Somewhere – probably in one of the shoe boxes in a larger box, Russian doll-style, under the bed – is a strip from a magazine. It is a cartoon of a man sitting at a table eating, while under the table his feet are in two trays, one containing water, the other sand. Over the table is a striped umbrella, across from another man. Both are delightedly drinking well-decorated cocktails and wearing sun hats and sunglasses, while on the other side of the room is a cat, looking unimpressed, presumably because his litter tray is being used for another purpose, or maybe because he is simply unimpressed.
When I ripped the strip, I had a particular friend in mind. One who refuses to be defeated by anything, especially regarding food. When it rained on the day of a barbecue, she was up on the roof suspending a makeshift awning. If rain turned into a storm, she would drag the grill into the largest available space and hand out cardboard for fume wafting. Her usual response to bad news or bad days is to invite people over for a meal, often with a theme, and she generally invents a new drink – the parma violet is particularly memorable, although later painful. If you are having a bad day, she will run you a hot bath, make you chicken and barley soup, and either talk, not talk, or keep you company while watching five hours of TV.
Living 1,953km apart means missing her, but never more so than this past year-and-a-half. There’s Zoom, of course, but we have never been good on the phone. So I wished again and again that we were just a few miles apart, as if that might mean I would feel her endless, exasperating enthusiasm rumbling across the city like a tube train vibrating the pavement. Back when it was announced that we could form bubbles with people, I imagined one with her: how she might turn up with a new hairstyle, and we’d eat large quantities of one food, because there always seems to be a lot of one thing with her – mackerel, sausages, remoulade, cake – maybe a costume, maybe a playlist.
So, with my friend and the man in the cartoon in mind, this week’s recipe is a dish we might have ordered in Sicily (where we could now go, but have decided to wait a bit longer): a big, messy tangle of pasta with tomato, garlic, red chilli, shellfish and squid.
We don’t have a litter tray, but we have bought a paddling pool for our small terrace. I am going to sit with my feet in that, in a sun hat, drinking a cocktail I have invented especially for this column: the funky Vax (Campari, prosecco and a secret ingredient I haven’t decided on yet). Then we are going to sit and eat our pasta, which always makes me happy (and especially when it tastes of the sea and good times), in the sunshine.
250g mussels, scrubbed
150g squid or prawns (or a mix)
1 large ripe tomato
2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in two
1 pinch dried red chilli, or to taste
1 glug white wine
1 heaped tbsp chopped parsley
First the fish: soak the clams in tepid water with a pinch of salt for 30 minutes; scrub the mussels and pull away the hairy beards; and clean and trim the squid, and cut into strips (if using prawns, use them as they are).
Put a large pan of water on for the pasta. Once boiling, use it to peel the tomato by submerging it for a minute, then lifting out and into cold water, at which point the skin should slip away. Peel and roughly chop the flesh.
In a large frying pan, gently warm a good amount of olive oil and the garlic – left whole for a gentle scent, sliced for stronger – making sure it doesn’t burn. Add the tomato and a pinch of chilli, and cook, stirring, for a minute, then add all the seafood and a dash of wine, and cook, stirring often, over a lively flame, so the shells open; pull out and discard any that don’t.
Meanwhile, salt the water and, once it boils again, add the pasta and cook. Once it is al dente, use tongs to lift directly into the seafood pan, add the parsley and toss vigorously so everything combines.