Recently, my great-aunt and great-uncle spent three days with us. The first two days, the torrential downpour kept us trapped inside, so I spent a lot of time at the mercy of my great-aunt, listening to her discuss the finer points of ancient Chinese literature. I have the speaking ability of a young Chinese child, so needless to say, I really had no idea what she was talking about.
At some point, I drifted off, daydreaming about childhood days at my great-aunt’s house, eating kumquats and reading on the roof in the blazing California sun. About my great-uncle before his stroke, about his old record player and Chinese historical movies.
My great-aunt and great-uncle have been in America for twenty years. They can barely speak any English. When I was a kid, I used to look down on them because they seemed so out of place. They could only speak comfortably in Chinatown and the only interactions they had with their neighbors were smiles and waves. I never realized how unfair it was to condescend on them when they never judged me for not speaking what should have been my native language.
My great-aunt and great-uncle lived through the Cultural Revolution in China. My great-aunt fled the Communists for years before finally being sent to a hard labor camp and very nearly losing her life. They have lived hard and complicated lives that I once dismissed because they didn’t speak English. Lately, I have started to treasure the memories that I have with them, each as beautiful as the rainbows in the spray of my great-aunt’s garden hose as she watered her plants in the summer.
The final day of their visit was blessedly sunny. We visited Longwood Gardens, another childhood haunt that I had not been to since middle school. It was nostalgic to see the children’s garden, renovated but still vaguely familiar, and the waterlilies, their leaves smaller than I remembered. My great-aunt was happy, and my great-uncle was happy to see her happy.
Life rarely gives second chances, but I felt that I had been given some kind of chance to connect with two people who I had pushed away in my youth. My great-aunt pointed out all the edible ferns, much to my mom’s and my amusement. She also expressed her awe of the size of the grounds. Through her eyes, ordinary plants suddenly became a delicious delicacy, and the grounds that I had taken for granted became impressive in their vastness.
This dish is dedicated to them. It’s simple and light but delicious, qualities I know they would enjoy.
Cacio e Pepe with Green Peas (adapted from Katie at the Kitchen Door) – serves 4-6
3 cups frozen green peas
Salt to taste
1/2 box of spaghetti
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp pepper, plus more for garnish
2 cups reserved pasta water
1 1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
4 tbsp sour cream
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. When the water is boiling, add the peas to the water and boil until the peas are bright green and floating on the surface. Use a skimmer to remove the peas and immediately immerse in the ice bath. Set aside.
Cook the pasta in the same pot. When the pasta is done, save some pasta water and set aside.
In a large frying pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add black pepper and stir until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Add 1 cup reserved pasta water to bring to a boil, then add the cheese and pasta. Stir to melt the cheese until the pasta is evenly coated in a creamy sauce, adding more pasta water if necessary. (If the cheese starts to clump, just add more pasta water and stir until the cheese dissolves into the liquid.)
Take 2 cups of the peas and place in a blender with sour cream and 1/4 cup pasta water. Blend until smooth, then season to taste with salt. (I used no salt because I liked the sweetness of the peas.) Mix the remaining peas into the pasta.
Place a circle of pea purée on the plate, then top with pasta. Finish with freshly grated pepper and cheese (and some pan fried tilapia, if it suits your fancy).