Monday, August 20, 2012

Garden Harvest Pasta Salad

The harvest has reached its peak in Kevin's garden, and he has been sharing his bounty with his friends and neighbours. Stella always gets first pick of the crop, however, after Kevin himself, so this morning, he brings in purple beans, vidalia onions, some early cherry tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, chives, basil, Italian parsley, romaine lettuces and nasturtium flowers at her request. Stella has her trademark pasta salad in mind for today's lunch special, and will serve it on a bed of romaine lettuce with a triangle of delicious chewy foccacia bread created by the wonderful baker down the road.

One of her regular lunch customers, James the bookseller next door, pokes his head in the door. "What's for lunch today, Stella?" he asks, sniffing the air for some hint of what is cooking in the kitchen. When she answers him, he asks, "With or without sausage?"

"Optional!" Stella calls out from the kitchen.

"Then, with!" he calls back. "See you at noon, then."

Stella brings a large pot of water to the boil. She adds a tablespoon of salt and adds two 750 gram packages of cheese-filled fresh tortellini pasta.  She brings it to the boil again and then lowers the heat to a gentle boil, stirring all the time. She cooks the pasta until it is firm yet tender, about six minutes, then drains the pot into an extra large colander. She gently shakes the colander up and down to make sure all the water is drained from the pasta and then pours it all back into the empty pot. She mixes in a few heaping tablespoons of pesto Genovese* to coat the pasta while it cools and to keep it from sticking together. After letting it cool a little more, she pours the pasta into a large bowl to cool completely.

Assistant cook Savannah washes all the veggies thoroughly, and then cuts the purple beans into bite sized pieces. She halves the cherry tomatoes, dices the cucumber and vidalia onion, and chops the basil and parsley, and cuts the bunch of chives into short pieces with scissors. She grates a few carrots and after plunging the romaine leaves into a deep sink of cold water, she tears them into smaller pieces and puts them in the salad spinner to dry. She tells Stella that she thinks some slightly bitter endive would be a nice addition, but Kevin hasn't brought any today. Stella says the nasturtium flowers will add a peppery kick instead.

While Savannah is preparing the veggies, Stella makes the Creamy Garlic salad dressing. When all the salad ingredients are prepared, Stella mixes everything except the nasturtium flowers and the romaine lettuce together. After putting aside a bowl full for younger daughter Kendra who does not like salad dressing and will be coming down to eat her lunch shortly, she adds the dressing, tastes the mixture and deems it worthy of the lunch crowd. She'll dice some locally made farmers sausage and offer it as an optional addition and some added protein.

At 12:00 sharp, Savannah is slicing the foccacia bread into triangles when James walks in looking quite cheerful. Despite the warm late summer day, he is in his trademark woolen vest and shirtsleeves. A little gaunt looking and on the deeper end of his fifties, James sits at his favourite table by the bay window. When Stella brings him his salad (with some diced sausage added) on a bed of romaine leaves and garnished with a couple of bright and cheery nasturtiums, James eyes it with satisfaction. "You're looking sprightly this morning, James," she says.

"I finally sold that set of Haig-Brown first editions," he says, with something resembling a grin. Then he tells Stella that he will be finishing his meal with a piece of blueberry pie and a pot of Earl Grey tea with a small jug of cream on the side. He tells her he deserves the pie today, especially, as it is his birthday. Stella wonders where she put those candles...

Stella makes this salad for her family often, and she'd like to share the recipe with you in case you ever want to make it, too. The recipe is quite loose, but then, that's what makes it great. It's never the same salad twice.

Garden Harvest Pasta Salad

1 pkg fresh filled pasta of your choice

*A good tablespoon of fresh or jarred pesto (recipe found here)

assorted garden fresh veggies, a few tablespoons each of various herbs, and edible flowers for garnish; amounts depend on preference and availability. Broccoli florets, fresh peas and sweet bell peppers are all great, too.

a link of good quality farmers sausage (optional)

one small head Romaine lettuce or mixed salad greens

Creamy Garlic Dressing to taste (at least half a cup, though - you'll want to taste it!) Recipe follows.

Method: as written above

Creamy Garlic Dressing (adapted from Moosewood Cooks at Home)

3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
3/4 cup mixed vegetable and olive oils (I do about half and half) ( 177 ml)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (59 ml)
1 Tbsp (15 ml) chopped fresh basil ( or 1 tsp dried)
1 tsp salt (5 ml)
1 Tbsp grated Parmesan cheese (15 ml)
1/2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper  (2 ml)
1/2 cup milk (118 ml) - any variety will do from skim to creamy

Put the garlic, oil, vinegar, basil, salt, Parmesan, and pepper into a blender and whirl for a couple of seconds. With the blender still running, slowly add the milk, whirling until the dressing is thick and smooth. Covered and refrigerated, this dressing will keep for a week.

This salad tastes best the day it's made, but it will keep for another day quite well if necessary.

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