First Tuesday of the month: Tight Ass dinner. Theme chosen by last month’s most impressive tightwad: picnic food. Incredibly mundane response: pasta salad. Level of satisfaction with meal: priceless.
This month’s theme, as articulated by June’s cheapest ass, and I really do mean that in the nicest possible way, is:
July is summertime – let’s do picnic fare – something you can pack up and take to the beach, or your backyard, or even a lovely, lovely meadow filled with wildflowers.
So anyway, grab your pic-a-nic baskets and see who’s cheaper than the average bear.
My favorite picnic food is even more mundane than pasta salad: a sandwich. Unfortunately, my sandwiches usually aren’t cheap anymore and they probably won’t be until I get better about baking my own bread, which I plan to do soon, as soon as I get used to waking up an hour earlier to get a run in before work and can tack on extra time for prepping bread dough. And I dig a cave under my building and hope I live in a microclimate where prosciutto can be cheaply and reliably cured.*
(That waking-up-early-to-run thing is a lie, so we can pretty much write off the bread baking, too.)
Of course, my favorite picnic also happens in the living room because there’s WAY too much nature outside, so I may not be your picnic go-to person. There are a lot of crawly things out there, and they have a marked tendency to ignore my personal space. Sometimes water, ice, or even giant jolts of electricity shoot out of the sky with no warning. Also, bears. All these things are Jesus’ way of telling me to stay indoors. (I will venture out to cycle because although you do hit a lot of bugs it does make it easier to avoid the bears, and I get to hear Phil Liggett yelling in my head. “SHE’S TURNED HERSELF INSIDE OUT!”)
*This is actually my very favorite sandwich. It will become yours, too, if you’re a meat eater.
Other than the incredibly unoriginal sandwich, I like a nice salad when dining al fresco. Most classic picnic and barbeque salads, the kind where you take perfectly nice ingredients like pasta or potatoes or cabbage and decide inexplicably to coat them in gobs of mayonnaise, make me want to hurl. I have recently discovered a buttermilk-dressed slaw that I can tolerate, and I’ve perfected a mayo-less potato salad that makes picnic-goers swoon. It is, therefore, time to tackle the final frontier of disgusting mayo-coated salads: pasta salad.
Of all the things to cover in mayonnaise – which should be used ONLY to (1) moisten a turkey sandwich, (2) make tuna or (3) be mixed with garlic, chile, mango chutney or smoked eggplant* to make a dip for French fries – pasta is perhaps the most personally upsetting. If I ever want to completely alienate my nonna, my zii and zie, all my cousins, their neighbors, friends and co-workers, I will tell them that in the US we cover pasta in mayonnaise.
Plus, mayo-coated food + extended time in the heat = blech, although the Association of Dressings and Sauces would beg to differ. (I don’t care if it doesn’t actually turn. It’s still gross.)
*If this seems alien to you, you’ve obviously never been to Pommes Frites on 2nd Avenue just south of St. Mark’s Place. And that is a problem you need to FIX.
So: a pasta salad, no mayo, not completely boring, tasty whether hot, cold or middling. I decided to go with something vaguely Middle Eastern-ish. Maybe Turkish? Iranian-ish? I have no idea, hence the name.
In any case, I thought a base of orzo with some dried apricots and pistachios would be a nice base (or almonds, for an extra boost of ass-tightening). Some red onion for added crunch and flavor punch. Some mint, because it seemed like a good idea and the pot of mint on the patio needed to be tamed before the tentacles it was sending down the side of the container and across the garden floor reached the already-beleaguered rose bush and chocked the life out of it. Or it tried to choke one of the dogs; that shit grows like a mofo.
I thought it could use more protein, so I went with some lightly fried, spiced chickpeas. If this were part of a larger picnic meal, I’d probably leave well enough alone and pair it with some pita and hummus and a sweet, juicy melon. For dinner, though, chickpeas.
While the orzo cooked, I chopped all the raw ingredients, rinsed some chickpeas and tossed them into a pan with a hit of olive oil, cayenne, cardamom and smoked paprika.
I’m not really sure those spices go together, but it seemed to work out in the end.
When the orzo came off the heat, I mixed in the apricots and onions to give the apricots a chance to plump and the onions a few minutes to sit in the orzo’s retained heat and lose just a little of their edge so they wouldn’t overpower the other flavors. I kept the chickpeas frying a bit longer to try and get a little color on ‘em and let the spices permeate the oil and penetrate the legumes. When I was satisfied with them, I stirred them into the orzo along with the pistachios; the fresh mint went last. Another glug of olive oil, a seasoning test (Salted exactly right? What are the chances?) and voila: a picnic-worthy dinner.
Actually, just a dinner-worthy dinner, because I will gladly eat this in any locale – living room, kitchen, den, glassed-in or mesh-covered room that approximates the out of doors. This is a truly worthy melding of flavors and textures: well-seasoned pasta; sweet, chewy apricots; subtle nutty pistachios, crunchy red onions, their onion-y wings ever so barely clipped; chickpeas with a spicy, slightly crusty exterior giving way to a warm, creamy interior; additional spices adding some more depth of flavor and the freshest of all possible mints. The quantities of each were such that just about every bite had a little bit of everything, just what you want with a salad like this. (And the whole she-bang took 18 minutes. Fucking A!)
A cup of orzo plus the add-ins easily made enough for four, it was almost a shame we weren’t actually going to a picnic. However, I did eat this while looking out the window at a tree.
Apricot, Pistachio and Spiced Chickpea Orzo Salad
Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a side
1 c. orzo
5 oz. dried apricots, roughly chopped
1 medium red onion, diced
4 oz. unsalted green pistachios (or almonds, to bring the price down)
8 oz. chickpeas
2-3 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
2 tbsp. fresh mint, roughly chopped
Put a quart of water on to boil. When it hits the boil, add a tablespoon of salt (kosher; halve this if using table salt) and cook the orzo according to package directions. While the orzo cooks…
Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Add them to a skillet over medium heat. Cook off the water, then add a tablespoon of olive oil and the cayenne, paprika and cardamom. Toss the chickpeas to coat, and let them sizzle for 5-7 minutes until they’re all saturated with the spicy oil and have begun to take on some color.
When the orzo is drained, mix in the apricots and onions. Give them a few minutes to relax into the hot pasta before adding the chickpeas and pistachios.
Add a tablespoon or two of olive oil and toss to coat. Check for seasoning. Add the mint just before serving. (If I actually were taking this to a picnic, I’d bring the mint separately and mix it in at the last minute, because I’m anal like that.)
Orzo (or other pasta), olive oil, spices = pantry staples.
Mint = Free
Apricots = $2.43
Pistachios = $2.77
Red Onion = $0.66
Chickpeas = $0.60
Total: $6.27, or $1.62 per person.