We’ve all got recipes that are inextricably bound to cherished memories or experiences. One, it seems, can hardly exist without the other. For me, Thanksgiving is just not right without my grandmother’s Thanksgiving stuffing. Similarly, nothing signals autumn like a burbling pot of chili on the stove. And I wrote not long ago how connected this recipe will always be to my wedding day and, now, my anniversaries. But the flip side of all this warm fuzziness is that there are also some recipes that are associated with memories perhaps best not remembered. A dinner party gone awry, for instance, or the meal you were tucking into when a great storm blew through. Today’s recipe holds the inauspicious status as one of these kinds of recipes.
When we lived in D.C., I made this pasta salad quite a bit. It’s a twist on a Michael Chiarello recipe and it’s also an excellent excuse to salami (which is a good thing, because Kevin needs absolutely no excuse to eat cured meats and I need some convincing, especially after reading Heat, which goes into some detail about the butcher’s craft). In the summers, we’d frequently make a big batch over the weekend and have it for lunch throughout the week, packed into tupperware containers and often eaten together in a park near our offices and across the street from the White House. I also remember packing it into a cooler for a day trip to the Shenandoah and for a longer road trip up the East Coast and into New England. All these memories, of course, are fine and good. But then …
(Click “more” for the rest of the story, more photos & the recipe.)
Then I packed a batch of this standby salad into a cooler that would sit in the back seat of our car as we moved all our belongings halfway across the country, from D.C. to Chicago a few summers ago. Yes, we drove—with my step-dad following us in a U-Haul (bless his heart). Somewhere in the middle of Ohio, the U-Haul—packed to the gills with boxes upon boxes—broke down. Yes: the U-Haul. broke. down. We also happened to be mid-car-picnic at the time, happily chowing down on this very pasta salad, which from that point on would forever be linked to the Great Moving Debacle Aught Five, sadly.
Lucky for us, a rather Chicken Soup for the Soul set of events unfolded shortly thereafter. A fellow gas station patron ambled over to us, a worn, blaze-orange pouch tucked under his arm. In it were his tools and he looked at our dazed and droopy expressions and asked: “Mind if I take a look?” I kid you not, the man shimmied under the U-Haul, made a couple loud tinkers, slithered back out, wiped his hands and pronounced the truck fixed. Astonishingly, he was right and our little caravan made it to Chicago the next day.
In the three years and two months since that day, I have not made this recipe—nor rented another U-Haul. I had ejected the recipe from my memory bank. But I happened upon a copy of the recipe last week when I was shuffling through some old recipes and I decided it was time to put the bad memories aside.
So, on Saturday, I whipped up a huge bowl of the salad. It comes together quickly: in the time it takes you to boil the whole wheat fusili, you can easily halve the grape tomatoes, julienne the basil, drain the pearl-sized mozzarella (if you can’t find pearl-sized, the marble-sized or even a large ball will work: just chop into pea-sized pieces) and slice the salami. Toss the whole thing together, along with a slick of rich olive oil and tart balsamic vinegar. I like it best cold, but it’s hard to resist a couple hot bites as soon as it’s done.
We had this for lunch on Saturday, as we watched the first inning of the Cubs game (perhaps you’ve heard, but in case you haven’t: they’re 81-50!). I’d be lying if I said the pasta salad didn’t conjure up any visions of that exhausting and nearly-disastrous move, but I think I took the first step in disassociating the salad from the bad memory. U-Hauls and me are done for good, though.
Tomato, Mozzarella & Salami Pasta Salad
1 pound whole wheat short pasta, such as fusili or penne
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 cup pearl-sized fresh mozzarella, drained
1/4 pound salami, sliced about as wide as the pasta you are using
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves, julienned
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (use the lower amount if you prefer a more tart dressing)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Boil the pasta in salted water for 8 to 10 minutes, or until al dente. Meanwhile, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, oil, mustard, salt and pepper flakes in the bottom of a large bowl. Add the tomatoes, mozzarella, salami, onion and basil on top of the dressing.
When the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the large bowl. Toss to combine. Serve warm, at room temperature or cool.