Summertime is heaven at the farmer’s market. The baskets are full of beautiful produce freshly picked that morning. I love getting there early so I can find the best selection and get home before the crowds descend. When I am walking by the stands my mind is spinning with ideas of what I can make with each ingredient. Stir-fry, saute, toss with pasta, the options are innumerable.
I often help people who don’t know how to cook some of the vegetables. It always surprises me how little people know about anything beyond green beans, lettuce and corn. The world is full of amazing vegetables just waiting to be discovered by you – get out there and give them a try!
Being married to an Italian means that pasta is a mainstay in my menu planning. If The Artist has a rough day, knowing he has pasta dinner waiting for him, puts a smile on his face and that is worth more than gold to me. When you cook pasta, please don’t overcook it. That is the biggest offense you can make. See my tips below for all the steps to perfect pasta every time.
When you hear “Caprese” you probably think of a salad made with sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. The word Caprese means in the style of Capri. No one is certain if this beautiful antipasto originated there, but we will forever thank whoever first put it together. I took the flavors of this salad and combined it with pasta for a quick, healthy summertime dinner. It is one of my family’s favorites and I like that I don’t have to heat up the whole kitchen to make it on hot nights.
Make sure that you use really ripe tomatoes. Most of the tomatoes we find in the grocery stores have been bred to withstand the rigors of transportation and are picked green so they won’t bruise as easily. That means that they never have the time to develop their full flavor. I prefer heirloom varieties which are allowed to ripen on the vine and still have the rich tomato flavor and aroma we all love. If you can’t find really good tomatoes, buy what you can and marinate them in a little vinaigrette for about 20 minutes. This will infuse them with a lot of flavor.
If you can, always buy mozzarella packed in water. If you can’t find it, you can use regular mozzarella too. Because it is such a soft cheese, I usually pop it in the freezer for about 5 minutes to firm it up before cutting it into small cubes. Remember that you want your guests to be able to eat each bite easily without needing to cut it smaller.
You can use any type of pasta that you like. Kids seem to like long pasta better, but penne, ziti, and orecchiette all work just as well. If you want to learn more about the different types of pasta and which are best with which sauce, take a look at the National Pasta Association’s page. Complete with drawings, it will help guide you through the wonderful world of pasta!
When the weather is warm and the tomatoes are at their ripest, make this delicious meal and your family will thank you. It is a wonderful tribute to the flavors of summer!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
Most of the garlic we can find in grocery stores has been sitting around for a long time and many times the cloves have started to sprout. That is fine, but the sprouted center is very bitter. Cut the cloves in half lengthwise and remove the core. When you are cooking with garlic, you need to be careful with it. If you burn it, it gets horribly bitter tasting and will ruin your entire dish. You want to cook it just until you can smell it and then remove it from the heat.
Kitchen Skill: Cooking Perfect Pasta
The most important thing is to use a stockpot that is big enough so that the water has plenty of room to boil and the pasta can easily move in the currents. Most of us don’t use a large enough pan – I certainly don’t. It is a hassle to pull it out from the back of the cupboard.
The second key is to add enough salt that the water tastes salty. To most people this will be an alarming amount, but most of it goes down the drain with the water. If you skip this step, the pasta will always taste flat. Remember, this is the only time you have to season the pasta itself from the inside out. Near the end of cooking, use a ladle to scoop out about a cup of the pasta water and put it in a bowl. I always add a little at the end of cooking any pasta sauce for the smoothness it produces.
Once the water is at a full roiling boil, I stir in the pasta, add a splash of olive oil to the water, and turn down the heat to medium-high. The starch and salt in the cooking water makes it foam up and boil over the edge of the pot. Adding oil isn’t done to keep the pasta from sticking together as is commonly thought, but actually stops the water from foaming, reducing spillovers.
And finally, don’t overcook the pasta. You want it to still have a little firmness when you bite into it. Because the size and consistency of pastas change from batch to batch, the only way to test this is to try a piece. Use tongs to grab a strand and very carefully taste it. When it is ready, drain the pasta in a colander, with the cold-water faucet running (this helps protect the drain and plumbing), and then set the colander back on top of the pot. The residual heat will finish the pasta perfectly. When the sauce is ready, transfer the pasta to a large bowl, add a little of the sauce, and toss to coat evenly. Then plate the pasta and pour a little more sauce over the top if you like.
- 3 tbsp organic olive oil
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 2 shallots, peeled, split in half, green center discarded if present, and sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 1 lb pasta such as spaghetti, fettuccine, or tagliatelle
- 2 lb ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped (can use cherry tomatoes too)
- 16 to 20 oz fresh mozzarella (packed in water), drained and broken into small pieces
- 1/2 bunch fresh basil leaves, shredded or finely minced, divided
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Pour oil into a 3-quart saucepan and heat on medium. Add the bell peppers and cook for 1 minute. Add the shallots and cook for another minute. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds then take the pan off the heat. Set on the back of the stove to infuse the flavors while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- Bring a very large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add 2 to 3 tbsp salt or enough that the water tastes salty. Stir in pasta and cook as directed or until al dente. That means that when you bite into a piece, there is a little resistance. Remember that it will continue to cook from the residual heat! Drain in a colander but do not rinse. Transfer to a large bowl. Combine the pasta with the infused oil, tossing to evenly coat the pasta.
- While the pasta is cooking, chop the tomatoes, prepare the mozzarella, and basil.
- Add the tomatoes, mozzarella, and half the basil to the pasta. Toss again. Transfer to serving bowls and sprinkle with the remaining basil. Pass Parmesan at the table if desired.
- Yield: about 4 servings