“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.”
― Maya Angelou
If you’ve been following my blog (and my Instagram) this year, you probably know that 2017 has been a whirlwind of milestone celebrations in my family: our 20th wedding anniversary, my dad’s 70th birthday, my older son’s graduation from 6th grade and his subsequent move up to middle school, and my mom’s 70th birthday. I’ve written about my dad, and my boys, and my husband, so it’s about time that I introduce you to my mom. I think you’ll like her; everyone does.
The first thing you should know about my mom is that she has more energy than anyone I know. She cannot sit still for long, and she is always immersed in a project—or, more likely, multiple projects—of some sort. She must keep busy, at all times. People are sometimes surprised to learn that my mom stands at a petite 5’4”, because although she is relatively short (especially compared to my 6’3”-tall dad), she is almost always wearing high heels, effortlessly trotting about as though she were wearing ballet flats (which she would never wear, by the way). Despite her diminutive stature, she is a force of nature: “Hurricane Arlene” is what my sisters and I sometimes call her, as she would “storm” into a room, loudly and exuberantly and usually in a flurry of purposeful activity.
Because she is always keeping herself busy with one thing or another, she often finds it hard to keep her focus. Mono-tasking is not something my mom does, or desires to do, a trait that has become fodder for many inside jokes within our family: We laugh every time she makes herself a cup of tea then promptly forgets about it, only to be surprised to find it again later: on a table in another room, in the microwave, on the roof of her car…. And we joke that although my mom is a fabulous cook, she cannot be trusted to make a grilled-cheese sandwich. As children, my sisters and I quickly learned to always check the underside of the grilled-cheese sandwiches she served to us, because more often than not, that underside was face down for a reason, an attempt to hide the charred side of a sandwich that spent too long in the pan while my mom got otherwise distracted.
Although my mom has been eligible for the senior-citizen discount at the movie theater for several years now, she is still, quite frankly, a knockout, often mistaken for someone years, if not decades, younger. My mom has always been beautiful, with sparkling brown eyes and a Hollywood smile; she has been told more than once that she resembles Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch. Born in July, she is the epitome of her astrological sign, Leo, always stylish and dressed to the nines, often showcasing her penchant for bold leopard prints and flashy gold jewelry. Before she retired, she worked in the cosmetics industry and modeled for a local department store. People have always commented on how pretty she is: my friends, my teachers, strangers on the street… practically anyone who meets her.
But it isn’t just her movie-star good looks that draw people to my mom. She is very outgoing and extroverted, making new friends and winning over everyone, from cranky newborns to curmudgeonly adults, with her warm smile and magnetic personality. It’s not uncommon for her to click instantly with someone she’s just met, and within minutes she will be engaged in a deep conversation with a new friend, who is inexplicably compelled to share with my mom his or her life story. It’s also not uncommon to go anywhere with my mom and run into someone she knows, or to visit a retail store or restaurant and hear the employees enthusiastically greeting her by her first name, even if she’s been there only once. To this day, if I post a photo on Facebook that includes my mom, it is usually among my most popular posts, and I will hear from people whom I haven’t heard from in a while: “Oh, your mom looks amazing, as always!” “Please tell her I said hi!!”
Growing up, I wanted to look just like my mom, to be glamorous and admired like her. But my prepubescent years were awkward, with thick glasses and braces and a short, mullet-esque hairdo (remember, it was the ‘80s); I often felt like the ugly duckling daughter. Then I grew tall, nearly 5” taller than my mom, and my braces came off, and I got contact lenses, and my hair grew out, and eventually I started to feel comfortable in my body, in my own skin (although, if I’m being completely honest, I’m still working on that last part, even now in my 40s). Other than my mom’s brown eyes and high cheekbones, I unfortunately did not inherit any of her features. But every once in a while, someone would tell me that I looked like my mom, and to me, that was one of the greatest compliments I could get.
My mom and I are quite opposite in so many things: I am tall; she is short. I am fair-skinned and rosy-cheeked; she is olive-skinned and impossibly tanned. I am introverted; she is extroverted. I am slow and methodical in doing most things; she is energetic and moves at lightning speed. But when it comes to taking care of the ones we love, of fiercely protecting (and worrying about) our children, well, that is where we are alike.
When her daughters are in need, my mom will drop everything to take care of us. Now, I know that this is true of mothers everywhere, but my mom’s preferred way of showing us she cared has always been by keeping us well-nourished, the best way she knows how: with homemade food. Whether we were school-aged children who were sick and needed some chicken soup to help us get well again, or a grown woman who was recovering from surgery and needed some healing comfort foods, my mom would be there. When my first son was born and I was overwhelmed and struggling to adjust to my new role as a mom, my mom flew across the country from California, in the middle of the winter, and for a week she cooked me my favorite meals, baked a few treats, and stocked my freezer with even more food so she could ensure that, if nothing else, my husband and I would be well-fed long after she had returned home. So when I needed her a few months later, she didn’t hesitate to hop on a plane once again.
