For days I have been speechless. The stories that arrived on the comment section of the post I put up last week left me in awe. All day Thursday, when I wasn’t with Lu and Danny, I was reading comments, emails, and messages you sent me. I wish that I could hug you all.
Before writing that piece, I felt like I was living in a small frightened silence. The act of writing it felt like singing. Hitting the publish button felt like liberation in a chorus of voices.
Your kindness has left me feeling completely at peace.
Every time I have gone for a run since I published that piece, I have been running with you. So many of us struggle with our weight, or how we feel about our bodies, or how little we take care of ourselves in the face of busy days and crises but we rarely talk about it out loud. And if you write a food blog, eating too much or eating mindlessly is the thing you don’t talk about.
Thank you for talking, for sharing yourselves with me, and with each other. This has been a revelation for me. Truly.
And now, I’d like to share this asparagus salad with you.
* * *
We’ve been eating plates of salads around here, at nearly every meal. It’s spring time again. Tulips are in full bloom and English peas are back in season. Green vegetables are back at the farm stands and the markets. Finally, we can say our sweet farewells to the starchy root vegetables of winter, knowing we’ll be happy to see them again in October. But for now? Buh-bye parsnips and rutabagas. Don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.
These salads have been more than a frenzied celebration dance of spring, however. (At least three times a day, Lu calls out for us to gather around and fling our arms in the air with her, bending our knees to the beat of Talking Heads or They Might Be Giants. Spring feels like these spur-of-the-moment dance sessions.) We love vegetables around here. We’re just declaring that love more clearly these days.
I’ve been looking at food differently since I published that post last week. Somehow, before this, I had forgotten to slow down and enjoy my food. Eating bits of cookie dough from the refrigerator when I felt stressed out about deadlines meant I never tasted it. I inhaled it. Sitting down at the table for a meal with Danny and Lu, the sunlight coming in, and the hunger starting to nibble at the edges of my stomach, I am much more grateful for what is before me.
I’ve been enjoying my food more fully this week than I have for years. I’ve been eating exactly what I want.
When I really listen to my hunger, instead of the anxious appetite of stress and mindless finger foods, sometimes I want pork ribs that have been braised in Danny’s Chinese barbeque sauce. Sometimes I want a square of dark chocolate. And sometimes I want asparagus, tarragon, a lemon-juice vinaigrette, and some small curlicues of Mizithra cheese.
* * *
A few days ago, Danny came home from the restaurant with stories. “We made this spaghetti tonight, a test for this couple who is getting married. They wanted spaghetti with browned butter and this really tangy cheese, something from the Mediterranean.”
“You mean Mizithra?” I said.
“Yeah! You know it?”
I laughed. “I do. And they must have been to the Spaghetti Factory.”
When I was a kid, the Spaghetti Factory was a fancy restaurant. We didn’t go out to eat often, other than fast food. For me and my brother, a trip to the Spaghetti Factory meant staring in awe at the faux-Tiffany lamps, the high ceilings, and the train cars filled with diners. They had actual, old train cars from the 1910s, in the restaurant. If you’re a kid, that is about the coolest dining experience you can imagine. Sometimes, even though we were hungry, we put our names in for a reservation and waited until we found seats in the train car.
(I can’t remember if my brother and I ever convinced my parents to put in our name as the Donner Party or not. I think not.)
When we reached our table, we were greeted by a chipper waiter and a basket of crusty bread dripping in butter. We grabbed at it immediately, because we knew that more was coming. One of the lures of the Spaghetti Factory was that ever-replenishing basket of garlic bread. (To my horror, the one time we went with my creepy uncle, he insisted that his timid wife dump the entire basket of bread into her purse, so they could eat the leftovers for lunch the next day.) As we waited for our Shirley Temples and the menus, we ate one slice after another of garlic-so-good-oh-the-butter-and-the-parmesan-cheese bread.
Eventually, we opened the menus and scanned them, in a cursory fashion. We had to look, to be polite. But it was always the same. I wanted the spaghetti with Italian sausage. (I still love that stuff.) What did my brother and mother get? Spaghetti and meatballs? I don’t know, because my dad’s order was so unusual that it has obliterated the rest. Spaghetti with browned butter and Mizithra cheese.
