Feeding Ourselves Well

Spring Pasta Salad

When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call “Mexican Pizzas” which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I’d whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe’s or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas — a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.

Spring Produce

My parents have been divorced for well over a decade now. My mom lives with her dog Bailey, and my dad with a new partner. Every night for dinner my mom cooks herself a full meal: always something different with a wine she’s excited about and pretty, seasonal dinnerware. Every few months or so, my two sisters and I will text each other a photo of what we’re eating for dinner, and ever since my mom got a smart phone we’ve included her in the chain. The last time this happened I was working on my cookbook and enjoying a truly uninspired dinner of crackers, cheese, and carrot sticks. My youngest sister Zoe, who lives in Manhattan, sent a photo of take-out sushi. My middle sister, Rachael, sent a photo of a hangar steak and a baked potato. Then came my mom’s photo: a shot of the kitchen counter at home with a real place mat, a small glass of wine, flowers in the background, a big bowl of minestrone soup, homemade bread and butter. None of our dinners were better or worse than the other (well, my crackers and cheese left a lot to be desired, really) but my mom’s was different: it showed careful care and preparation. It showed that she valued so much this time in the evening of feeding herself that not only would she cook a well-rounded meal, but she’d also lay it out beautifully. This was the exact opposite of a Mexican Pizza in front of the computer.

When I lived alone, I always felt that I wanted to get dinner over with. It made me sad to eat by myself. Friends would pick up on this and invite me over to their apartments. Sometimes I’d go; sometimes I felt they were pity invitations and I’d skip dinner altogether and walk to yoga instead. But it’s not surprising that my mom’s photo contained such a perfectly-set scene: Growing up, eating dinner together was the one thing that was non-negotiable. No matter what sports practices my sisters and I had, how much homework was on the horizon, or how much my Dad needed to stay at the office to catch up on the books — you always made it to dinner. Period. And with very few exceptions, my mom cooked each and every night. Now these weren’t necessarily gourmet meals. We ate our way through many of the great comfort foods of the eighties and early nineties: baked chicken with Italian bread crumbs, chicken pot pie, meat loaf, lasagna, and “Bosoms” (our favorite meal to talk about to this day). Bosoms are puff pastry shells filled with creamy tuna and peas, topped with that little puff pastry round that acted as — you guessed it–the nipple. Yeah. That was a lot to explain to high school boyfriends. Rachael still makes them to this day. I think my Mom does, too.

avocado dressing

This past weekend didn’t bring about much in the way of dinner in our house. Sam and I had an argument over the weekend. A pretty typical couple’s argument over nothing in particular but which grew in its own weird, incomprehensible ways and ended up lasting longer than either of us would’ve liked. We’re both stubborn people. I was fascinated to sort of observe myself over these few days as I completely lost my appetite and any desire to feed myself well. Finally when I got really hungry on Saturday night, guess what I made? That’s right: I broke out a package of corn tortillas, grated some cheddar cheese, sliced a few green onions and a couple of little tomatoes and preheated the oven. Even a small salad seemed too much work at that point. I needed something that would just fill me up quickly and taste good. Nothing fussy. Nothing that required a decision. No thoughts about seasonal flavor combinations or spice profiles. Just warm tortillas, beans and cheese.

Jenny Rosenstrach’s charming cookbook, Dinner: A Love Story, opens with a great quote on family dinner: “I found that if I was eating well, there was a good chance that I was living well, too. I found that when I prioritized dinner, a lot of other things seemed to fall into place … and perhaps most important, the simple act of carving out the ritual — a delicious homemade meal — gave every day purpose and meaning, no matter what else was going on in our lives.” I think this is what my mom would’ve said about why she prioritized dinner when we were kids; it was the one and only thing that anchored all of our frenzied days. And it was this anchor that I was missing this past weekend. The ritual of Sam and I dancing around each other in the kitchen making dinner each night. Sometimes from a cookbook, sometimes something our families used to make, more often than not something thrown together out of what we find in the refrigerator that sounds delicious.

Spring Pasta Salad

The second Sam and I had finally hashed it out on Sunday evening, I set out to do something with all of the fresh vegetables that had originally been purchased days before with good intentions. I thinly sliced the spring radishes, blanched some asparagus, retrieved the last of the spicy arugula, and found a little nub of salty cheese. After toasting a big handful of almonds and mixing up my new favorite creamy avocado dressing — an impromptu spring meal was born. We sat down at the dining room table and ate quietly. It didn’t matter what was said (and not much was), and it wouldn’t really have mattered what exactly was eaten. It was a meal infused with meaning simply because we were sharing it together, again, and claiming that time as important.

