Grilled Vegetable Pasta and My Dad’s Garden
Most Italians I know have a garden. I don’t know why; it just seems to be the case. My grandmother Angela had a small garden. My uncle Oscar had a garden. Or rather, he had someone build him a garden and maintain it. Oscar wasn’t a dig-in-the-dirt kinda guy. I don’t think he ever mowed a lawn in his adult life. He had people who did that kinda thing. But My Dad? Oscar’s only brother? He loved getting down in the dirt.
I remember one spring my Dad wanted to build a vegetable garden. He lived in an apartment above a big barn on a farm in Long Island, New York. I used to drive up from Baltimore, Maryland, and visit him in his little place on the top floor. My Dad had painted all the walls different bright colors; purple, yellow, orange. For his dining-room table, he had found a huge old wood spool that the phone company had used for wrapping telephone wire. He laid it on its side, and that’s what we ate on. His kitchen table was an antique foot-operated sewing machine.
There was a dog kennel in the barn downstairs, which was a lot of fun when the volunteer fire department sirens would go off in the middle of the night, and the dozen or so dogs would start caterwauling.
Along with the dogs, there were also horses residing in the barn below. Well, it wasn’t like Smarty Jones or Seattle Slew were living there. This was a working barn, with working horses. And when you have horses, you usually have horse flies. So in the upstairs apartment my Dad put fly strips on the ceiling.
In case you’ve never lived above a barn with horses and horse flies; fly strips are basically rolls of sticky paper that unravel and hang from the ceiling. When flies would fly by, they’d get stuck to the paper. Since the ceiling at my Dad’s apartment was slanted and low, whenever you walked by, the paper would stick to your hair. This wasn’t a problem for My Dad, who had no hair. But for us long-haired teens, it was a big problem.
I had a hairdo that resembled all three guys in the Jimi Hendrix Experience put together. Whenever I walked by these fly strips, my hair would get stuck, and I’d have to call for my Dad to cut me loose. So there were all these fly strips hanging from the ceiling, with dead flies and clumps of hair stuck to them.
The other thing you have when you have horses downstairs? Fertilizer, to put it politely. The apartment had a certain aroma that they rarely use in aromatherapy. With all that free fertilizer, my Dad decided to create his garden. He wanted to border the garden with railroad ties; so one day he borrowed a pickup truck, and we drove to a deserted area of the Long Island Railroad.
My Dad couldn’t just go to the Home Depot and buy wood borders. He had to go find old railroad ties. He couldn’t just go to a furniture store and buy a dining-room table, he had to go find a big old wood spool. He couldn’t buy a kitchen table at IKEA, he had to use an old sewing machine. He couldn’t just find a normal place to live, he had to find a place on top of a barn with a kennel and horses and ceilings that were so slanted that you had to walk around crouched over like Groucho Marx or Quasimodo.
My Dad had it in his head to find railroad ties to border his garden. We found a stack by the side of some abandoned railroad tracks. The railroad ties smelled like creosote, and weighed what seemed like a ton. We put the back gate of the pickup truck down. We were able, the two of us, to get one railroad tie onto the bed of the pickup truck. The only problem was – the railroad tie was hanging off the back of the pickup.
We drove off and when my Dad went over a bump, the end of the railroad tie closest to the cab of the truck would rise in the air, and the other end that was hanging off the back of the truck would hit the ground. It was like a see-saw. A dangerous see-saw. My Dad pulled the truck over.
Then he had a brilliant idea. He wanted me to get out of the truck and stand on the end of the railroad tie that was close to the cab, using what little weight I had to keep the railroad tie from flying up in the air. He told me to hang on to the roof of the truck for stability. Brilliant.
My Dad was a tough and gruff guy, an Italian who started off really poor, grew up on the streets of New York, and forged quite a life for himself. He was a lawyer. He worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He wrote speeches for Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He helped start the Peace Corps. He was a professor of philosophy and literature at the State University of New York in Old Westbury, which was about 15 miles from the barn.
My Dad yelled a lot. He laughed a lot, too, but he had a temper. I found it hard to say “no” to to my Dad; so I got out of the truck and stood on the end of the railroad tie, facing forward, holding on to the roof of the cab for dear life. The first bump we hit, I shot into the air like a rocket. It seems kinda funny now. It wasn’t real funny to me back then. I was terrified.