Have you ever eaten Mizithra cheese? It’s delicious. It’s a hard sheep’s cheese, vivid white and eventually crumbly. It’s equal parts milky sweet and tangy like salted yogurt. Apparently young Mizithra has no salt, a sweetness on the tonuge like milk straight from the cow. The only one I’ve ever eaten is the aged Mizithra, however. It has the distinct honor of being the only cheese I don’t want to eat on its own. A bite of Mizithra without a cracker, a salad, or some gluten-free spaghetti? No thanks. My tongue curls against my mouth to prevent that entry. It’s an intense taste.
So as a kid, when I saw the plate of mounded spaghetti in front of my father, a pile of pasta without red sauce, I always thought it was weird. He offered tastes. I turned him down.
However, when we went to the Spaghetti Factory in Newport Beach, at the end of a long day of bodysurfing and spreading baby oil on our skin for a better tan (ouch), I wanted that spaghetti my father ordered each time. I wanted whatever food could be set in front of me.
I squirmed in my seat to move away from the sand trapped in my bathing suit and the sunburn line glowing warm along its edges. Other than Fritos and a can of bean dip, or a hot dog or two, we had eaten nothing all day long. Instead, my brother and I been so joyfully jumping waves, flinging our arms toward the sky when the ocean smashed against us, that I had forgotten food. I was only sun on my head, sand shrinking beneath my feet, the triumph of riding a sytrofoam boogie board into the shore. I spent the day outside, moving my body, and I didn’t want to eat.
Until we reached The Spaghetti Factory, that is. As I sat in that dining car, waiting for my Italian sausage and spaghetti, anticipating the cold scoop of Spumoni ice cream in a metal bowl, I could hear the hunger rumbling in my stomach.
And to my surprise, that hunger felt good. Alive.
* * *
This last week, I’ve been feeling that hunger again, the hunger of waiting to eat, of anticipating a meal, of true stomach rumbling. No mindless nibbling. I’ve been eating every bite at the table, with the people I love, sun coming through the window, and my body exhausted from moving so well.
This asparagus with tarragon and Mizithra tasted better than almost anything I’ve eaten this year.
Raw Asparagus Salad with Toasted Walnuts and Mizithra
This salad was inspired by a recipe in Melissa Clark’s book, The Skinny: How to Fit into Your Little Black Dress Forever. (It came into the library the day after I wrote that I was intrigued to read it, which I took as a sign to pay attention.) So much of what she and her writing partner talk about in the book resonates with me. I especially like their dual urging to eat exactly what you want, then add vegetables:
“Use veggies to satisfy your hunger. Fill up on them before you dive into that ooey-gooey-decadent treat. Want a root beer float for dinner? Have a pile of sauteed broccoli rabe first. How about that burger with a fried egg on top? Swap out the fries for a salad or sauteed spinach. Need the fried calamari? Add a fennel-and-orange salad or a big bowl of vegetable soup to it. The bottom line? Vegetables are your friends.”
We already love vegetables in this house, but it’s good to welcome good friends to the house in droves. Clark offers a recipe for thinly sliced brussels sprouts, toasted walnuts, and Manchego cheese. When I asked Danny if he wanted to eat it, he said, “Yeah. Next January! It’s spring.” So, asparagus instead. After the memories of Mizithra, we added it here. No offense to the first recipe. I’m sure it’s great. Right now, however, this is about the only salad I want to eat.
1 bunch asparagus
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, leaves removed from the stem
1 cup walnuts, toasted
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1 lemon, juiced and zested
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Mizithra cheese, shaved into small curlicues
Preparing the asparagus. Remove the woody stems of the asparagus stalks. Bend the thick end of each stalk and look to see where it wants to break. Break it off there. (Danny says you can knee-cap it.) If you want, you can save the stalks to make asparagus stock. But that’s another recipe. Slice the asparagus stalks into 1/2-inch pieces, leaving the tips whole. Put them in a large bowl. Add the tarragon leaves.
Toasting the walnuts. Put the walnuts into a small skillet. Set the skillet over low heat (and we mean LOW). Allow the walnuts to toast, tossing them every few minutes, until they are browned and you smell toasted walnuts, about 10 minutes.
Making the vinaigrette. Put the lemon juice, zest, and a pinch of salt and pepper into a small bowl. Stir while you slowly drizzle in the olive oil. (You can also do this in a jam jar with a lid or with a stick blender if you want the dressing to be fully emulsified.)
Finishing the salad. Drizzle a bit of vinaigrette over the asparagus and tarragon and toss. (You know your own tastes best as to how much you want to use.) Plate the asparagus on small saucers. Add the toasted walnuts and the curlicues of Mizithra. Eat.
Feeds 2 to 4 people, depending on how much they want to eat.