-minute walk, where you plan nights out around taxi rides or sober drivers, the suburban sprawl of Auckland feels perversely comfortable. Maybe even relaxing, in a strange way.

When I’m in Auckland I almost think I could live there. I’ll walk through Mt Eden or Ponsonby or Grey Lynn in a little fantasy world – if I lived here, that’d be my favourite cafe, this would be the little shop I’d always pop my nose into on the way home, I’d get all my cookbooks from Cook the Books (if you were at the post-conference dinner last weekend you would too), I’d be friends with this greengrocer and I’d live in this house or that one or one just like it, and it’d be nice, and I’d be happy.

I feel a bit unfaithful to Wellington when I’m thinking these thoughts. But deep down I know if I ever leave Wellington it won’t be for Auckland but for somewhere a little less familiar, something that’s as yet unknown. And so I come home.

The downside of a weekend fling with Auckland is the exhaustion that follows. Wellington’s so familiar and comfortable; it’s a place I love dearly, but sometimes it feels like I know it just a bit too well. And so coming home feels a bit like waking up from a really good dream, the kind where you want to shut your eyes as hard as possible and will yourself to fall back asleep in the hopes that maybe you’ll fall back into it again. The kind where your head’s in the clouds for a good couple hours in the morning, maybe even until lunchtime, and you need something good to ease yourself out of it.

So that’s how I came to make this pasta last week. I was on my way down from that familiar old Auckland high, filled with a vague sense of longing for sunshine and Queenie’s and Ponsonby Road and friends and that amazing braised and rolled pig’s head at the Tasting Shed. So instead of the salads that have filled my life in recent days*** I was craving something a bit more substantial, something to get me settled back into my normal routine.****

I was also craving something really specific: the karengo hot smoked salmon from Plentifull Deli on Majoribanks St. So on the Monday after Auckland I popped into Plentifull – no salmon. I made do with buying myself some other little treat, and on Tuesday afternoon, I phoned ahead: “hey, do you have any hot smoked salmon today?” “let me check… oh, we’re just smoking some now; it’ll be ready in a couple hours”.

And if there’s anything that can pull you out of a dream-like post-holiday daze, it’s the satisfaction of getting exactly what you want. So I practically skipped home after work, a little parcel of fragrant, smoky fish in my handbag (yes, my bag smelled great – albeit fishy – for the next day or so), cooked up a big batch of noodles, and this dish was born.

*including, but not limited to, all the wonderful people I met for the first/second/third time at the conference:

AlessandraAlliAndreaBronCarmellaChristinaChristyEmmaJacoJemmaJulieKristinaIngrid & VanessaLesleyLouiseMairiMoiraRosaRowanSasaShirleenSueVivian

(Special thanks, of course, goes to Alli for organising the conference, Sasa for being such a lovely lovely host, Andrea, Jaco, Alessandra, Emma, Louise and Bron for the fantastic presentations and all of the conference sponsors:

Annies – Bell Tea – Cook the Books – Coopers Creek – Cuisine – Gravity Coffee – Gu Puds – Hubbards – I Love Pies – Kohu Road – Kokako – Loaf – Mad Millie – New Holland Publishers – Pacific Harvest – Photo & Video International – Teza – The Tasting Shed – Whittaker’s)

**not really picking on the North Shore here particularly. It was just the first thing I could think of that I had some form of perceived contempt for. I don’t, actually… also, I really think my opinion of Auckland has improved a lot now that there are people there who are lovely to me and drive me places. And thus talk to me during traffic jams in a much better way than, say, a taxi driver/fellow bus passengers could. Thanks, friends!

***from the simplest of leaves dressed only with sea salt and olive oil to more complex combinations of grain and legume and all sorts of good stuff!

****not for long, though – I’m off to Melbourne tomorrow!

PAPPARDELLE WITH HOT SMOKED SALMON & CHIVES
(serves approximately two – quantities are rough so adjust as you see fit!)

Cook some pappardelle (I used about 100g of this stuff) in well-salted boiling water. Drain, reserving a bit of the pasta water.