In Tiny, Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes, “We are here to build the house. It’s our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do.” And that thing to do when I was growing up was to share a meal together, preferably dinner. And today? The reason I can’t stand to eat dinner alone and often feed myself poorly when the occasion arises is not so much because I don’t think I’m worth the effort. Instead, it’s because the ritual has been broken — a meal that has become, to me, so much about carving out time with loved ones is a difficult one to spend alone. On a visceral level, it’s a meal I want to share. It’s what comprises the feeling that, as Cheryl Strayed would say, I’ve a place that belongs to me. And someone sitting across the table who wants to live in that place, too.

Note: This post was inspired by an encouragement from my friend Shauna to write about what family dinner means to you. Shauna and Danny have a wonderful new book that is so much about sharing meals and feeding one another. If you’ve ever spent time with them, they are truly the epitome of “making a place that belongs to us” and you feel it from the moment you step through their door (also, they map out the week’s dinner on a sheet of paper and post it on the fridge which Blows. My. Mind). 

Spring Pasta Salad with Creamy Avocado Dressing

Spring Pasta Salad with Creamy Avocado Dressing

  • Yield: Serves 6
  • Prep time: 45 mins
  • Total time: 45 mins

This salad is spring in a bowl: the thinly-sliced radishes and green onions combine with the salty cheese, toasty almonds and creamy dressing – resulting in a most satisfying and balanced lunch. You could use a vegetable peeler to get nice, thin slices of the ricotta salata or simply crumble it for a more rustic salad. English peas aren’t in season here yet, but I think a handful folded in at the end of this salad would be pretty wonderful, too.

Ingredients

For the dressing:

1 ripe avocado, pitted and peeled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup Greek yogurt

For the salad:

1 cup sliced almonds
¾ pound whole-wheat fusilli or penne pasta (or your favorite shape)
1 pound asparagus, tough ends removed
2 ounces / 3 cups baby arugula, long stems removed
1 small bunch spring radishes, thinly-sliced (about 1 cup)
3 tablespoons thinly-chopped green onions (about 2 green onions)
4 ounces ricotta salata, shaved or crumbled
2 tablespoons fresh chives (or 2 teaspoons dried chives)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the almonds out onto a small rimmed baking sheet and toast until fragrant and golden, 6-8 minutes.

Make the dressingIn the bowl of a food processor (or blender) combine the avocado, olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, salt and a few grinds of pepper. Process until smooth. Add the yogurt at the end and process until combined. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if desired.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water until al dente. Drain and set aside to cool.

While the pasta is cooking, fill a bowl with ice water. Heat a large pot of water over medium-high heat and simmer the asparagus until just crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove asparagus from pot and place in ice bath to stop the cooking. Place cooled asparagus spears on clean surface, towel dry, and slice into 2-inch pieces.

In a large salad bowl, combine the cooked pasta, asparagus and 3/4 cup of the toasted almonds along with the arugula, radishes, green onion, ricotta salata, chives, salt and pepper. Fold in the avocado dressing and toss to combine. Serve at room temperature sprinkling each bowl with a pinch of the remaining toasted almonds. Cover and refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 days.

Comments

  1. amy @ southern sweets and eats

    My husband and I have developed the habit lately of eating pasta salad on the evening when the kids are with grandparents, since they aren't the biggest fans of it. Yours looks absolutely delightful. I'm going to have to surprise him with this next week!

  2. Luisa

    Such a lovely post, especially loved reading about how you and your sisters and your mom texted each other photos of your dinner :) Also, that avocado dressing sounds dreamy. Can't wait to try it!

  3. Ashlae

    I do the same thing with my dad and brothers (no sisters, here!) - and despite the fact they give me crap for not having meat on my plate, I always look forward to getting a picture from one of them. And heckling them for eating junk ;)

    Love that your mom makes a full dinner for herself - what an inspiration.

    PS - so happy this can easily be made dairy free. I'm a big fan of pasta and an even bigger fan of cold pasta. Cannot wait to try!

  4. Bowen

    I love this! I can always tell when life is maybe getting the best of me when I'm not as interested in making dinner. Sometimes I'm just tired, but sometimes it's one of those valley periods, and often it's my thoughts about dinner that let me know that I might need a little self-care. I grew up never eating family dinner, but now it's a hugely important part of family life/home routine for my husband and I.

