After 2 1/2 weeks at the Circle B Kitchen Western Headquarters, we landed on home turf just after 11 pm. Tuesday. Our flight was peopled with weary travelers, most of whom seemed to be returning from summer vacations in possibly exotic locales (I suppose that just about anyplace that's not Omaha might feel exotic). But the vibe was palpable.
(breath-taking view of San Simeon Cove; One of our favorite beach walks)
Across the aisle was a suntanned family that we guessed was returning from Hawaii...two sets of parents, 4 or 5 kids and a set of grandparents. The youngest child was so over the whole traveling thing and cried his way onto the plane, complaining about leaving vacation. He slept for part of the trip and then cried all the way off because he had to leave the plane. The parents handled it all with grace and patience, but there's really only so far that vacation energy can take you when it's all over.
Sitting next to me was a young woman who had been studying in France, vacationing in Barcelona and returning home to start her next life chapter which, of course, we hope will be as exciting as the previous. Her exhausted eyes hinted that her return might signal that perhaps life was about to get more real.
And then there was the little girl in front of us who, as we were landing, could not for one second control her joy that she was HOME!! Her voice carried through the plane and brought smiles to our faces as we recognized how precious that feeling really is.
Our own feelings about returning fell probably somewhere between the crying boy and the squealing toddler. We were feeling the sadness of leaving vacation and our cozy little place on the Central Coast in almost equal measure to the joy of returning home. And as often is the case, my thoughts turned to food, and how our first meal when we return home has traditionally been chosen to welcome ourselves home and to match the parallel moods of consolation and celebration. Since returning home from vacation is a fairly common experience this time of year, I thought I'd let you in on how we have been doing it for lo these many years.
Traditionally, the meal that celebrated our return home would most often be a simple pasta dish of spaghetti with marinara sauce. I would make the sauce before we left and stash it in the freezer along with plenty of grated parmesan cheese. Sometimes we'd come home to pasta #5 which we named thusly so we could identify our favorite penne pasta with an herby tomato sauce.
But perhaps the most iconic of all comfort foods for me was a pasta dish that I made as the kids were growing up that we just called "Mostaccioli". Mostaccioli is a pasta shape similar to penne, only a little larger and a little harder to find here in the Midwest, but by happy coincidence, I found some yesterday and last night we celebrated our homecoming and simultaneously consoled ourselves with Mostaccioli pasta.
Now, the whole idea of a homecoming meal is that it should be easy. As in no recipes, no fussiness, just a fun way to really feel the truth of being home with familiar and comforting ingredients, tastes and aromas. And that perfectly describes our Mostaccioli, which consists of just 4 ingredients... Italian sausage, marinara sauce, pasta and cheese.
You could very easily use your favorite jarred pasta sauce here, but making marinara sauce is in some bizarre way very relaxing and sort of grounding for me, so I usually start by making some sauce. Then just brown a pound of bulk Italian sausage in the pan. Once that's pretty much cooked through, add 2-3 cups of marinara sauce and stir all of that together, letting it simmer while you cook your pasta... one pound of any pasta shape will do here, but we're partial to the short shapes, i.e., mostaccioli.
Once your pasta is cooked, add it to your pan with the sauce and maybe just a little of the pasta cooking water. Stir that all together and then add 2 good handfuls of mozzarella chunks. I use whatever mozzarella I have on hand (not grated), and sometimes I just cut up about 5 sticks of string cheese. Stir that in, heat it all through until the cheese starts to get melty, top it with a little grated parmesan and consider yourself officially welcomed home.