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Pasta

As soon as the tomato season gets into full swing in Provence around the beginning of July, we jump up early on Sunday mornings and head to the nearby village market. First things first: Our Sunday ritual of coffee and croissants on the terrace has to wait until our return. There are many vegetable stalls at the market but for those in the know there is one that hands down wins the tomato gold medal, and you need to get there early to make sure you’re in the running. We often buy 3 or 4 kilos (6-8 pounds) to take care of our tomato addiction – we certainly wouldn’t want to run out during the week.

Aside from gazpacho and simple salads, there are a zillion other ways we use them: In sauces and vegetable tians, in tarts and omelettes, stuffed and sundried, to name just a few. Except for maybe the onion is there any vegetable more useful than the tomato?

Here are a few of our favorite quick-and-easy recipes which I hope will add to your repertoire for those occasions when your palate (or your family) demands a change.

MY COLD TOMATO SOUP

I actually made up this recipe about fifty years ago. It was so well received that I’ve continued to make it every summer and then hand out the recipe to friends who ask for it once they’re tasted it. It does require tomatoes at the peak of perfection so don’t even think about making it with inferior ones.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4-6 perfectly ripe tomatoes (depending on size, you want to end up with about 4 cups)

1 1/4″ thick slice baked ham (not proscuitto) chopped very finely, about 1/3 of a cup

2 tablespoons finely chopped cucumber

1 tablespoon each chopped basil, parsely and chives (save some for the garnish)

1 teaspoon grated lemon rind

1/3 cup whipping cream or creme fraiche

Salt and pepper

Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for a minute, drain, rinse in cold water and peel. Chop them up roughly and puree them in the food processor, leaving a bit of texture. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse a few times to combine, then add salt and pepper to taste. Chill well and serve. This is a wonderfully rich soup.  Don’t leave out the ham – surprisingly, most people think it tastes like crab. 

PERFECT PANZANELLA

Panzanella is not the kitchen sink, as in everything but….Wikipedia, in its definition says “panzanella is generally made of stale bread soaked in water and squeezed dry, tomatoesolive oilvinegarsalt, and pepperOnions and basil are often added.” It goes on to say “other ingredients—lettuceolivesmozarellawhite winecapersanchoviescelerycarrotsred winered onioncucumber,tunaparsleyboiled eggsmintbell pepperslemon juice, and garlic— are sometimes used, but Florentine traditionalists disapprove of them.”

Well, add me to the list of disapprovers.

First of all, it should be made of top flight ingredients – ripe, summer-sweet tomatoes, stale crusty bread (Tuscan unsalted if you happen to live in Tuscany), mild red onion, your very best olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper and a sprinkling of  fresh basil. That’s it. Well, some chopped cucumber and a little garlic won’t hurt but any of the other ingredients listed above are strictly taboo, at least in our household.  We also don’t like to soak the bread in water as it makes it mushy. Better to add it directly to the bowl with the other ingredients, toss it around and it will absorb the tomato juices, oil, and vinegar while retaining some of its chewiness.

 Serves 4

 Ingredients:

 4-6 ripe tomatoes (about 1-1/2 lbs) cut into bite-size chunks

1/2 a small red onion cut into very thin slices

3 tablespoons best olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (or you can use half balsamic, half red wine)

2 tablespoons torn-up basil leaves

2 cups crusty bread, such as sourdough, 1-2 days old, crusts left on, cut into 1″ cubes

Salt and pepper to suit your taste

Put all the ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly until the tomatoes release some of their juices and the bread is no longer dry but still crisp around the edges.   Let sit for 10 minutes and toss again before serving.

Additional suggestions:  If your bread isn’t completely dry, put the cubes in a low oven (150 degrees) for about 10 minutes.  

You can use a Vidalia or other sweet onion or, if your red onion seems sharp, put the slices in a small bowl and just cover it with a mixture of boiling water, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon vinegar and let soak for 10 minutes or so. Drain well. This is a good way to tone down raw onions for any recipe.

UNCOOKED TOMATO SAUCES FOR PASTA

These are two summer pasta dishes where all you have to cook is the pasta.  We love the contrast between the hot pasta and the cold sauce and even if the pasta cools a bit, they are still a summer delight – easy and quick to make with ingredients you probably have on hand. Both recipes are for four but you can obviously increase or decrease quantities easily, depending on whether you’re serving it as a first or main course. Although we prefer lighter pastas such as angel hair or spaghettini for both, you can use whatever pasta you have on hand.

