(I still have many dinner party entries to go, but today’s is going to be a throwback to before the party, when I tried out my friend J’s recipe for baked ziti).
I volunteer at a very small food pantry – the pantry is open two nights a month, and serves between 50 and 60 families – 75 to 100 near the holidays. The area where I live isn’t population dense, so given the restrictions that low income puts on people’s mobility, it makes sense that small food pantries should be the norm: walking or bus distance to the places where people need them.
The two gentlemen who run the pantry are total hams; goofiest folks I’ve ever seen run a non-profit organization. They are gentle and funny, quick with a joke and a kind word. One of them, J, came up to me waving his hands yesterday. “(Husband) told me about your learning to cook thing! I mean, not that you don’t know how to cook, just you know, trying the new things! I’ve got a recipe for you.”
J’s recipe was to long, complicated recipes what someone telling you directions to the closest gas station is to a long road trip map from Mapquest. He told it to me in only a few breaths: “First, you pick your favorite kind of spaghetti sauce – I like the Classico, the one with the sausage and peppers, and it tastes just like the one my mother made, because my people are Italian. But any of those will do. You put it in the 9×13 pan with the ziti or the penne or whatever and add one more jar’s worth of water and mix it all around. Bake it for an hour – an hour! Covered in foil. Then take it out, take the foil off, and cover it with a bag of shredded cheese – whatever kind you like. Then back in the oven till the cheese is bubbly!”
There were so many holes in the recipe (how much pasta? How much sauce? Things come in different sizes, you know… and what temperature for the oven?) but I realized that in the spirit of how easy he claimed his recipe was, I ought to take a chill pill. After all, I’ve developed an infamous habit of playing fast and loose with the recipes given to me – here was one that I could follow TO THE LETTER and still have considerable leeway. As I stood there listening, I ticked off the 3 ingredients – sauce, pasta, cheese – and knew that I could make it immediately.
This, I now realize, is the real thing I love about the project: when someone finds out, and raves about a recipe they’ve done, I get to go home and try it, and come back with pictures and let them tell me how I did, or what I can try to make it better. Food is ultimately about conversation. I may be a shoddy and lazy cook, but I love talking. I feel more alive having a serious chat with someone than I do doing any of the cliff diving, mud wrestling kinds of adventure that Husband finds invigorating. I see it as a bit of magic: what else can you do for a few hours and have a lifelong friend afterwards? It’s hit-or-miss, to be sure, as with many things, but I live in pursuit of that wonderful conversation.
And food is helping me make my inroads in a new place – we’ve volunteered at the food pantry a handful of times, but other than the fact that we were 30 years younger than the next youngest volunteers, we weren’t really “befriended” by that many folks. Everyone was nice and cordial, but until they saw that we weren’t just a new batch of students trying to get our service hours in, and we didn’t have our own kids so we were pretty freed up in the evenings, they didn’t start to warm to us fully. However, in the past few open nights, it’s been a delight to have folks recognize us: my commute makes me late every time, so I’ve been dubbed “the Queen,” because I think I can just waltz in whenever I want.
This recipe, which could be made mostly with ingredients available in the shelves of the food pantry, is my chance to greet those who call me the Queen with a simple if silly story of making the dish. I will be able to have Husband vouch for how such a simple dish to make can be such a pleasure to eat.
I made this dish after we went to the gym (I know! So responsible.) and I knew we were going to like it because we were extremely hungry. While very simple in its flavoring, it feels hearty and the fact that I can indeed eat a pasta dish without any boiling of water filled me with joy.
J’s Baked Ziti
“First, you pick your favorite kind of spaghetti sauce – I like the Classico, the one with the sausage and peppers, and it tastes just like the one my mother made, because my people are Italian. But any of those will do. You put it in the 9×13 pan with the ziti or the penne or whatever and add one more jar’s worth of water and mix it all around. Bake it for an hour – an hour! Covered in foil. Then take it out, take the foil off, and cover it with a bag of shredded cheese – whatever kind you like. Then back in the oven till the cheese is bubbly!”