Penne with Mascarpone and Toasted Walnuts
When my sister came up recently to help me begin the process of clearing out our parent’s retirement cottage after we moved them to assisted living, we powered through three days together, pausing only occasionally to have a bite to eat or a short visit with our parents. The task at hand was to sort through their papers, cull the boxes of photographs into a manageable amount to be digitized and to select a few items as keepsakes for either ourselves or my sister’s children. The rest would be managed by a professional.
I was so grateful to have my sister by my side as we went through the process of revisiting so many family memories. It was the first time she and I had spent time together without marital or other family appendages in a very long time. With only seventeen months separating us, we grew up sharing the same bedroom. In fact, before my younger sister was born seven years later, we adamantly declined when our parents asked if we would like separate bedrooms. To us, being able to talk and giggle together after the lights were turned out at night was a benefit we were not disposed to relinquish. Working across from one another as we shuffled through old family photos was like having the room to ourselves with the lights turned off again. It reminded both of us of what we once meant to one another.
My sister and I worked well together going through old photos and playing detective with vintage photos of relatives we had never known. We also worked well when it came time to surveying my parent’s belongings for items we wanted to keep. She selected some artwork and a few pieces of furniture for my nephew and his wife and we divvied up the few remaining pieces of jewelry my mother had not already given away, and that was about it. It was utterly without strife—we had, of late, exhumed all the buried resentments and there was nothing left in the graveyard to unearth.
There are few possessions in a person’s life that truly embody their spirit. Of course, what I consider important is not necessarily what someone else would find meaningful. Most of the time, they are of little monetary value. Some years ago, my mother gave me the string of opera-length pearls my father had given her one Christmas when I was a child. I still remember the look on her face and the tears that followed when she opened the box. Years later, whenever my mother asked me what jewelry of hers I would like I always answered, “Just the pearls.” I borrowed them to wear on my wedding day.
Apart from her necklace, though, what I truly treasure is my mother’s recipe boxes. I’ve written about them before, but to me, they are more valuable than any piece of jewelry she owned. I can trace the arc of her life, and sometimes even her moods whenever I dip into them. Her mother, her sister, her (dreaded) mother-in-law and many of her friends and neighbors are all represented in those boxes bearing witness to her life. Those recipe boxes are where I find my mother. Like her, they were in a state of disarray but over time I have managed to put them in order, coming to understand my mother in the process.
As for my dad, I have a watch that was given to him as a college graduation present in 1950. It’s a vintage Rolex (not worth very much I hasten to add) that I wear nearly every day. It’s an old fashioned wind-up watch with a leather band I chose myself. I’ve had it restored at a cost that was nearly as much as the watch is worth. My father’s initials are engraved on the back. It is very dear to me.
But what is dearer still, has very little value. It’s my father’s workbench.
My father’s workbench is something that he has carried with him all his life. It was given to him by his father for Christmas when he was just a boy. He says it came as a kit (which I believe because I have recently seen an identical vintage workbench used as a potting bench in a gardening magazine). What is so touching about the gift is that it came from a father who had so little aptitude or inclination for handyman work, that even changing the lightbulbs fell to his wife. Yet he saw that his son had different interests and so he bought him a good workbench so that he could tinker and build shortwave radios.
My dad had a great regard and love for his father who did most of the parenting in their family. When my father was sick, it was my grandfather who took him to the doctor. And it was my grandfather who rescued him one day from the train tracks where he was playing just minutes before a train came barreling down the tracks.
My grandmother was an emotionally distant mother; a privileged only child who married my grandfather—a man with an eighth-grade education from modest means—when she was a spinsterly thirtysomething. My father was born when she was thirty-five and his sister was born two years later. My grandparents shared the same room, but slept in twin beds.
The story of my grandparent’s marriage in an upper middle class enclave of Cleveland will always be confounding to me. It is the stuff of a Dawn Powell Ohio novel, shrouded in mystery and forever unknowable. My father doesn’t even know the story of how they met.
None of us escapes childhood without a few scars. Maybe my father tinkering away at his workbench in the basement provided a kind of refuge from the ice storm upstairs. Or maybe he was just a curious boy who wanted to know how things worked. Whatever the reason, the workbench his father gave him remained a constant in his life. When I picture my father as he was when I was a child, I see him standing at his workbench with all his tools carefully arranged on a pegboard behind it the way Paul Child hung Julia’s batterie de cuisine in her Cambridge kitchen that now resides in the Smithsonian.
