Pasta and the Pandemic: How Cooking Helped Me through the Year - by Lizzie Cawley

Lizzie takes us back to a pivotal September night.

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2020 has been weird. “Weird” is such an underwhelming word, but in the momentum of it all, it seems one of the more appropriate ones. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but living in rural Arizona, this year of pandemic and riots, the election and politics have caused me to  almost remove myself from the concept of society.

As the media started spreading the news of COVID-19 and the world went into lockdown way back in March, I still lived my life normally for the most part. A few things changed. My husband couldn’t attend prenatal appointments with me for our first baby. The Academy, where I was teaching three classes, moved to remote teaching in the spring. I couldn’t go in to Benja’s Thai to eat and had to order it to go instead. They were all minor inconveniences, but the chaos of big cities seemed like a distant reality—definitely not the one I was living in.

The days slowly dragged on this year, and I began to feel the weight of some of the fundamental changes in society. Human beings no longer interacted in a friendly way. We began to avoid contact, touch and basic connection. If there was a smile behind the mask, it was literally covered and impossible to actually reciprocate.

I started to resent one of my favorite activities: grocery shopping. It sounds ridiculous, but when I attended Dixie State University earning an English degree, I would incentivize myself with the reward of going to Harmon’s to buy specialty items to try. If I got my assignment or essay submitted, I allowed myself to go buy fresh produce and meander down the aisles. These days, grocery shopping is a chore now that masks are required, and any form of social human interaction is disrupted. Society has felt so distant and full of fear.

Although this may be a tiny admission of guilt of my social gatherings, one constant that has saved me from feeling so isolated and disconnected is the comfort of making dinner with family and friends. Back in September, we celebrated the waning warm days with a homemade pasta dinner party that I’d love to share with you.  It was a turning point in my year.  September is the quintessence of abundance and change. Overflowing produce from the garden leads to late afternoon applesauce and tomato canning. Dreamy pigment in leaves slowly evolve until they smatter the ground all at once. The scorching Arizona heat lingers, but the promise of a chilly Autumn looms as the evenings feel crisp and require layers and bundling.

There was only one possible way to celebrate the change of pace: a pasta-making dinner with friends and family. The pasta dinner that we put on had been planned for a couple of weeks. Our vision was to make different pasta noodles that would pair well with gourmet sauces. In my family, as I’m sure is the case with many of you, the satisfaction of a dinner party comes not only from having guests arrive, dine, and disperse, but also in working together to create the meal.

Menu for the evening:

  • Stuffed mushrooms
  • Homemade flatbread and spicy cheese dip
  • Garden tomato and basil jam
  • Light Italian salad
  • Beef Bolognese
  • Browned Butter Corn Seafood Ravioli
  • Tiramisu

For this pasta night, our menu was casual Italian, and we asked our guests to contribute a portion of the meal. One couple brought ingredients for stuffed mushrooms. Another decided to try their hand at homemade flatbread and spicy cheese dip. Everybody made the great decision to bring wine.

While enjoying our appetizers of stuffed mushrooms and flatbread/cheese dip, everybody pulled together to help make dough for pasta noodles. Although there are only three basic ingredients (eggs, flour, water), we learned quickly which techniques worked and which ones were fruitless. Thin pappardelle and herb studded ravioli were the result.

One of our guests harvested tomatoes and basil from their garden and made a roasted tomato jam to get smeared across a crisp, roasted crostini—it tasted like an autumnal dream.

The Beef Bolognese dish was my mother’s masterpiece. Dozens of fresh garden tomatoes simmered together with a variety of beef and sausages for hours to create a perfectly rich sauce. We needed a wider, heavier noodle to carry the weight of this sauce and the pappardelle noodles were the answer.  The silky, rich sauce was perfect.

The seafood pasta was a little bit out there. Inspired from a Half-Baked Harvest recipe, the sauce was a magical combination of browned butter, shallots, fresh corn, fresh herbs, dry wine and cream. We served it with pan-seared scallops. The herb ravioli was filled with a langostino crab and ricotta mixture and stuffed perfectly. The end dish was light, refreshing, and tasted of a seafood medley.

To top off the night, we enjoyed a decadent tiramisu with plenty of creamy layers and espresso. The evening proved to be wonderful, and every dish we prepared was one to repeat again.

I hope the end is in sight for the pandemic, but it’s certainly not here yet. I have a feeling many more pasta nights will be necessary. In the midst of politics, change and growth, I am reminded of the value of cooking and eating with one another; the activity is a saving grace for my sanity at least.

A very safe and happy holidays to everyone!

To try your hand at homemade pasta noodles, try this recipe:

https://nourishingjoy.com/how-to-make-fresh-pasta/

Linked below are the sauce recipes we used and tweaked:

https://www.halfbakedharvest.com/creamed-corn-cheese-ravioli/

https://whatshouldimakefor.com/bolognese-sauce/