FRESH TOMATOES, BASIL AND CHEVRE 

Serves 4

4-6 ripe tomatoes, cut into large dice (about 1-1/2 lbs.)

2 -3 tablespoons torn basil leaves

1 clove garlic

2 tablespoons of your best olive oil

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground pepper

4 oz. soft goat cheese (such as Montrachet) 

12 oz. pasta of your choice

Put the tomatoes and basil in a bowl to which you can add the cooked pasta.  Make a vinaigrette: Pound the garlic clove with a teaspoon of salt in a pestle and mortar (or bowl if you don’t have one). Add the vinegar, olive oil and pepper and stir to combine.  Pour over the tomatoes and mix thoroughly. Soften the goat cheese by whipping it with a fork so that it will melt into the sauce. If it still seems stiff, add a teaspoon of cream or milk.

Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package directions, drain well and stir it into the tomatoes.  Serve immediately with a dollop or two of chevre crowning each serving.  

If you don’t happen to have chevre on hand, this dish is still wonderfully simple and satisfying without it.

FRESH PUTTANESCA

You’ve probably seen recipes for spaghetti alla puttanesca or “whore’s spaghetti.” There is always a lengthy discussion on the origins of the dish and why and when the whores of Naples made it. It actually dates from the mid-20th century, but who cares? Enough to say that they got it right – it’s a lusty, warming dish for a cold winter night. But the ingredients are so invitingly earthy that I thought why not put them together without cooking them so that the dish could be enjoyed when tomatoes are at their peak? Needless to say, I was not the first person to have this insight.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4-6 ripe tomatoes, cut into smallish dice (about 1-1/2 pounds)

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

4-6 anchovy filets, drained and finely chopped

8-10 black olives, such as Kalamata, pitted and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon drained capers

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes (or more, if you like things really spicy)

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

12 oz. pasta of your choice

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl large enough to accommodate them and the pasta.  Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package directions.  Drain well and add to the bowl, tossing  to coat with the sauce.  Check for salt – you won’t need pepper. Serve immediately.

Portuguese Mussels

This is our favorite mussel dish. I guess we call it Portuguese because it mixes mussels, chorizo (or linguiça) and cilantro and this is thought of as a Portuguese combination.  We usually serve it with pasta although it’s good on its own and the sauce even without the mussels is so delicious that we’ve been known to serve it with pasta when no mussels are available. Here in France we get moules de Bouchot in the summer – they are small but the shells are completely filled so that a pound or two goes a long way. Make sure your mussels are fresh – no cracked or broken shells nor ones that don’t close up when you tap them. We steam the mussels separately in white or rosé wine and then either shell them and add them to the sauce or, better still, mix the sauce with the pasta and bring the steamed pot of mussels to the table so that your guests can shell them themselves and add them to their bowl of pasta.  It seems a pity to cook the mussels in the delicious sauce –  too much of it is lost to the shells. Either way, this dish is a winner.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, chopped fine

1/2 red pepper, sliced thinly into 1″ pieces

1 large clove garlic, chopped fine

2 oz. dried chorizo, preferably hot, sliced into 1/4″ rounds

2-3 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 1-14 oz. can, chopped

1/2 cup white or rosé wine

2 lbs. mussels

Pinch of cayenne or piment d’Espelette

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Cook the onion in the olive oil over low heat in a heavy-bottomed frying pan, five minutes.  Add the sliced pepper and continue cooking another 10 minutes.  Add the garlic, chorizo, and tomatoes and cook until the sauce has thickened and reduced, about 15 minutes. If it gets too dry, add a little water or wine. If the chorizo is not hot, you will want to add a good pinch of cayenne or piment d’Espelette –  the sauce should be spicy.

Meanwhile, debeard the mussels (if you need to) and steam them until they just open, 3-4 minutes.  If they are very large mussels, they may take longer. Strain the liquid into the tomato sauce and let it bubble and reduce for a few minutes.

If you are going to serve the mussels with pasta (spaghetti or linguine are our favorites with this dish), time the cookingso that it’s ready at the same time as the mussels.  Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, mixing it in well, then adding the chopped cilantro. Check for salt – mussel liquid can be salty, so I don’t add salt until after the mussel liquid is mixed in. Serve the pasta in individual bowls, either topping each bowl with 1/4 of the mussels (shelled or not) or else bring the mussels to the table in the pot they cooked in and let the diners shell their own as they go, adding them to their bowl. 

Beyond delicious!