Some seventy-five years later the workbench is still standing, bearing all the nicks and paint splatters of decades worth of home maintenance projects and electrical engineering experiments. Like my mother’s recipe boxes, the workbench tells the story of my father’s life.
As we began to dismantle my parent’s cottage in the retirement community where they have lived the past six years finding a good home for the workbench became my cause. There is an invisible string which goes directly from my heart to that workbench, which is the embodiment of my father. I used to stand next to him as he stood at the workbench explaining to me how to fix things. When I moved to my first apartment, he bought me a toolbox and filled it with some of the tools from his own collection. Some of them came from his boyhood.
I have always said that someday I wanted to take possession of his workbench when he no longer needed or wanted it, just as I used to ask for my mother’s pearls. Now, though, I find I have no place for it in my home. Or at least, I see it as something I will have to decommission sooner rather than later as my husband and I contemplate a move back to an urban center once my parents are gone. Letting it go after my dad is gone, or no longer remembers my name will be that much harder.
On a whim, I sent an email inquiry to my husband’s nephew and asked if by chance he might like to have it as he seemed the kind of person for whom a good workbench that has seen a thing or two in its long life would mean something. When he wrote back less than an hour later that he would be honored to take it, I burst into tears. Our nephew grew up without a father and to jump from one branch of the family tree to another to give him what was once the gift from a father to a son seemed especially meaningful. (He also has sons of his own who may also one day like a good workbench.) When I told my father, he was very pleased.
But finding a new home for my father’s workbench is not the end of the story. At the suggestion of a friend, I had a professional photographer take some photos so that I would always have my father’s workbench with me wherever I go. The results are spectacular; he managed to capture every inch of character embedded in the bench. (The photos I have included in this post are my own, not the photographer’s.)
Now what, you might be asking, does this have to do with a story about a recipe? Dear Reader, I have only the thinnest of threads to pull on to unravel a culinary connection. In fact, it is more alimentary than culinary. But there is this: When we were children we used to go down to the basement at Christmas and crack nuts in the vice that is attached at one end of my father’s workbench. That vice made short work of cracking nuts—we probably cracked more than we ate just for the fun of it. I’m sure it was my father’s idea. As an inventor and engineer, he had a way of solving many nuts that otherwise seemed too tough to crack.
And so, before I send the workbench off to begin a new tour of duty with our nephew, I decided to take one last turn at the vice and crack a few nuts to use in one of my favorite weeknight pasta dishes that was inspired from a recipe in At Elizabeth David’s Table, a cookbook I reviewed some years ago. Penne with Mascarpone is quick, delicious and something that is almost a pantry meal if you remember to always stock a tub of Mascarpone cheese in your fridge. It is finished with toasted walnuts. My ode to my father’s workbench.
Penne with Mascarpone and Toasted Walnuts
6oz. penne pasta
1/4 Cup toasted walnut pieces
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp. butter
1/3 Cup mascarpone cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
lemon zest from half a lemon
freshly ground pepper
Cook penne in boiling salted water according to directions (about 10-12 minutes). Drain. Meanwhile, toast walnuts in skillet over medium heat.
When penne is nearly done, melt butter in sauté pan, add garlic and cook over low heat until fragrant. Add mascarpone and melt until heated, but do not boil. Add drained pasta, and Parmesan and toss until heated through. Add lemon zest from half a lemon and freshly ground pepper.
Serve in bowls and sprinkle with toasted walnuts. Pass Parmesan if more is desired.
Note: This is a quick go-to meal after a busy day. Mascarpone unopened keeps a couple of months in the fridge so is a good pantry item to have on hand.
You can also make this an all-in-one meal by adding some braised Swiss chard to the pasta instead of serving a side salad.
Braising Swiss chard: Wash Swiss chard in plenty of water and spin dry. Roughly chop (your choice to include stems or not—I prefer just the leaves for this dish). Heat large pot over medium heat with 1-2 tsp olive oil. Add Swiss chard when oil is hot. Toss frequently with cooking tongs to wilt and then cover for a few minutes until tender. Add to penne and mascarpone mixture and toss gently before serving.