Creamy Basil Pesto Pasta Salad


Y’all are familiar with oxymorons, right? (no, I’m not referring to your  neighbor who fires up that buzz saw at 6:30 AM all summer; or your coworker who spilled coffee all over your crucial report; or your Aunt Edna who practically yodelled the news that you were pregnant even before you told your best friend–those are all just plain “morons.”).

Oxymorons are those odd-but-true figures of speech that encapsulate two apparently contradictory terms (or opposites) in what turns out to contain actuality:

  • That metal post was so cold that it burned my fingers.
  • After his speech, the silence was deafening.
  • (a gem from Woody Allen): “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering–and it’s all over much too soon.”
  • (on the same theme, from Ashley Montagu): “I want to die young at a ripe old age.”
  • (. . . and, the classic from George Carlin): Jumbo Shrimp.

For me, one of the most memorable oxymorons in real life was what I call The Summer of Uncertainty. It was the summer I met an incredibly gorgeous, incredibly romantic man.

During the second summer of my PhD, I found myself living in the university residence. While all my friends were occupied with their current boyfriends, I, as usual, was single.  Why couldn’t I find a boyfriend, I wondered? I mean, wasn’t I as smart as my friends? Wasn’t I as funny? Wasn’t I (almost) as good looking? It just didn’t seem fair: they all had beaux, and I–none. (Why, it was sort of like an oxymoron!). I resigned myself to yet another summer alone.

And then, on a whim, I went with an old friend to a Saturday night bash at another friend’s house. Almost as soon as we arrived, I was approached by a tall, astonishingly handsome man (let’s call him “Rock.”)  Towering over me in a dusty blue T-shirt and black jeans, a tousle of slick, onxy-black hair and a jaw even more square than your grandparents’ morals, Rock beguiled me from the first instant, and didn’t leave my side all evening. I could barely concentrate on our witty repartee, I was so taken by his good looks.  Could he–was it possible?–be interested in l’il ole me? Naw, I thought, which freed me up for a great evening of conversation. At the end of the night, I said my goodbye.  Rock smiled and murmured that it had been great to meet me.

The following Monday, when I sauntered into the graduate English department, the secretary beckoned me to her desk. “There’s this guy who keeps calling and asking for your number,” she said.  “He says he met you last Saturday–his name is Rock.”  My cheeks flushed crimson. ” Who the heck is this guy, anyway?” she asked. “Well, I told him I’d give his number to you if you wanted it.” She handed me a piece of paper.  If I wanted it?!  Was she kidding??!!

Maybe it was my scintillating conversational skills that had prompted him to track me down.  Or perhaps it was our mutual love of Modern American Literature.  Most likely it was the hot pink mini dress and white fishnet stockings I wore that evening. Whatever the reason, I didn’t care–I called him back immediately.  That call prompted a summer of romantic, entertaining, intense, exciting and confusing evenings.

“Confusing”? Why, yes. You see, I never did quite figure out Rock’s motives. Let me give you an example: for our first date, Rock took me to a Bruce Springsteen concert (believe it or not, I didn’t know who The Boss was before that evening.  Of course, I realized immediately that I was familar with every single song he sang. Thrill!). After the concert ended, Rock walked me back to residence, rode up the elevator to my room, stood outside the door and gazed down into my (entirely mesmerized) eyes.  And then. . . he said, “This was fun. Goodnight.”  And walked away!  No “can I come in?”  No attempt to make a pass.  No kiss on the forehead.  No hug, even! “Okay,” I reasoned, “first date.”  No biggie.

Another rendez-vous was a custom picnic in Earle Bales Park, one of the largest and most beautiful parks in the city.  Rock’s basket was brimming with glass wine goblets, real silverware and china plates.  The food was from Toronto’s premier upper-crust shop at the time, Bersani & Carlevale. (Before that evening, I’d often passed by the shop and lingered, longingly, at the window, knowing I could never afford anything inside). Rock’s culinary choices included a good cabernet sauvignon, crusty bread with all manner of spreads and dips (artichoke-caper compote, oozy cambozola, giant, spicy, brined green olives and rabbit pâté–my first–and only–encounter with rabbit as food, which I declined to try, though I chose not to hold it against him).  We ate our feast on a blanket on the grass, then watched a live performance of Romeo and Juliet in the park. Seriously, what could be more romantic?

Or imagine this: after an hour-long, meandering midnight phone call (topics included TS Eliot, American Literature, Hemingway, the fact that Rock had had a poem published–good thing he couldn’t see me swoon over the phone–and Ezra Pound), I returned to my campus residence the next afternoon to discover my mailbox overflowing with a hand-painted card, a copy of Eliot’s The Wasteland, and one perfect red rose.  “I thought you might enjoy this,” Rock had written inside. “Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee/ With a shower of rain.”  Swoon, Take Two.

