Curious Cook: A few birds with one dinner

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In days of yore, Gentle Reader, I would literally spend two or even three days on an elaborate, labor-intensive dinner.

Then I got a job selling cars.

So, these days elaborate and time-consuming mean sitting down to eat, and maybe putting the grub on an actual plate. Even on my days off (which sometimes, based on the schedule of customers, may vanish altogether) time is short because it’s when I try and cram everything from my old, leisurely life into one or two days.

Early on, I even tried to get everything done plus catch up on my rest. But I had to pick one, so it’s mostly lots of errands and if I’m extraordinarily lucky, a little sleep.

But I really miss cooking from scratch and eating said cooking.

When I do cook, I like to make it tick off a few boxes: tasty, healthy, quick, comforting, and quick (yeah, I know I put it in twice, but for my new, uber-busy life, quick is life-or-death crucial).

I love macaroni salad. Growing up it was elbow macaroni, tuna from a can, and mayo. I think it’s a regional thing. My mom grew up with it in New Jersey and one of my managers at the dealership, who’s from New York, also ate boatloads of it and even brings it in for lunch once in a while.

The problem with this simple three-ingredient salad is the mayonnaise absorbs into the pasta almost instantly. This makes for a dust dry salad very quickly.

I also love pasta salads from various salad bars because they do something to the dressing that keeps it from completely absorbing and leaving it seductively draping the pasta and the other salad components.

The problem with these restaurant-prepared recipes is that they’re often studded with things that I don’t like enough to have in my house, let alone in my mouth.

I once worked in the mall that housed Southern Season. The famous foodie amusement park had a salad bar. In that salad bar they had a pasta salad that I ate often. It had that tantalizing clingy dressing.

But one day they changed the recipe and started adding ingredients that utterly turned me off; but it still had that silky dressing. So, I asked one of the cooks what was the secret ingredient.

His answer floored me and made me think he didn’t understand the question — water!

That night I called my friend and culinary mentor, Chef Chrissie. He explained that simple water loosened the mayo up enough to slow the absorption and coat the salad fixin’s.

But he added one piece of advice: add another liquid as well to up the ante on the flavor, rather than dilute it. He liked an acid to cut the mayo’s richness.

I always keep a bag or two of frozen peas in the chill chest. I use them in all kinds of things and often end up with a cup or so hanging in the freezer.

The other night I happened to have some white meat chicken left from a previous meal.

So, I decided to make a pasta salad — but instead of a side dish for a main dish, this would be an “only dish” dinner, a salad as entree, and use up some bits and pieces of this and that.

One of the pieces was some greens that were fresh and crispy, but not enough for a full salad. Topping the creamy pasta salad with the lettuces brought a bright freshness that lightened the whole thing — plus it made all the calories and fat just go away like a miracle.

Not really. But it was delicious.

Thanks for your time.

Contact me with questions or comments at dm@bullcity.mom.

New School Macaroni Salad

1 cup frozen peas

1 cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half

1 ½ cups cooked white meat chicken, cut into bite-size chunks

1 ½ cups cavatappi pasta, cooked in heavily salted water, drained, and cooled, but not rinsed

¼ cup thinly sliced green onions or snipped chives

Fresh salad greens

Salt and pepper

Dressing

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons malt or red wine vinegar

Hot water

Salt and pepper

Break out two colanders. Into the smaller one, place peas, tomatoes and chicken. Season and set aside for peas to thaw.

Make dressing: into a small bowl, whisk together mayo and vinegar. Slowly add the hot water a teaspoon at a time and whisk until it is silky and the consistency of creamy salad dressing. Set aside. Dressing can be made up to a day earlier, cover and refrigerate and then whisk before using, adding a little bit of hot water if needed to thin.

Drain cooked pasta into a second, larger colander. Allow to cool completely.

To prepare:

Place pasta, along with peas, tomatoes, and chicken into a large bowl. Add green onions and dressing.

Toss until it’s evenly coated. Cover and let sit at room temp for about 30 minutes for flavors to come together and pasta to lightly absorb dressing. Taste for seasoning and re-season, if necessary.

Serve in shallow bowls. Top each with a handful of greens.

Makes four dinner-sized servings.

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