Once the pasta is almost ready, heat up about 1/3 cup creme fraiche and 1/3 cup cream in a wide, shallow pan. Add about a tablespoon each of grainy mustard and lemon zest and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper if needed.

To the sauce, add some flaked hot smoked salmon (I used about 100g, which was perfect) and a tablespoonful of chopped chives. Add the cooked pasta and toss gently until all the noodles are coated in the creamy sauce (use some of the pasta water to thin the sauce if the it’s too thick).

Serve, topped with a little extra salmon and chives to garnish (if you care about things like that).

chipotle penne all’arrabbiata

In pasta, year-round on 8 September, 2011 at 8:30 am

Here’s a quick post for a quick dinner: for when you’re too tired and hungry to do anything other than throw some pasta in some boiling salted water, open up a can or two, grate a bit of cheese and sink into the couch with a bowl full of noodles and a sigh.

It’s how I’ve been feeling lately, which I suppose is better than being bored, but it’s also not conducive to cooking elaborate meals or doing imaginative baking. Luckily I have some handy resources around like Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food, and while this recipe isn’t from that book, reading it has definitely reinforced the idea that whipping something up quickly from storecupboard ingredients doesn’t mean you have to have the same old boring thing or resort to prepackaged meals.

So, this pasta: it’s easy, you probably have most of the ingredients at hand (well, maybe not the chipotle peppers but they’re worth picking up), the sauce cooks in practically the time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta. Normal arrabbiata sauce is good enough – simple but fiery from the addition of chillies – but one day I tried adding chipotle peppers instead of regular chilli, and I’ve been hooked on this Mexican-Italian (Mexi-talian?) twist ever since.

I’m sure someone else has invented this dish before, but for me it was born on the Fourth of July this year, which happened to fall on a Monday and a particularly busy work day at that. But I had promised an American friend I’d meet her for a beer after work, and by the time I got home it was 9 pm, I was exhausted and all I’d ingested since lunchtime was a couple of American craft beers and a handful of edamame (at the wonderful Hashigo Zake).

Now I’m definitely not advocating drinking and frying but some of my best kitchen breakthroughs (like mastering the art of the perfectly-poached egg) have come in that too-sober-for-takeaways, tipsy-enough-to-be-ravenous state we get into at one stage or other. This was no exception: I needed something substantial and satisfying – and fast. So I turned to pasta, looked in the cupboards with a stumped look on my face, spotted a can of tomatoes. My mind turned to arrabbiata.

I started chopping and frying the onions and garlic and then remembered the can of chipotle peppers I had emptied into a jar in the fridge. So instead of the traditional fiery hot arrabbiata sauce, I ended up making something smoky-spicy and utterly delicious.

Since then this has been my go-to recipe for a pasta dish that takes little to no effort but tastes like something special. It’s really not too far a stretch from the traditional arrabbiata sauce but the addition of chipotle adds an extra bit of dimension, a welcome surprise.

CHIPOTLE PENNE ALL’ARRABBIATA
(serves 2 or 3)

Heat a decent glug (a couple tablespoons at least) of olive oil in a skillet. Add 1/2 chopped onion and start to fry over medium heat. Mince 1 clove garlic and add to the onion along with 1-2 chopped canned chipotle peppers* and fry gently for a few minutes until the onion softens and starts to turn brown. Pour a bit of red wine into the pan and deglaze. Add a can of chopped tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer until it reduces – 15 or 20 minutes is ideal, but if you’re in a hurry, until the pasta’s ready is fine.

Bring a pot of well-salted water to the boil and add about 200-250g penne. Cook until al dente, reserve a bit of the pasta water, drain.

Add the pasta to the sauce and give it a good stir so that everything’s nicely coated. Add some of the pasta water to thin out the sauce if needed. Serve topped with a bit of chopped parsley** and grated parmesan or pecorino.

*In Wellington, I get chipotle peppers from Moore Wilson’s – they come in those La Morena cans with the sultry lady on the front. A well-stocked supermarket is also likely to have them, or you could order online.

