There are people who love eating familiar foods and others who are always craving the new and the strange. I enjoy both, but my sweet spot is somewhere in between: things that are understandable enough to be easy to like, but unexpected enough to surprise and delight. I’m always on the lookout for recipes that don’t demand an entire cupboard full of inaccessible ingredients or a set of hard-to-master skills, but still have a special touch – maybe an interesting spice or a different mode of preparation.
A very honourable subset of that type is dishes that only include things that you use on a regular basis, but combine them in a completely revelatory way. My recent discovery in this category comes (again) from Samarkand, one of my favourite cookbooks. It’s a pasta salad, hardly the most trendy or glamorous of foods, but the Armenians clearly knew what they were up to with this one.
There aren’t may ingredients: orzo pasta (the kind that looks like rice), olive oil, garlic, lemon, pistachios, red grapes, purple basil, salt and pepper. You fry the garlic in copious amounts of olive oil, add lemon juice and stir it into freshly cooked pasta. Add chopped pistachios, seedless grapes and shredded basil and serve. There are nuances – how to prepare the pistachios or whether to serve the salad warm or cold – but I imagine one can make this pretty much based on the description above, even without knowing the quantities. If you want more direction, you can either buy Samarkand (you really should!) or use one of the many versions on the internet.
I would never have occurred to me to use these ingredients together in this way, but the sweetness and fruitiness of the grapes the herbaceous basil and aromatic garlic just play together exceptionally well. This reminds me to be grateful that people around the globe have had thousands of years to experiment with food and to come up with all sorts of great ideas. It is such a special pleasure to find enjoyment in an unlikely place.
I made this salad on Sunday, when the mother of one of my daughter’s friends came to pick her up. She stayed for a while and I offered her some salad. After about two mouthfuls, she demanded to have recipe, took a picture of the relevant page of the cookbook (iPhones have their uses) and texted later that she started making that salad as soon as she got home. If this isn’t a compliment to a dish, I don’t know what is.