And yet. . . every shared evening ended the same way, with Rock gazing into my eyes, thanking me–and promptly leaving.  By the end of August, I was more than perplexed; I was downright frustrated. One evening, I couldn’t resist posing The Question: just what, I wondered aloud, were his feelings toward me? (any woman who’s ever posed the question already knows it as “The Relationship Kiss of Death”).  Now he was the one who seemed perplexed.  “Well, I like you,” he stammered. Yep, clear as mud. Shortly thereafter, I returned to my PhD and Rock returned to his job; fairly quickly, the connection faded.  It wasn’t until many years later, my girlish naiveté finally evaporated, that it struck me: holy moly! What if Rock were gay?

I never did find out.  Instead, Rock left me with some unique memories of a summer filled with music, poetry, culture, and great food. In fact, it was he who served me one of the best pasta salads I’ve ever tasted, a combination of pesto, garlicky bruschetta tomatoes, and finely chopped vegetables, all mixed with Italian spices and a sprinkling of sass.  I had never tasted pesto before, and I was besotted.

This 2011 iteration offers a creamy alternative highlighting the flavors of basil and cilantro. The smooth sauce hugs the pasta with just the right hint of richness and a little heat from the sriracha.  With the occasional crunch from fresh vegetables and a touch of citrus, the salad is delicious either cold or at room temperature. It’s the perfect dish for a buffet, or a quick dinner for two.

Rock, this one’s for you.  As you savor it, I hope you’ll experience both cool delight and the spark of spicy heat, all at the same time.  Think of it as my gift for that summer long ago, my own gastonomic oxymoron made just for you.

Disclosure: Links in this post may be affiliate links. If you choose to purchase using those links, at no cost to you, I will receive a small percentage of the sale.

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  1. Courtney says

    That dressing sounds fantastic–fresh herbs are so delicious right now!


  2. This is one of the cutest funniest posts I’ve read from you! Or anywhere in fact. Summer love…this brings back some memories of my own confusing encounters. I don’t think any involved much pasta, but time to romance my sweetie with this recipe. He’s a pasta guy.

    • Aw, thanks, Bitt! 😀 Summer love sure can be tricky. . . glad to hear that your sweetie will warm up to this one (no ambiguity). 😉

  3. Wow, this post read like a novel! When I saw the title of the pasta dish afterward, I laughed out loud. Cheers to the Rock!

    • Glad to provide a little chuckle, Mary! And now that you mention it, I think Rock was the first one I knew who always said, “Cheers!”, too! 😀

  4. Umm get in my belly. Sriracha and pesto flavors?? Genius. Making this asap.

  5. Casey Lorraine Thomas says

    Rikki this is such a wonderful post! I was captivate by your story and your beautiful writing. Thank you!

    Dressing sounds delicious. I think I’ll try this with avocado instead of tofu too!


  6. Brilliant post, Ricki! This one needs to be shared with the masses for sure. Love the pasta salad, too. I’ve got a man who flips for pasta salad and he’s definitely not gay. I’m not so sure about your Rock (great name choice as I was visualizing him as very close to the original Rock). Thanks for sharing these great memories in such a delightful way. I love oxymorons, but not morons (we have one neighbor close by who fits that first description … thought he was back at it this weekend, but it turned out they had an inflatable castle in their yard for a kids’ party–noisy thing).

    Thanks so much for this one, Ricki! xo,

    • Shirley, you are too sweet. Thanks, friend. 🙂 Hope that Mr. GFE likes the salad! (and yes, that’s exactly why I chose that name for him–associations with the original, both in looks and orientation). 😉

  7. hahaha great story! And great recipe. It is something to think back on all those crazy romantic, or not so romantic, escapades from the past 🙂

  8. Ricki when is your novel out? Because I’ll be lining up to buy it! (and of course the recipe looks delish, perfect summertiming)

    • Aw, thanks, Maggie! But I’m more of a “memoir” kinda gal (ie, true stories!) 😉 This is the kind of salad I bring to big events with outdoor food–very summertime! 🙂

  9. I wish I had such a romantic memory of first encountering pesto – what a lovely friendship – and the pasta salad looks perfect for a picnic!

  10. Boys are confusing and sometimes dumb, too. 😉
    I have huge basil plants already and this looks great! I made a similar almond-lemon pesto last year into a pasta salad but I like how this has tofu in it. Yum! 🙂

  11. I really thought that there was an avocado involved, but I was wrong! It does seem delicious, I love fresh basil.

  12. I had a sailor boyfriend like that Ricki. He would call me whenever he was in port and we would go for drinks or a meal, it was all very innocent and never went anywhere. He was the perfect gentleman.

    I have to say Ricki, the photos are gorgeous. I am going to go have a look at them again.

    The pesto I will definitely make. I am trying to get some tofu into Cooper’s diet and hadn’t thought of adding it to pesto. I usually add some philadelphia to his, but I will try adding the tofu next time. Great idea!

  13. this looks so much like the avocado pesto pasta i recently posted i did a double take 🙂 like the tofu variation!

    and how funny are your interactions with the rock… i would’ve been perplexed, too!

  14. That was a great story! Your salad looks beautiful and delicious. Thanks for sharing it at Gluten-Free Wednesdays for the salad challenge.

  15. Mmm I love creamy pesto! Love the story about Rock, especially the description of his jaw!


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