We first had scoglio on a ferry from Genoa to Sicily several years ago. We noticed immediately that the ship was filled with a horde of unruly teenagers and, as the trip took 27 hours, we were greatly relieved that we had booked a sleeping berth so that we could at least escape them at bedtime. As the dinner hour approached, we also noticed that they had taken over the cafeteria, so we made our way to the upscale “restaurant” where we were the only occupants. With wine in hand, we asked the waiter what scoglio was and he said it was spaghetti with fruitti di mare. We figured that, even though meals on ferries don’t usually rate a Michelin star, this might be a good bet on a ferry in the Meditteranean on its way to Sicily. And indeed it was.

Since then, we always order scoglio when we see it on a menu and make it ourselves when tomatoes are at their best and we have on hand mussels, clams, shrimp, squid, and possibly a scampi or two.  Scampi are also known as Dublin Bay prawns, langoustines, and in America as shrimp scampi which has always seemed to me like calling them shrimp-shrimp. But back to scoglio (pronounced sko-lee-o): The dictionary gives many translations including “rock” and “stumbling block”, none of which make much sense but it has such a pure rich flavor of shellfish and tomato that I would eat it no matter what it was called. You can make it with any kind of shellfish as long as you have at least 3-4 varieties.

I have always thought that its success was due to the combination of fresh shellfish and barely cooked, peak-of-season tomatoes, but last week when we were in Italy it was on the menu at one of our favorite restaurants on the coast and the sauce was a rich, dark, long-cooked essence of tomato and shellfish, totally different from any scoglio we’d had before – but just as delicious. So I’m going to give both recipes in case you’re still waiting for the perfect tomato to arrive.

SPAGHETTI ALLO SCOGLIO

Serves 4

Ingredients (Both recipes):

1/2 cup dry white wine

16  mussels

16 Manila clams 

12 uncooked prawns or shrimps (heads on if you can find them)

8 small calamari, cleaned and thawed if frozen

All of the above are approximate.  If you can only find mussels, or clams, substitute double of one for the other.

There are so many varieties of prawns and shrimp available now that you should go with whatever suits you, including frozen. Fresh calamari may also be hard to find.  I use the small frozen shells or rings (in the US from Trader Joe’s).   

 

Recipe A (rich tomato sauce):

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 medium garlic clove, finely chopped

1 cup canned tomatoes, chopped, or 1 cup Italian passata

Salt

A pinch of cayenne

1. Make the tomato sauce: In a heavy-bottomed casserole, cook the onion over low heat in the olive oil until soft (about 5 minutes).  Add the garlic, the tomatoes or passata and the salt and cayenne (go easy on the salt as the mussel liquid may be very salty).  Let it cook slowly for about twenty minutes until it is reduced slightly and thickened.

2.The shellfish: If your shrimp have heads, peel them and make shrimp stock by just covering the heads and shells with water, and simmering for about 20 minutes.  (I always try to buy shrimp with their heads on and, no matter what dish I’m cooking, I make shrimp stock and freeze it for future use.)

3. In the meantime, steam the mussels in the wine over high heat until they open (about 4 minutes, do not overcook). As soon as they open, drain them, saving the liquid, and remove to a bowl.  Steam the clams in the same liquid until they open, adding them to the saved mussels. Turn down the heat and poach the shrimp, 1-2 minutes, depending on size and add them to the other shellfish.

4. Cut the squid into rings, if they don’t come that way.  Dry them well and saute them in a little olive oil over high heat for 1-2 minutes.  Cook them more and they will toughen and be like little rubber bands.  Add them to the other shellfish.

5. Strain the liquid into the tomato sauce being sure to leave behind any debris from the mussels and clams.  If you are lucky enough to have shrimp stock, add it to the pot at the same time. Continue to cook the sauce until it is further reduced – you want to end up with about one to one and a half cups of rich sauce, total.  Check for seasoning – your probably won’t need  salt because of the mussel liquid.

6. Cook the spaghetti or linguine according to the package directions until just al dente.  Drain well and add to the sauce.  Toss for a minute to absord some of the sauce and then add all the shellfish to heat through.  Serve immediately.

Recipe B (with fresh tomatoes):

In addition to the shellfish ingredients above:

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon chopped basil or basil and parsley mixed   

Follow instructions for 2, 3, and 4 above. 

Then saute the tomatoes and the garlic in the olive oil for a couple of minutes to combine.  Reduce the strained liquid in which you cooked the shellfish (along with the shrimp stock if you have it)  to about a cup.  Add it to the chopped tomatoes and cook for about 2 minutes.  Check for salt. Then cook your spaghetti as in 6. and add it to the tomato mixture, along with all the shellfish.  Toss until the pasta has absorbed most of the liquid and the shellfish is heated through. Sprinkle with the basil, and serve at once.  

