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Chapter 160: Four Pasta Dishes that Changed or Saved My Life

1. Sam’s Tuna Mac

  • Boxed Mac and Cheese 
  • Can of Tuna 
  • Vegetables; chef’s choice would be diced onion, carrot, jalapeno, and tomato, but whatever you have can, and should, be added
  • Oil, butter, milk, cheese, hot sauce, salt, pepper (as desired)
  1. Cook Mac and Cheese according to instructions; use pasta water for making the cheese if milk and butter are unavailable.
  2. Sauté/simmer vegetables as desired in oil, butter, or water.
  3. Combine pasta, tuna, and vegetables with extra cheese, butter, hot sauce, salt, and pepper (as desired).
The boys prepare to hit the trail.

We had just finished our second day of a three day backpacking trip through the woods of rural Pennsylvania. Too much beef jerky and trail mix for lunch and snacking meant we needed something substantial for dinner, so we began to make several boxes of mac and cheese. It was not particularly cold, but, due to our hunger and desire to pack lightly and bring our smaller stove, our filtered stream water-to-heat source ratio was way too high. We set the stove to full blast for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour, and then more, and still our pot did not boil. 

We slowly became savages. Nothing mattered more than cooking this meal. We tried windbreaks and shielding the pot, but nothing worked. We eventually gave up on the stove and built a fire. A large, roaring fire, and we put the pot of water directly on the cinders and it boiled, oh it boiled. And then the pasta went in, and any cheese we had left, some random cans of tuna, and anything else we could find that could arguably fit within the framework of a pasta dish. And it was glorious, oh it was glorious, perhaps the most satisfying meal I have ever had. 

Every bowl of tuna mac I’ve had since that day echoes with the satisfaction of that meal. That few others enjoy this sweet ambrosia has only strengthened the intensely personal nature of this dish to me, and backpacker’s tuna mac quickly became my bachelor comfort food of choice. It brought me home when I left for college and later when I left for a job in DC.

2. Jess’s Pasta Without Peas

  • 1 lb pasta (chef’s choice)
  • 3 lemons (for zest and juice)
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 cup of white wine for cooking and the rest for drinking
  • Parmesan and red pepper flakes (as desired)
  • Optional: mushrooms, asparagus, shrimp, chicken, etc. 
  • Mandatory: no peas.
  1. Put pasta water on to boil, mince the garlic, and zest the lemons. 
  2. Once the pasta water is several minutes away from boiling, in a large skillet (medium high heat) add olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes (if desired), along with the mushrooms, asparagus, shrimp, chicken, etc.
  3. Once the pasta water boils, add the pasta to the water. 
  4. Cook the skillet for 2 more minutes, add 3 lemons worth of juice and a cup of white wine, cover, reduce heat, and let simmer. 
  5. When the pasta is a minute from done, save some pasta water, drain the pasta, add the pasta to the skillet, stir, and cover for another minute or so. If it’s not saucy enough, add a little pasta water. 
  6. Serve with Parmesan.

My wife Jess and I began dating in early 2009, and dinner parties became a frequent occurrence. Jess is a fabulous cook and is fluent in, among other things, a variety of delicious Italian pasta dishes. I ate and lived well. Sometime later in the summer, however, she made an accidental revelation: she had stopped including peas in her pasta dishes. Although once a regular addition, they had vanished.

[Other person]: [comment about adding peas to a dish]

Jess: No, Sam doesn’t like peas, so I leave them out. 

Me [overhearing]: …. what? I like peas. 

Jess: Oh, I noticed that you once had picked around them, so I figured you didn’t like them and stopped using them when cooking for you.

This was earth shattering for a variety of reasons. First, I love peas. Second, and although she loves peas too, she noticed a small presumed preference of mine and altered her recipes to make me happier. Third, I had heard about none of this. It all happened without my involvement and without a conversation or exploration of grievances. It was the tiniest little change yet it spoke volumes about her thoughtfulness and approach to reality and our relationship. I was speechless. 

I had fallen madly in love with her by that fall. 

3. Lauren’s Lasagna

  1. Obtain employment at a large law firm.
  2. Befriend a kick ass attorney named Lauren.
  3. Receive a frozen lasagna from Lauren because your wife gave birth.
  4. When the right moment comes, bake at 350 until done.
Sleep deprivation makes for poor focus.

Two months into my new job as a big law litigator, my wife gave birth to our eldest daughter, Lucy. Three months later, I was scheduled to take the bar exam. My firm generously gave me eight weeks of paid leave to cover both events, so I used two weeks of leave when my daughter was born and intended to use the remainder in the lead up to the bar exam. 

