Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Mary's Favorite Summer Pasta Salad with Grilled Vegetables, Lemon and Basil

You think you are prepared for the phone call.  In fact you may have even hoped for it.  But when the phone rings unexpectedly and the caller identifies as the hospice nurse caring for your Mother-in-law your heart plummets with fear.  Then when she says, "The time is near..." you know you aren't as prepared as you had thought.

My husband's mother, Mary, took us on an amazing journey these past four years as she entered a continuing care home after a fall broke her pelvis.  Suffering through the break brought her advancing dementia to the surface, and psychosis soon followed.

Born in June of 1936, Mary grew up in New York and graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in nursing.  There she met her husband and the two spent the next 60 years together as they married and had two sons.

Mary's Sunset - July 15, 2015
A woman with amazing strength, she suffered from bi-polar disease her entire life.  But it wasn't until these last few years that my husband learned how much it truly affected her.  Holding everything together as she raised her boys, the kids never knew how much Mom was suffering.  Her husband helped her through the rough times and she remained a strong presence while leading the kids into adulthood.

Age though, has a way of catching up to us, and Mary's disease evolved after her broken bones.  Dementia and psychosis are truly horrific and break the hearts of those watching a loved one live through it.  Witnessing a loved one live through fear, confusion, anger, and complete despair can be one of life's most difficult experiences.

But with love and compassion, we along with a team of nurses, caretakers, doctors and finally members of hospice, helped her as best we could through her journey.  And the strength shown by this woman amazed us all.  She fought through in the early days and had moments of clarity with her family.  The joy on her face as her son entered her room is a memory I will carry forever.

As she slipped further into the darkness her team told us it was time for hospice.  They gave her 6-12 weeks and we set to planning for the end.  However that was some 18 months ago!  Mary simply wasn't ready to end her days, and she kept us on our toes for the next year and a half.  Nurses have commented that the strength she carried was like nothing they've seen before.

While many of her days were very dark, she was surrounded by love and had moments of joy along the way.  We've enjoyed stories from some of the nurses relating that she loved Nacho Friday.  Apparently she let it be known that she preferred a massage before the Nachos, and arriving to dinner very relaxed she promptly asked for a beer to celebrate the nachos.  Becoming even more relaxed the nurses showed us a photo they had taken after she had had the massage, nachos and then the beer when she returned to her room in her wheelchair and asked for cucumbers to cover her eyes so she could complete her relaxation.

As difficult and scattered as Mary's life journey may have been, she left this world last Thursday amazingly peaceful.  Surrounded by loved ones, we spent four days after receiving that dreaded hospice nurse phone call at her side.  She had moments of awareness and my son had the opportunity to say goodbye and we could see in her eyes that she was there, if only for a few moments.  But then she slipped into a coma.

The nurses said they thought she could still hear us and we talked to her and chatted amongst ourselves with reminiscences and current life events.

Then on Thursday as most of her loved ones surrounded, her breathing began to slow.  We continued talking to her and telling her how hou much she was loved and her husband and my son held her tight as she took a final sigh.  The noise in her head that she had complained about her entire life finally ceased... and she was at peace.

Mary Elizabeth McGinn Kelly  June 23, 1936 - July 15, 2015
While I only knew Mary in the later years of her life, the incredible strength she carried with her didn't always follow when it came to food.  Someone with an incredible sweet tooth, she's been known to clear half a plate of cinnamon rolls without really realizing it and then laughing as she apologized for polishing off the treats!  But something I always made for her was this salad.

Filled with veggies and the tang of lemon, she said it was the fresh basil that set her tastebuds alive and asking for more.  And as such, I always doubled the recipe when I knew she was coming.

Rest easy sweet Mary.  This salad will always be served in your memory... the extra basil is for you.

Pasta Salad with Grilled Vegetables, Lemon and Basil
Versatile to what produce is in season, fill this salad with what you have on hand.  One of Mary's favorite additions was asparagus, but feel free to sub eggplant, summer squashes and sweet bell peppers.
As the produce is versatile, so is the pasta... while we prefer small pastas like Israili Cous Cous or Orzo in this salad, it would work equally as well with penne or little elbows.
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1 1/2 cups dry small pasta (orzo, Israeli Cous Cous, little elbows)
2 medium zucchini, or mix of summer squash
1 bell pepper
1 medium red onion
2 scallions, chopped
3 large leaves fresh basil (more if desired)
Feta or goat cheese (optional)
Pistachios to sprinkle

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2-3 Tbs good quality olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta according to package directions, drain and rinse with cool water.  Set aside.

Preheat grill to medium high.

Cut zucchini in half, then in half again making "spears" (or if zucchini is large, cut halves into three slices).  Cut bell pepper into large slices (I get about 4 per pepper - slicing off of the core).  Slice red onions into thick (slightly larger than 1/4 inch) slices (remove outer papery layer).

Vegetables fresh from the grill
Rub all vegetables lightly with olive oil and place onto the grill.  Reduce heat to medium.  After a few minutes flip vegetables, keeping an eye so they don't burn (all grills run at different temps... know your grill and how hot it cooks).  Remove when vegetables have nice grill marks and are tender.

When cool, chop vegetables and place into a medium bowl.  Add pasta (I add pasta in portions, I prefer a high veggie to pasta ration, but add more pasta if you prefer a higher pasta to veggie ratio).  Stir to combine.  Add chopped scallions.  Slice basil into thin (julienne) ribbons.  Add to the salad.

Prepare the dressing.  Mix together the lemon juice and olive oil.  Pour over salad.  Stir gently.  Season with salt and pepper, taste and adjust seasonings.  Chill.

To serve, sprinkle with crumbled feta or goat cheese and top with chopped pistachios.

Liv Life Note:  This salad make an ideal pot luck/picnic dish!  It travels well, and is almost better the day after it's made.  Freshen with another squeeze of lemon and drizzle of olive oil if the salad is a bit dry.


  1. oh Kim, so sorry for your loss - my heart goes out to all of you. thank you for sharing these sweet words - and a massage + Nacho Friday sounds simply wonderful - what a heartwarming story.

    I can see why this was a favorite - it sounds great.

    my thoughts are with you xo

    1. Kristina... thank you so much. I know you understand what we are feeling. <3

  2. This is the perfect salad for summer. Looks delish and easy to pull together!


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