That’s when I thought it might be best to prop up one end of the railroad tie on top of the cab of the pickup, and close the back gate to hold the other end inside the bed. And that’s the way we rolled. We ended up getting four railroad ties, and made a huge square outside of the barn. We shoveled horseshit for hours from the barn into the garden.
That garden was incredible. We had Brussel sprouts the size of cabbages. Everything grew to amazing proportions and tasted incredibly fresh and delightful. When I think of vegetables, I always think of that garden. And how I almost died to get it built.
GRILLED VEGETABLE PASTA SALAD
I like to grill. I like pasta. I like vegetables. So – I thought – why not combine all three? That’s when I came up with this recipe. I put the “j” back in genius with this dish. You’ll want to serve it at room temperature, but add the mozzarella balls when the pasta is hot, so the balls get gooey, so to speak. Fusilli pasta works best.
I cut the onion into large slices, and the orange bell peppers, too, because they’re easier to grill and flip that way. When they’re done, I chop ‘em up into smaller, bite-size pieces. Also, the cherry tomatoes only need about five minutes on the grill, just to heat ‘em up.
Serves four; or one teenage kid who’s been shoveling horseshit in the sun for hours.
A bulb of garlic, the root end cut off
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small zucchini, scrubbed, ends snipped off, sliced in circular slices
1 small yellow summer squash, prepared the same way
1 small eggplant, prepared the same way
2 orange bell peppers, stems and seeds removed, cut in large slices
1 Vidalia onion (or any sweet onion except purple/Spanish), sliced into large circular slices
2 dozen cherry tomatoes
A dozen small balls of mozzarella
½ cup pignoli (pine nuts), toasted to a golden brown in a dry pan over medium heat — you can also use sliced almonds, toasted the same way
Basil leaves, a large handful (a cup) – save a few whole leaves for garnish
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
1 pound of fusilli pasta
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Non-stick cooking spray (optional)
Here we go…
Make sure your grill surface is clean. A little non-stick cooking spray on the grill surface will help keep your vegetables from sticking. Be careful! Don’t spray it into the fire.
If you’re using a charcoal grill, light the coals, and let them burn for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the coals are ash-gray. You don’t want the fire to be too hot, or you just end up burning the vegetables. If you’re using a gas grill, put the heat on medium.
Take the bulb of garlic. Slice the root end off. Put the whole garlic bulb on top of a piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle it with olive oil, about a teaspoon. Wrap it up, and put it on the outside part of the grill – the place with the least heat – and let it slow-roast for the whole time you’re grilling.
For the pasta, get a large pot, fill it with water, and let it come to a boil.
Now for the vegetables. Put them all on a large platter. Drizzle with olive oil, about a tablespoon, make sure they’re all lightly coated. Sprinkle with a little salt and fresh cracked black pepper. Then flip ‘em over and do the same on the other side – drizzle with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.
Put all the vegetables on the grill, except the tomatoes. Let everything grill for about 5 to 7 minutes, depending on the heat of your grill, then turn ‘em over.
Put the tomatoes on the outside of the grill. Grill all your vegetables for another 5 to 7 minutes.
For the pasta, when the water is a-boiling, add a few tablespoons of kosher salt, and then add a pound of fusilli. Follow the directions on the box. Two minutes before the pasta is supposed to be done, start tasting. Bite through a piece of pasta, look at the center. If it is chalky, it is not done. Keep tasting every 2 minutes until it tastes right, not too chewy. When the fusilli is al dente (firm to the bite) drain, put it in a large bowl and drizzle with a tablespoon olive oil, and toss.
Take your garlic bulb out of the aluminum foil, make sure it’s cool enough to touch, and grab the bulb by the top. Squeeze the cloves out through the bottom, right onto the pasta. Mick ‘em up.
Add your grilled vegetables, give them a stir.
Add your mozzarella balls and toss gently.
Add the toasted pignoli – save some for sprinkling on to each plate.
Take the basil leaves (save a few for each plate for garnish), and snip ‘em with scissors into small pieces right onto the pasta. Toss gently.
Add a little more olive oil if you like and toss again – gently.
Add the balsamic vinegar (about a tablespoon or so to taste) and toss once more.
Dish it up! Make it look nice! On each plate, add a couple basil leaves, sprinkle a few toasted pignoli on top, and add a little freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top, if you like. And…