This ended up being the right choice for the bar—I passed—but it meant for a rough transition back to work after my daughter was born. Our baby had yet-to-be-diagnosed reflux and would not sleep on her back in her crib; she only calmed down if she was physically on one of us. That combined poorly with a major work crunch as soon as I came back to work: each day I left for work at 8 am, came home at 7 pm, held the baby until 2 am so Jess could sleep laying down, and then slept until 7 am to start the loop again. 

By midway through the second week, which happened to be my birthday, we were destroyed. Although Jess had been excited to cook and celebrate with some semblance of normalcy, even if for an evening, the little one had been a fuss bucket and the day had gotten away from her. When I got home late after another long day, we both just looked at each other, defeated. 

But then we remembered the frozen lasagna from Lauren sitting in our freezer. We threw it in the oven, cleaned off the dining room table of all of the various baby crap that it had collected, opened a bottle of wine, and, for a brief moment, had a warm, delicious, and home-cooked meal together, all while the little one miraculously slept. 

That day was a turning point in our energies. Each day since then has been a bit easier, we’ve been a bit more confident as parents, and we’ve held ourselves to more reasonable standards in terms of what you can accomplish while also keeping your children alive. That day felt like hitting bottom, but we were saved by a bounce back up off of Lauren’s delicious, frozen lasagna. 

4. Lucy’s Pasta and Tiny Cheese

  • Pasta (penne if possible, but not macaroni noodles)
  • Butter
  • All the Parmesan cheese (“tiny cheese”) you have. Shredded cheese (“medium cheese”) can sometimes be accepted. 
  1. Cook pasta until it’s just on the other side of el dente, then drain. 
  2. Mix with enough butter to prevent the pasta from sticking to itself. 
  3. Serve with tiny cheese in a separate bowl. You will need more. 
La Petite Venise

Through a confluence of various work commitments and litigation schedules, in 2018 I was sent to Paris for two days of meetings the week of Thanksgiving. Sensing an opportunity to piggyback a family vacation off of my free airfare and hotel, I pushed my return trip back a few days and booked tickets for Jess and the girls to join me for the week. Jess would wrangle the girls for my two days of meetings and afterwards we’d enjoy a few adventure days as a family before flying home. 

That was the vision. The reality involved Jess traveling to a conference the week beforehand and me juggling both kids through what turned out to be one of the most stressful and busy work weeks of my life. We ran the girls around the airport before catching our first flight (to tire them out) only to run them again through the Reykjavik airport (to catch our connection to Paris), battled sleep deprivation, and Jess juggled the girls through museum closures, rain, and a broken stroller. 

Our first adventure day happened to be Lucy’s 4th birthday. We had breakfast chocolate croissants, went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, rode a carousel, and ate macarons at Ladurée on the Champs-Élysées. Jess and I even managed to snag a babysitter from a local work colleague and snuck away for an hour or two of wine and cheese at a cafe on the river Seine. After returning from dinner, I spent several more hours finishing a brief. (The ability to work remotely means that work won’t necessarily cancel your vacations, but also that you often have to work during your vacations.)

Traveling with children is wonderful and exhausting. They provide a way to experience places and things with fresh eyes and a new perspective, while also requiring constant supervision and mindfulness on top of the usual I’m-a-stranger-in-a-strange-land traveler mindfulness. Children also often refuse to eat anything that doesn’t look and taste exactly like what they’re used to. 

By mid-way through our second adventure day, this time at Versailles, we were approaching the limits of our frayed nerves and our now 4-year-old’s culinary good graces. We had also walked ourselves into a trap: the lunch rush had begun, we had insufficient snacks in our bag for a full family lunch, and every Versailles food option was woefully un-kid-friendly, with few tables, long lines, and unacceptable-to-Lucy lunch offerings. We made the choice to venture back outside into the gardens to look for a wind-sheltered picnic spot or a tourist trap cafe. We reached deep into the well of our creativity to keep spirits high but sensed an impending calamity. 

So imagine our delight to stumble onto La Petite Venise, an Italian restaurant nestled into a corner of the Versailles gardens. It was mostly empty and they quickly found us a table away from the only other patrons. They brought us wine and coffee and, more importantly, a large bowl of lightly buttered pasta with as much Parmesan cheese as desired for our eldest daughter. This remains Lucy’s comfort food, her “I’m at home and the world is alright” food, and we found it in Paris, and that made Paris the best city in the world. She was in heaven.

There are few moments as relaxing as when you can briefly stop entertaining and minding your child. Being allowed, however briefly, to turn off the part of your brain that minds your child is like putting down a heavy weight or sitting after a long day. We recharged, regrouped, and stuffed our bellies with Italian food, and then pushed back out into the world, ready for adventure.

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