This probably all sounds quite complicated (I can hear Brenda saying, “I didn’t think it was complicated”) but if you assemble all your ingredients and take it step by step, both dishes really are worth the trouble.

Note from Brad:  For Recipe A, I think it’s important to brown a half cup of breadcrumbs in olive oil and sprinkle them over the dish at the last minute.

Note from Sam: Hello! I am still participating in the blog (light editing, as well as actually taking Jake’s text and putting it into blog format), yet Jake is now taking all the photos on her own. (She emails them to me, and I merely fine tune them). I mention this because some of the photos lately have been quite good, and I thought our esteemed readers might be confused as to who is actually taking the photos.  Is it Jake? Surely it couldn’t be Brad? Could Sam be in France at the moment? Here’s a handy rule of thumb if ever in doubt as to who the photographer is: check the edges of the white plate.  If it appears as though a small, possibly angry, insect has dragged itself through the inner plunges of the dish and then wiped itself clean on the perimeter of the plate before nary a bite has been taken, chances are very high that Jake took the photo.  Other than that, our photos are virtually interchangeable now!

 

Conchiglie with Anchovies, Garlic, and Chard (or Broccoli Rabe or Cavolo Nero or Cauliflower)

This is easily our favorite go-to pasta dish on those nights when the question of “What shall we have for dinner?” raises its head and we don’t feel like fussing. It’s comfort food–hearty enough for a wintry night, and also a cinch to make.  A saute of olive oil, garlic and hot pepper flakes to which you add a single vegetable. What could be simpler? Because we always have the basic ingredients on hand, it’s just a matter of acquiring a bunch of chard (or broccoli rabe or cavolo nero or a cauliflower) to complete the sauce – not too difficult to manage. If you’re not fond of anchovies you could leave them out, but I guarantee you won’t even notice their hairy consistency or distinctive flavor in the finished sauce, and it certainly gives a lift to the flavor. If you’re using chard, a whole rainbow of colors is now available. Having just bought a bunch of beautiful young red, yellow and orange chard, I decided it would be criminal to throw out the beautiful stems so I cut them into 1″ pieces and cooked them briefly before adding the leaves. Success! The extra bite they give is just perfect.  I like to use a pasta such as conchiglie, fusilli, penne, or perciatelli –  sturdy enough for the robust sauce.

Serves 2

Ingredients:

Two Tbsp. olive oil

1/2 cup chopped parsley (optional)

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (or more, if you like it hotter)

6 canned anchovy filets 

A large clove garlic, finely chopped

A bunch of large chard, stems and tough ribs removed   or

A bunch of young rainbow chard, stems separated and cut into 1″ pieces

Parmesan

Heat the oil over low heat in a sturdy pot for a minute of two.  Add the optional parsley, pepper flakes and anchovies and cook until the anchovies have melted, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and continue to cook a few minutes longer until the flavors have melded.  I add the garlic last because burnt garlic can ruin any dish and burning can happen easily if you start with garlic in too-hot oil. In the meantime blanch the chard in boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes. (If you are using young rainbow chard, cook the stems for 4 minutes before adding the leaves and continuing to cook for a further 4 minutes.)   Drain well and chop it coarsely.  Add to the oil/garlic mixture and let it continue to cook over low heat for a minute or two.

In  the meantime cook the pasta al dente according to the package directions and  add it, drained, to the chard mixture. A little of the cooking water will loosen the mixture. Stir it around, adding a bit of extra olive oil if desired. Check for salt and serve with lots of freshly grated parmesan.

Variations: Use broccoli rabe instead. Blanch it in the same way as the chard for 3-4 minutes, chop into about 1 inch pieces and proceed as above.

If you can find cavolo nero (also called Tuscan kale, dinosaur kale, and lacinato kale–see picture below), you’re in for a real treat. It’s very common in soups and sauces in Tuscany and is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S.  Look for it at your farmer’s market or local produce store. Tear out the tough central stem and discard it, as with the chard. You will need to cook it for about 10 minutes before draining it, chopping it coarsely and adding it to the oil/garlic mixture.