**Now that I think of it, this could be good with chopped coriander substituted for the parsley… hmm!

spaghetti with leeks & cream

In pasta, travel, winter, year-round on 6 July, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I’ve been in a cooking rut recently. Call it post-holiday funk, or cooking-for-one blues or whatever, but I’ve been finding myself coming home and wanting to curl up with the cat or a hot water bottle (both would be too warm!) instead of hanging out in the kitchen all night.  So for the last couple weeks since I’ve been back from holiday I’ve been eating mostly the same thing over and over again.*

I don’t know if it’s just me, but when I get in a cooking rut I find I need to ease out of it. Gently, slowly, making things that are simple and delicious. Things you could cook in an unfamiliar kitchen, things you could cook when you’re in mourning, but things that taste good enough to get you excited about cooking again. This is one of those things.

 This is one of those alarmingly simple dishes you can make with your eyes closed.  All you need is butter, cream, a leek, some spaghetti and white wine. And some nice hard cheese like parmesan or pecorino, and a bit of black pepper. If you’re like me, you’ll have these things on hand even if you haven’t been organised enough to do proper grocery shopping on the weekend. And if you’re missing one or two things like cream or spaghetti they’re things that are easy enough to get at the dairy.

And because it’s so simple you really don’t need any particular skill to make this dish – though a bit of timing** will help it all come together snappily at the end.

And delicious: it needs to be. When I first came upon this recipe, from the fairly great Serious Eats column French in a Flash – I made it one night… and then for lunch the next day… and then at least two or three more times that week for dinner. Something about the melty onion-ness of the leeks, the familiar slippery texture of the pasta, the cream and white wine and cheese all coming together – it’s not out of the ordinary, but it feels a little bit more special than, say, two-minute noodles or macaroni and cheese (though I am in no way dissing mac and cheese!).

Over time I’ve made a few very minor changes to the recipe, like using spaghetti instead of angel hair (purely because it’s what I usually have lying around), and slicing the leeks crosswise instead of julienning them (because to be honest, when I’m cooking this I’m usually looking for the quickest option possible) but other than that this is pretty close to the original.

SPAGHETTI WITH LEEKS & CREAM: (serves 2-3)
adapted only very slightly from this recipe from French In a Flash/Serious Eats

- the white and light green part of 1 decent-sized leek 
- butter
- half a bottle of white wine, 1/4 – 1/3 cup reserved
- 1/4 – 1/3 cup cream
- roughly 150-200g spaghetti
- parmesan, pecorino, or a similar hard cheese

Thinly slice the leek and separate out the pieces. Melt a decent-sized chunk of butter in a wide saute pan (ideally one you can cover with a lid) along with 2 tbsp water, then add the leeks, turn the heat all the way down to low, cover, cook gently for around 20 minutes until they’re soft and melty. Add more butter/water if the pan gets too dry; take the lid off if it’s getting too watery.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti, making sure the water’s really salty. Add the wine at the same time you add the spaghetti. Once it’s cooked, reserve a cupful of pasta water and drain.

In the last couple of minutes before the pasta’s done, add the reserved wine to the leeks, reduce a bit, then add the cream and cook just until the sauce is nice and hot. Add the drained spaghetti to the leeks, adding enough pasta water so the leeks, cream and wine create a nice silky sauce. Season with salt (if your pasta water was really salty you probably won’t need to add much, or any) and freshly ground black pepper. Top with plenty of grated parmesan and a touch of parsley.

Eat immediately. Make again for lunch the next day if you don’t have leftovers. And maybe make some for dinner later on in the week, but be careful. If you’re using this as a step up out of a cooking rut, you may find yourself stuck in a new one.

*Though it’s not all bad: when I get in a rut I revert to easy stuff and childhood comfort food (not too unusual, I guess). In my case that’s Japanese. So I’ve been eating a lot of rice and miso soup, and  ochazuke, and udon noodles with enoki mushrooms and spinach and shoyu tamago (though that’s more of a ramen thing.. I love them). Pretty good.  

**Nothing like the amazing coordination of the one-woman taco stand my mum and I visited on a side street in Puebla (couple hours outside of Mexico City).  It was late on a Monday night, we were in search of a feed, most of the restaurants we’d been recommended had closed, and we approached this lady cooking something over a big round flat metal plate, a few people milling about eating or waiting for their food. She was working fast, all abrupt movements, and it was hard to tell if she’d noticed us, or if we were simply gawking. She seemed angry almost, and then, finally, there was a brief, split second reprieve and she looked up and smiled, briefly but genuinely enough.

