Yes, you can have perfection.
You say you haven’t gotten around to trying a MannaEXPRESS recipe yet? Well, let this be the month—for perfection. If I could summarize all the glory of summer in one sublime dish, it would be Summer Pasta. Easy, fresh, delicious, and doesn’t even heat up the kitchen. It uses everyone’s favorite summer ingredients: juicy red ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella cheese, garlic, and olive oil. Have I whetted your taste buds yet?
We cooked this dish in Tuscany—that fairytale part of Italy of rolling hills interspersed with olive groves and vineyards around tile-roofed, stucco, and ochre-colored villas and castellos. We cooked it there but discovered it here years ago after a famous New York chef was asked what dish he would eat on returning to his native Italy. His answer: Summer Pasta.
The Italian countryside is a place where man and nature harmonize, where fresh produce is never compromised, where vegetables taste of the landscape itself. And the tomato—well, the tomato tastes like tomatoes you remember before they were subjected to our system of marketing. The tomatoes we get today are often a far cry from the “love apple,” the fruit first grown in South America and transplanted around the world. You know the kind—those pink, hard, green-inside things picked early, sprayed red, smelling of nothing, and tasting either watery or spongy.
The Italian tomato is smaller, sweeter, and more dense than those grown here, has a slightly tougher skin because of the dry growing season, and smells spicy but with a piquant sharpness like the plant, if you’ve ever grown and smelled one. But the taste! Perfectly ripe and fresh-picked from Paradise. If anything can embody the essence of the earth, bounty, summer sun, and divinity, the Tuscan tomato can.
Have you ever wondered why food often tastes better on a picnic, or camping, or on holiday visiting friends, family, or a foreign place? Is it that things actually taste better or that we learn to better taste them? I think the latter. We rediscover taste and food when we’re not in a hurry, not frustrated, not thinking of the next thing to do, not eating prepackaged stuff that bears little resemblance to fresh and home-grown. Can we rejoice in something as mundane as a tomato? Yes, by accepting it with humble gratitude as a gift of God’s bounty.
Attention to food is thankfulness for the goodness of the earth. So whenever June, July, and August come around, we eagerly look forward to this earthy goodness. Preparing and eating it, we are transported to the mountainside village of Radda, where you buy just what you need for the day at the local market—fresh bread, cheeses, sausage, vegetables, and herbs with the earth still clinging to them and smelling like “every good and perfect gift [that] cometh from above.” We return up the steep, dusty, winding road lined with cypresses to our tiny rented apartment in the Tuscan village of Volpaia and cook the simple hearty dishes Italians are famous for. But they can taste just as good here at home with quality ingredients.
Obviously, Summer Pasta needs the best and freshest tomatoes possible. If you can’t get ripe home-grown, farmer’s market, or stemmed tomatoes that actually have a smell, wait until you do. But don’t even think to make this dish if you can’t also get fresh basil. And don’t compromise by using anything other than extra-virgin olive oil. Extra-virgin is oil from the first pressing of the olives. As quality and taste goes down with each subsequent pressing, you want the first and best—extra-virgin. Tuscans are as discriminating about the taste of olive oil as they are about their wine. They jealously guard their home-grown olives, certain they are the finest, and compete for the best-tasting oil.
Italians are also persnickety about their pasta. The type of pasta must perfectly match the dish and won’t be the same with a substitute. This recipe is made either with linguine (little tongues), or fettuccine (little ribbons), flat pasta a bit wider than spaghetti. The Al Dente brand that you find in supermarkets makes linguine and fettuccine from semolina flour, a coarse grind of durum wheat that gives pasta its special texture. Best of all, it takes only three minutes to boil al dente, or “tender but firm to the bite.”
Perfection: Summer Pasta
1 lb. mozzarella cheese diced small
8 medium ripe tomatoes diced
4 cloves garlic crushed
1 c extra-virgin olive oil
1 c fresh basil chopped
¾ T kosher salt
Red pepper crushed
12 oz. linguine or fettuccine cooked
Toss mozzarella cheese with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil, salt, pepper, and a pinch of red pepper. Let stand 30 minutes. Boil pasta al dente, drain, add fresh mixture. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes 8 servings.
Joanne’s Quick Tips:
Add a few drops of cooking oil to the pasta water to keep it from boiling over.
If you chop basil too vigorously or too small, it will become soggy. Gently roll the leaves in a loose cylinder and then cut them in small shreds.
Joanne Cutting-Gray, Ph.D., is an author, scholar, and lifelong student of cooking. She lives with her husband in Savannah, Georgia.