If you’re using cauliflower, a nice addition is a tablespoon or two of toasted breadcrumbs, preferably homemade, as well as a tablespoon of parsley. Cut the cauliflower into flowerets, discarding the core, and toss them in a tablespoon of olive oil. Roast them in a 350-degree over for about 20 minutes until a little brown and crisp around the edges and l still a little bitey (or you can steam or boil them until barely cooked.) Mix into the oil/garlic base, add the pasta and serve sprinkled with the  toasted breadcrumbs, parsley and parmesan.

I know I’ve complicated things by suggesting four different vegetables, but each is so delicious that I’m not going to apologize.

Today we had an amazing, simple lunch on the patio.  Even though we’re into November, this is about as close to a perfect Summer day as we get in San Francisco: Blue skies, 70-odd degrees with just a slight hint in the air of Fall to come.

This morning while passing through the UCSF hospital after an appointment  we came upon a Farmer’s Market right there in the lobby  (only in San Francisco, you might say, and apparently only on Wednesdays). Crates of beautiful veggies, all organic and bursting with freshness. We swooped on the heirloom tomatoes, big bunches of basil and coriander, baby new potatoes, green beans and, best of all, ears of corn picked this morning, the vendor assured us.

We raced home to throw the corn on the stove and made some of our favorite coriander butter in the pestle and mortar to douse it with. (It’s very easy to make: Pound 1/4 cup of coriander with a large pinch of salt to form a paste, then add 1 oz. of butter and keep pounding until it’s a lovely green and easy to spread. If you like it spicy, add a few drops of the bright green Chile Habanero sauce which you can find at most supermarkets.) We sliced up a few of the perfectly ripe tomatoes – not squishy as Heirlooms often are – anointed them with basil, a splash of our olive oil from Provence, a smidgeon of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and dug out the last of the chevre we’d brought back from France and plopped in the middle of the plate. With some crusty bread to mop up the juices, we toasted the end of summer with a crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

The rest of the basil was of course perfect to make pesto for our favorite pasta dish from Genoa. A local pasta called trenette is mixed with baby new potatoes, either just boiled or par-boiled and fried until a bit crisp in olive oil, cooked green beans, as much pesto as you think you need, and lots of Parmesan. Although it might seem odd to add potatoes to pasta, the different textures work wonderfully. This is a very old dish – it was eaten by Ligurian monks in the 15th century as a Lenten dish – which has become quite popular lately. However, in most recipes I read, the pasta, potatoes and beans are cooked in one pot and I think trying to get everything to come out cooked just right is way too difficult. It’s not much more trouble to cook things separately and better results are assured.

As for the pesto, I love to make it in the pestle and mortar (yes, I’m a P & M freak!) because the flavor and texture are better, but if you don’t have one, the food processor does a perfectly acceptable job. I don’t put pine nuts in this pesto because I don’t think they add to it, but of course you can if you’re so inclined. I also add the parmesan separately, grating it on top of each serving at the table.

Pasta Pesto with New Potatoes and Green Beans

Serves 4

Ingredients:

3/4 lb. linguine, spaghetti, or pasta of your choice

12 baby new potatoes (preferably red) 

1/2 lb. green beans

2 packed cups basil, large stems removed

1 large clove garlic

salt, pepper, olive oil, parmesan

Make the pesto: Either pound the basil, salt and garlic in a pestle and mortar to form a paste and then add enough olive oil (about 6  or 7 tablespoons) to make a thick emulsion, or do the same in the food processor without letting the pesto become too smooth.

Bring a pot of water to the boil, add the potatoes and cook until almost done (about 15 minutes), or until fully cooked if you don’t plan on frying them. Drain. Cut the potatoes in half  and  fry them in olive oil on medium-high heat until brown and crisp.

In a separate pot of boiling water, cook the beans uncovered (to preserve their color). Cooking time will depend on how large and fresh the beans are, but 5-8 minutes should do it. Drain.

In the meantime, cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water, according to the package instructions.  (I find that although we like our pasta al dente, packaged pasta instructions generally underestimate the cooking time by about 2 minutes.) Drain well.

Finally, put the beans, potatoes and pasta in your serving dish, add the pesto, and mix together well. Allow each person to grate fresh parmesan and pepper on top as they like.  Enjoy!

Sam adds: I make this dish often because it’s so easy and is the favorite of more than one of us. I always fry the potatoes (never just boil them) and I like to add extra pesto and veggies to the mix. For example, I would add 3/4 lb. of beans, 16 potatoes, and 3 cups of basil.  (Of course if you up the basil to 3 cups, you’ll have to adjust your olive oil and garlic accordingly: 8-10 tbsp. of oil and 1 1/2 cloves of garlic.)