I needed a hug after I finished Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “We Were the Mulvaneys.” Taking place in rural New York State in the 1970s, the story follows the Mulvaneys: a picture-perfect family, their lives defined by their close-knit clan and seemingly effortless popularity and success. However, following one horrific event on Valentine’s Day 1976 each Mulvaney is pushed to the limit of what love and loyalty can endure as they try to deal (or not, as it turns out) with the outcome of the tragedy. Narrated by Judd, the youngest Mulvaney son, the story will make you angry, break your heart, and eventually restore your faith in humanity.
This was my first Oates novel, and I enjoyed it immensely. True, at one point (page 248, to be precise), I wrote the following in my commonplace book: “I hate every character in this novel except Judd, and I don’t know enough about him to hate him yet.” For all that, the ending is satisfying, if a little bit unbelievable, and I fully appreciate the emotional roller coaster ride the author has choreographed in order to get to the resolution.
The writing is descriptive (to a fault, some may say – I disagree) and you come to know the characters as much by their surroundings and histories as by their actions and words. I am looking forward to picking up another of Oates’ works – has anyone read any that they could recommend?
Paired with this novel is a hearty Baked Penne with Roasted Vegetables (from Giada De Laurentiis’ Everyday Pasta). I chose this dish for two reasons: first, after such an emotional novel, I was truthfully just craving some comfort food. Secondly, and more importantly, I can see a meal like this being shared around the Mulvaney dinner table during happier times; Corrine, the matriarch, would have tossed it together with whatever bits and bobs of vegetables and cheese were left in the refrigerator, and the piping-hot casserole dish would have been passed around the table amid numerous children, cats, dogs, and family friends.
As the weather turns colder, my need for hot, bubbly melted cheese goes through the roof. I’m sure I’m not alone. I like to think the mounds of fresh vegetables that go into this dish cancel out some of the cheese and butter. Please enjoy and tell me what you think!
- 2 bell peppers, cored, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3 zucchini or summer squash, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 4-6 cremini mushrooms, quartered
- 1 small onion, sliced into 1-inch strips
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning
- 1 pound penne pasta
- 3 cups marinara sauce (store-bought or homemade)
- 1 cup cubed fontina cheese
- ½ cup cubed smoked gouda or mozzarella
- ¼ cup grated parmesan, plus ½ cup for topping
- 1½ cups frozen peas, thawed
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
- On a baking sheet, toss the peppers, zucchini, mushrooms and onion with the olive oil, salt and pepper, and the herbs. Roast until tender, about 15-20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook for about 6 minutes; since you will be baking the pasta, you don't want to cook it all the way through or it will turn to mush in the oven. Drain pasta.
- In a greased 9x13 baking dish, combine pasta, roasted vegetables, marinara sauce, fontina, mozzarella, ¼ cup parmesan, peas, and more salt and pepper to taste. Gently mix until combined and all ingredients are coated in sauce.
- Top pasta with ½ cup grated parmesan and the butter pieces. Bake at 450 degrees F until the top is golden and the cheese melts, about 25 minutes. Devour immediately.