  5. Eileen

    This salad sounds amazing! I love all the crispy sliced veg to go with tender pasta. And avocado dressing! Yay! :)

  6. Shanna

    I love your thoughts on our meals reflecting our lives. I've never thought about that idea before, but, you know, I think there's truth in it. Eloquent, as always.

  7. Amanda @ Once Upon a Recipe

    As a single lady (I'd like to say "freshly" single but it's actually been almost two years), I can completely relate to the idea of getting dinner over with. I adore cooking for others and sharing meals with the people I love. But suddenly, in the absence of that, dinner just doesn't feel as important to me. In fact, it feels quite sad. I definitely look forward to the day when I have someone to share that time with, again. But in the meantime, I'm going to try to move away from my fall back...toast. If only it wasn't so damn quick and convenient!

    1. megang

      Amanda: I really, truly relate to the downright sad element of dinner. And you obviously will have someone to share it with again (as I'm sure you've heard a million times already). In the meantime, toast isn't half bad! Avocado toast! Cheese and tomato toast! There's a newish spot in San Francisco that I visited while down there a few weeks ago called The Mill and they pretty much focus on good coffee and toast. While some friends were finding it a little overpriced, I was in heaven: a thick piece of great toast slathered with butter and strawberry jam. I think you need to make a pilgrimage! Hope you're enjoying your week, ~m

  8. Christy

    I love that you mention two of my favorite latest reads -- Dinner: A Love Story and Tiny Beautiful Things -- in a post about one of my favorite rituals: family dinner. My family of origin didn't regularly gather round the table, but doing so is a habit that I have deliberately instantiated in the everyday life of the "house that I've built" as an adult. We are here to build the house, and any house becomes cozier with the addition of good food and a communal table.

  9. Nora

    New to your blog, but had to comment - lovely, heartfelt, reflective post. It resonates. Thank you!

  10. heidi

    sharing meals means alot to me. I get upset when things get in the way of that and you end up eating something just to eat. it never tastes good and i'm almost sorry i ate at all. i am by no means rigid. life gets busy for all of us and the time we share for a meal is an important connection. i find that when we keep this connection active, the rest of our relationship flows more smoothly, in part because we not only eat, but talk etc.and i LOVE to cook for someone besides myself, have table with flowers and cloth napkins and i hear my husband brag about this to other people and it makes me fee realy good that he feels well cared for.

    1. megang

      Heidi: Yes to eating AND talking! I completely agree ... I think, at the root of it all, it's so much more than the plate right in front of us. You and your husband sound like you've got a good routine going. Enjoy your week, ~m

  11. Kasey

    I definitely know the feeling of just wanting to get dinner overwith...and the feeling of being rejuvenated and inspired to whip up something fresh and inspired. I'm glad you and Sam hashed it out and you're back to feeding yourself well. :) xoxo

  12. thelittleloaf

    My Dad and I often send each other pictures of what we're eating, or randomly text or email to say we've discovered the most amazing drink/bread/cake etc. I love those little glimpses into the life of those I love through food.

    I always make sure my fiance and I sit down together at the end of the day. Eating a proper meal, made with love, is so important. What a gorgeous post.

    1. megang

      I agree! My mom recently joined Instagram and it's been so wonderful getting to share little bits of our (I have two sisters) life with her in a way that you just don't over the phone or in email. Glad you enjoyed the post ~m

  13. lori

    Truly lovely. I love reading your blog first thing in the morning. Now I am inspired.

    1. megang

      Thanks, Lori!

  14. Asha

    Agree with every bit of it. Dinner is one meal I hate eating alone and I used to go so far as find random acquaintances to share a meal with. Yes, that is sad. Eventually, I learned to be more at ease with just me and started cooking well for myself atleast half the time I was on my own. But, even now, I hate having to eat alone and it still makes me sad when I have to but I try to make the food inspire me to a happier state. After all, I love myself and I love food! :)

    1. megang

      Asha: Awesome! I love the last line of your comment. Such a good attitude! And you're right: if you love food (as most of us do if we're here together) and you feel good about yourself, why not, eh? (My problem was I didn't feel so hot about myself at the time). Hope you're enjoying your week so far, ~m

  15. momgordon

    A Mom Morning does not get much better than sitting down with a cup of coffee in a sunny NYC apt. and reading that what you do is noticed and appreciated! And said in that beautiful Megan way. Thank you honey! I love you!

  16. Connie B

    A beautifully written post (as always) and a very timely reminder just when I was getting so frustrated with having to come home from a day at work to *gasp* find something to feed my family. I adore my family and they are my nourishment...why would I not take the time to nourish them properly in return.