I don’t think there are many other words that could strike fear in the heart of a new mom with an infant than when her significant other says, “I have to go away on a business trip.” Compounding the fear was the fact that my 5-month-old son had been suffering from digestive issues (and thus feeding issues and sleep issues) since birth, and we had just begun seeing a pediatric GI specialist who was helping us to (finally) get to the bottom of those issues. Just as I was starting to feel a little more at ease, my husband informed me that he would be taking a work trip… for almost a week. His words filled me with dread and panic, and after throwing what could only be described as a tantrum, I called my mom in tears. She booked her flight that day.
It was one of those unbearably hot July days when the mercury was pushing well past the 90-degree mark and the air was so stiflingly humid that it felt like you were being wrapped in a warm, damp blanket the moment you stepped outside. My beautiful baby boy was cranky and nearly inconsolable, and I spent that day, like most days that summer, trying to calm him, to feed him, to get him to sleep. When my mom arrived, she took over and spent an hour in the oppressive heat pushing her grouchy grandson in his stroller up and down our driveway while I washed baby bottles and did laundry inside. When he was finally calming down and getting sleepy, she brought him inside and I took him upstairs to the nursery in the hopes of finally getting him down for a nap. After rocking him a bit and then carefully setting him down in his crib, I quietly made my way back downstairs and found my mom lying on the sofa, seemingly struggling to stay awake, flipping through an issue of Real Simple magazine. In my lifetime, I had only ever seen my energetic mom lie down on a couch once or twice, when she was sick (note: she rarely gets sick). So the first words out of my mouth were, “MOM?! Are you okay?!” She looked up from the magazine, sighed, and said, “Boy, that baby is exhausting!” My eyes filled with tears, but I held them back, then nodded and laughed and said, “Yep. I know.” I told her that her first grandchild was finally asleep, and she started to get up from the couch. “No, mom. It’s okay. Just relax for a bit. I’ve got this.”
I have to admit that although I prefer to do most things myself and rarely like to accept help, I actually loved being taken care of by my mom, not just that week in July, but also that week when my son was first born, and in all those years prior, before I grew up and left the nest. But that day, I also needed to prove—to whom, I don’t know… to my mom? my husband? my infant son? myself?—that I didn’t really need help, that I could totally handle this motherhood thing on my own. In my new life as a mom, everything felt so out of my control, and here is another area where my mom and I are alike: We do not like not being in control, and so we look for ways to regain control.
In those early months of being a new mom, cooking was the one thing I felt confident I could still do, when everything else around me seemed unfamiliar, and overwhelming, and beyond my control. I felt like I was failing at feeding my son, as most times whatever I fed him eventually came back up (later he would be diagnosed with, and treated for, infant GERD). But cooking a meal, feeding myself and my husband, and feeding my mom… now that was something I could do, something over which I had some control. I rarely had the time to spend in the kitchen in those first weeks and months of new motherhood, but now was my chance. So when I came downstairs and saw my mom nearly asleep on the sofa, I decided to take care of her for a change and make her dinner.
Like my mom, I often find solace in the kitchen. And, like her, I also enjoy cooking alone and don’t usually like people in my kitchen, in my space. That afternoon, it was blissfully quiet in the kitchen, and so I tied on my favorite apron and assessed the dinner situation: I had some vegetables from the local farm stand on the counter, some herbs (miraculously) growing in my (neglected) garden, and a box of pasta in the pantry. I decided to roast the vegetables in the oven and make an easy, nutritious pasta dinner. (I know what you’re thinking: Wasn’t it 90+ degrees in July? It was, but thankfully the A/C was on full blast inside the house, and I figured roasting the vegetables would be mostly hands-off, a key consideration if you’re trying to make dinner while your baby naps but you have no idea if your baby will nap for 15 minutes or an hour!) As I sliced the vegetables and chopped the herbs, I could feel the stress of the day slowly melt away. Of course, it was only temporary, but it felt so good to be in the kitchen again.
Less than an hour later, my mom and I were sitting down to dinner, and my son was actually still napping! When I think back to that day, I remember sitting across from my mom at the table, and as we devoured our food (mothering makes us so hungry!), I wanted to tell her how scared I was… and how hard this whole motherhood thing is. I wanted to ask her how she managed to do it all. But for some reason, I didn’t. I guess because I didn’t want her to worry, or I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t capable. I guess I just wanted to believe—and I wanted her to believe—that I had everything under control.
Ever since then, whenever I make this dish, I think of my mom.
This past summer, when my parents and my sisters all gathered together at my house for a few days to celebrate my mom’s 70th birthday, I made this dish again one night when we were trying to figure out what to have for dinner. My mom didn’t remember that I had made it for her once before on that hot July day 12 years ago. But she did remember how difficult and exhausting my son was to take care of back then, and we laughed about how that was the only time I ever saw her relax on my couch! We also laughed about how much easier my son is to take care of—and to feed—now that he’s 12 years old, and how his appetite has certainly improved compared to those early days! But perhaps the most memorable thing about making this dish was how it made me feel capable again—in cooking, in feeding people, in parenting, in life in general. When things are spinning out of my control, I can at least feed my family, and even my own mom. And sometimes, that’s enough. (Right, mom?)