And from then on her movements seemed not brusque, but calculated and efficient: grabbing handfuls of masa and flattening it between two sheets of plastic in a wooden tortilla press, slapping thinly sliced meat on the hottest part of the grill, rapidly slicing with two knives as it cooked, while keeping an eye on the tortillas so that they didn’t burn. Turning the nopales (cactus!), slathering beans on tortillas, spooning out salsa with one hand while taking payment with the other (and I noticed in all the hustle she still wiped her hands on a wet rag each time she handled money, though admittedly who knows how clean that rag was. But hey. You don’t eat street food for the food hygiene). Every component of every person’s order all came together at the right time; nothing burned. This was a woman who knew what she was doing.


And it was damn good. Fresh corn tortilla, refried beans, bits of (I want to say) pork, cactus, salsa verde, avocado. Hot off the grill, and ready to eat, with a squeeze of lime. The cactus was tart and crisp yet slimy, but in a good, okra-y way. So good. I only wish I could recreate it at home (you see why I’m in such a cooking rut?).

tomato, basil & ricotta salad (and pasta)

In late summer, pasta, salads on 2 March, 2011 at 12:08 am

(warning: skip this bit if you’re totally sick of earthquake stuff or if you’re otherwise not into musings on life and death and other topics that probably have no place in a food blog)

On Tuesday last week I was headed to a potluck dinner and had planned to make something awesome with tomatoes inspired by the latest Cuisine magazine. Instead I found myself, a half hour before I was due for dinner, standing outside Moore Wilson’s in a crowd of people staring open-mouthed at the television screen. Up till that point I had somehow weathered the day, watching the events unfold, making contact with loved ones till I was sure all family members in Christchurch were accounted for, but standing there among a group of strangers all sharing the same horror and disbelief changed something and suddenly the bag of tomatoes I was carrying turned to lead, my face crumpled into some unrecognisable shape and I knew I had to get home before someone saw me cry so I grabbed my bike and pedalled out into the drizzle, failing to even pretend that my cheeks were wet from the rain.

Now a week has passed. Though I can’t even begin to fathom what Cantabrians must be going through, for the rest of us it’s been a week of emotional extremes, from relief at learning that loved ones were safe, to heart-stopping panic at remembering a friend or acquaintance had just ventured South, to sheer despair and sadness at hearing the stories of those who weren’t so lucky, at seeing the images of a beloved city reduced to rubble. There’s been hope, too, in images like these and in seeing the massive collective effort New Zealanders (and plenty of people overseas) have put in to band together and support Christchurch.**** I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s awesome.

The other thing that seems to have sprung out of the earthquake, at least in Wellington, is this hypervigilance I (and plenty of others I’ve talked to) can’t seem to shake. The good thing about this is I’ve got my emergency kit sorted, but still. Every time I go outside I find myself eyeing up building facades and power lines, glass windows, with this sort of half-wary mistrust. At work my mind keeps wandering back to how quickly I could get under my desk if the earth started shaking, and if my desk would really do me any good. Part of this comes from living on a major fault line, the other from reading stories of narrow escapes and those who weren’t so lucky; it seems like in every story three seconds could have made the difference between life and death.

And that got me thinking about whether the whole freaking-out-about-The-Big-One thing is futile. I mean ultimately, if you break it down, life or existence or whatever comes down to this: the goal is to live, until you die. Maybe also reproduce, if you look at it from an evolutionary standpoint. I guess it’s taken a big event like this to make me think about the fact that death happens, can happen, at any time. It feels cruel, but in the end, there is no cruel, no kind, if you’re looking at the bare elements of life. Everyone lives, everyone dies. Some lives are shorter than others; they’re all lives nonetheless.

But being human we can’t just break life down to biological standards. We love and laugh, and weep and mourn, and losses cut deep and we can’t ignore the emotions that so inextricably link us to the events we experience, the people we interact with. So the best thing that I’ve been able to come up with in the last few jumbled days is a resolution to exist, to enjoy, to cherish others.