    1. megang

      Thanks so much, Connie! There is the whole nourishment thing, for sure. But then there is also the reality of working a full day and trying to figure out dinner ... so I feel you on that. For sure. Thank God for quick meals on busy weeknights. So happy you're enjoying the blog, ~m

  17. Dana

    I eat truly terrible things when Randy is out of town. My interest in cooking goes out the window. I still find myself dreaming of and obsessing about food but without the desire to actually cook anything. When I was single, I actually put a lot of effort into dinner. I guess I didn't want it to be over too quickly with the vast expanse of an lonely evening ahead of me. This is a lovely post Megan.

    1. megang

      Thanks so much for your sweet words, Dana. That's actually pretty incredible that you put so much effort into single-gal cooking; I am truthfully in such awe of that. But you're right: then when dinner is over, you've still got a whole night of quiet ahead, so in a way I probably should've taken more time in the preparation of it all. xox + enjoy your week, ~m

  18. Melinda

    You're very brave to write this. It's beautiful because of it.

    1. megang

      Thanks so much, Melinda. ~m

  19. molly

    Megan,
    I adore this, Bosoms to Strayed, DALS to dinner. All of it. It's a rare post that makes me laugh and cry.
    Thanks for that.
    Molly

    1. megang

      Oh, Molly. You always know how to make a gal's day. Thank you so much - means a lot coming from you. ~mg

  20. Denise | Chez Danisse

    I hope your dinner table is a little chattier now. We all have our ups and downs. Your creamy avocado dressing looks superb. It had to help lighten the mood. Take care, Denise

    1. megang

      Denise-
      I think you'd love the avocado dressing -- we've been using it on pretty much everything lately: hearty green salads, grains etc. Dinner is much chattier, thankfully. Hope all is well with you and that you're enjoying your spring. ~m

  21. Dana

    Back a few years ago in high school, idealistic teenager me decided to go vegan. My mum didn't so much have an issue with the fact that I wasn't eating animal products anymore (she knew her anxious researcher daughter would make sure to keep her nutritional bases covered), but that it messed with sitting down as a family to eat, due to my preparing a vegan meal and everyone else wanting to eat 'normal food'.

    I didn't understand then what her issue was. I was still eating, I was just eating a little earlier or a little later. With the time that has lapsed between then and now, I think I understand.

    It's that simple act of sitting down together and being together eating that was important.

    Food is love, no?

    1. megang

      Thanks for the sweet, considerate comment, Dana. It made me think of my college days when I was living in Boulder, CO and I decided to go all organic. It was a nightmare for my poor mom when I'd come home for the holidays and judge and scorn everything in the fridge ... I now look back on that and cringe, but thankfully I hope mom's understand the big picture, eh? Hope you're enjoying a bit of spring (and some good food) sunshine this week, ~m

  22. sara forte

    Hugh was with friends last night and I laughed at my plate of rice cakes with avocado on them and a glass of wine. It honestly sounded good, filled me up and reminded me of what I did for meals before him in my teeny studio. I had my share of mexican pizzas as well! I love love love your sentiments. So much truth. I just ordered Tiny, Beautiful Things. Can't wait to read it.

  23. Daytona @ Outside Oslo

    I made this pasta salad this afternoon and it's delicious. Looking forward to eating it with steak for dinner.

  24. nemo paradise

    Actually, I think eating in front of other people is a little creepy. Doesn't it seem a little weird to you that people would get together to put food in their mouth and -- you know -- chew and swallow while people are watching you? I like to eat alone, preferably in the dark. And I close the curtains.

  25. Megan

    A year ago I went through a break-up and it's so true what Jenny says. It's almost like I can tell when I started really recovering by how much went into making dinner. I've been trying to treat all meals with respect, since I'm such a hungry lady and all.

  26. nemoparadise

    You weren't supposed to approve that comment. I expected you to chuckle and hit the "not a chance" tab.

  27. Lorne Marr

    I love pasta salads. The good thing about them that they can be eaten warm or cold, with meat or without and they make perfect work lunches. Yours looks delicious, I can't wait to make it!
    Have a lovely day
    Lorne

  28. Lauren E.

    A recipe for the Bosoms, please! What a great story.

  29. Paula @ Vintage Kitchen

    It´s the little details and rituals that make our life, and taking care of ourselves is many times put on the back burner, I don´t know why. We are the most important person in our lives, since being good to ourselves will enable us to share and prioritize well. Lovely post Megan.

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