(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).