The chickpeas are a more recent addition to this dish, because I am always looking for ways to add a little more protein and fiber to our meals, especially meals higher in carbohydrates. Adding beans is an easy (and relatively inexpensive) way to help provide that balance of macronutrients.
This recipe is ideal to make in late summer/early fall, when the summer vegetables (tomatoes, summer squash) are still plentiful, but the nights are getting cooler and you might be craving something a little more hearty and warming (and you don’t mind turning on your oven). Leftovers also keep well in the refrigerator, in a tightly covered container, for a couple of days, so if you are looking for a way to use up an abundance of summer vegetables (or if you have a bigger family to feed), you can certainly double the recipe. Reheat leftovers in a pan on the stove, or in the microwave (add a drizzle of olive oil if the pasta seems a little dry), or serve it at room temperature, pasta-salad style.
Serves 4 as a main dish.
(For my family of 4, including 2 always-hungry, growing boys, this recipe makes *just* enough for us for dinner, when also served with a green salad. If I want to have any leftovers, I need to double the recipe.)
- -- Nonstick cooking spray or olive oil for coating the baking sheets
- -- ½ pound (8 ounces) dried pasta of your choice (I love fusilli in this dish because the little spirals hold onto the balsamic dressing and other seasonings particularly well, but any short pasta shape—e.g., penne, rigatoni—will work here. For added nutrition and fiber, use whole-wheat pasta.)
- -- 2 medium zucchini, ends trimmed, cut in half lengthwise and then sliced crosswise into ½-inch half-moon pieces
- -- 1 medium yellow summer squash, ends trimmed, cut in half lengthwise and then sliced crosswise into ½-inch half-moon pieces
- -- 1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1-inch chunks
- -- 1 large red onion, peeled, thinly sliced, and separated into rings
- -- 4 plum tomatoes, quartered *
- -- 2 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press
- -- 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
- -- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- -- ½ to ¾ teaspoon salt, or more to taste (I use ¾ teaspoon kosher salt, but feel free to start with the lesser amount, especially if you are using a salty feta cheese in the finished dish. You can always add more to taste later.)
- -- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- -- 1 (15-oz.) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- -- ½ cup finely minced fresh herbs ** (I usually use about ¼ cup finely minced flat-leaf parsley leaves and ¼ cup finely minced basil leaves, but use whichever combination of fresh herbs you’d like. Fresh thyme also works well in this dish.)
- -- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- -- Crumbed feta cheese and/or soft goat cheese (optional, but highly recommended) (I figure about 1 ounce of cheese per person.)
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly coat 1 or 2 large rimmed baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray or olive oil. Set aside.
- In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, whisk together the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. In a large bowl, toss together the zucchini, yellow squash, red pepper, red onion, tomatoes, and garlic. Pour 3 tablespoons of the olive oil/balsamic dressing over the vegetables; toss gently to thoroughly coat the vegetables with the dressing. Reserve the remaining dressing for the pasta.
- Spread the vegetables in a single layer onto 1 or 2 large rimmed baking sheets. (Make sure the vegetables aren’t too crowded on the pan(s), or they will steam rather than roast and you won’t get that nice caramelization that makes this dish so delectable. I usually use 2 pans to ensure they have enough room.) Roast the vegetables in the oven until tender and slightly caramelized, about 25 to 30 minutes, stirring them halfway through the cooking time.
- While the vegetables are roasting, cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a couple of pinches of salt, then add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, according to the package directions (usually about 10 to 12 minutes, depending on the size and shape of the pasta). Drain and transfer the cooked pasta to a large serving bowl. (Sometimes I add the pasta back to the empty pot, then mix everything together in the pot before transferring the whole thing to a serving bowl. I’m a messy cook, so the pot helps to contain the mess.)
- Add the chickpeas to the cooked pasta in the bowl, then add the roasted vegetables, scraping all the liquid and seasonings from the roasting pan(s) into the pasta bowl. (I like to break up the roasted tomatoes a bit with a spoon while stirring them into the pasta, almost creating a tomato sauce of sorts that helps to flavor the pasta.) Pour the reserved olive oil/balsamic dressing over everything, and stir it all together. Add the fresh herbs and the Parmesan cheese, stir, then taste and adjust seasonings. If the pasta seems dry, add a little more olive oil. Serve hot or at room temperature with goat cheese, feta cheese, and/or additional grated Parmesan cheese on the side. (Or, if all the people you are feeding can agree—a beautiful but rare event—add 3 to 4 ounces of goat or feta cheese to the pasta before serving, tossing it all together until the cheese melts a little. A soft goat cheese will create a creamy, tangy “sauce” as it melts into the warm pasta and vegetables; feta cheese won’t melt quite as much, but it’s still tasty.)
** If you don’t have any fresh herbs on hand, you can use dried herbs or dried Italian seasoning. Just sprinkle the vegetables with the dried herbs (a couple of teaspoons should be enough) before roasting them in the oven.
Recipe adapted from Cooking Light magazine, May 1997.
Did you make this recipe?
I’d love to hear how it turned out for you! Leave a comment below and/or share a picture on Instagram with the hashtag #wholesomefamilykitchen!