On the day in question the potluck I was headed to was for a dear friend’s birthday, something I wouldn’t miss for all the earthquakes in the world, and not just because when tragedy strikes you’ve got to surround yourself with your favourite people.  But I still had a bag full of tomatoes and not much time or inclination to cook. I had even less inclination to turn up to a potluck empty-handed. Which is how I got to making this salad.

When you’re feeling raw and cut up you may not want to eat something raw and cut up (my first instinct is to reach for a bowl of mac and cheese) but there’s something cathartic about chopping vegetables, and it was sure as hell easier to put together this simple salad than to think about cooking something at that stage.

And luckily it’s that time of year when tomatoes are at their fattest and juiciest and you don’t need much more than a few simple accompaniments to put together something delicious. This salad is roughly based on the classic Italian insalata caprese but with fresh ricotta instead of buffalo mozzarella (mainly because that’s what I had in the fridge). I’ve provided quantities to serve 2-3 as a side dish but feel free to adjust as necessary. If you want to make the pasta (recipe further below) the next day, maybe double the recipe so you have enough.

TOMATO, BASIL & RICOTTA SALAD (serves 2-3):

Chop 3 ripe tomatoes (more or less depending on size/type of tomato) into chunks; put in a bowl along with any juicy bits that may have seeped out onto the cutting board. Add a generous handful of fresh basil leaves* and pieces of firm, fresh ricotta**, pour a glug of olive oil into the bowl and season generously with good-quality sea salt and cracked black pepper. A drizzle of white balsamic wouldn’t go amiss, though at this time of year the tomatoes can easily hold their own with just some salt, pepper and olive oil.  Toss, taste, adjust seasoning as necessary, garnish with a few more basil leaves, serve.

This salad could easily accommodate chunks of avocado, or cucumber, or plenty of other summery bits and pieces – but for now I’ve kept it simple.

*torn if they’re quite big, but don’t chop them as they bruise easily.

**for this you’ll want to use ricotta that’s quite firm and sliceable. I used Zany Zeus but if you can only find the creamy variety in pottles you could also make your own (super easy and cheap) or else just make it a caprese salad and go for fresh mozzarella. The key is bits of fresh white cheese.

If you have leftovers and you’re looking for something a bit more substantial (as I was on Wednesday when awful reality started to sink in and that old deep-seated mac-and-cheese craving hit) this salad works well tossed with hot pasta. Slightly less bad for you (not that it matters) and there’s still not much out there more comforting than a bowl full of noodles:

VERMICELLI WITH TOMATO, BASIL & RICOTTA (serves 2):

Take the salad above* and toss with 250g** cooked vermicelli, or whatever pasta’s handy. I like it with vermicelli because the thin strands get coated with the tomato juices and flecked with ricotta and seem to carry the delicate fresh tomato and basil flavours quite well, but spaghetti or bucatini would work fine, too. Sprinkle with a couple of freshly torn basil leaves (especially if you’re making this the day after making the salad – the previous day’s basil will be dark green and wilted), crack some pepper over the top, eat while hot.

*this is best made with next-day leftovers because the salt will have drawn out the juices from the tomatoes and penetrated the ricotta chunks, thus giving you extra liquid to toss the pasta in, but if you’ve just made the salad and it seems a bit dry you could always add a bit of the pasta cooking water or a bit more olive oil.

**more or less, depending on appetite/preference.

****PS. it was probably more for my own good than anything else, but I’ve been doing a bit of baking for the “bring and buy” fundraising stall at the gorgeous little garden store Grow From Here at the top of Cuba St. It’s going on all week and a gold coin donation will get you baking, clothes, old vinyl, handmade candles, etc. On Saturday morning I hung out with Laura of Hungry and Frozen and her counterpart Tim and Kaye, who runs the place and had set up a space for the stall, and it was a lovely, laid-back morning gathering coins and being surprised by the generosity of everyone who stopped by. Laura’s got a pretty good rundown of the day on her blog, go check it out (I couldn’t have said it better, really).

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