Welcome to summer! The high temperatures and humidity haven’t walloped us yet, so we are still giddy with the novel prospects of sun and fun – that is until we remember we haven’t finished with the first wave of the Coronavirus, and we are housebound or are gingerly moving through public, masked and unrecognizable. It could be a time to relish that anonymity, while enjoying a daydream of eluding the annoying paparazzi. Haven’t you ever wished you were a movie star? Here’s your chance to discover that they are the same as you and me. House bound and desperate for a little fun.
Most of our fun is home-based: cooking, gardening, DIY home improvements. And Netflix. (I’ve reached the third season of Grey’s Anatomy. Just 12 more seasons to get me through this Covid-19 quarantine!) Later this morning Luke the wonder dog and I are taking a field trip to the library. Our library has a thrilling new feature – you can reserve books again. A tantalizing email thuds into your in-box, and suddenly you have a place to go! When we pull into the library parking lot I will phone the library and announce my arrival. Then a similarly masked (and gloved) librarian will slip out of the building to toss the reserved books through my open passenger side window. Literature is thrilling. One of the books I am picking up today is one that I hear is a must-read for any home cook: Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan. I need some new ideas. Don’t we all?
Earlier this week I read a recipe in Cook’s Illustrated, which we know has scrupulously researched and tested their recipes. They also live in Shangri-la, and have every ingredient at their fingertips. My little space is a little less rarefied and perfect. I just cannot run out to the store every time I feel a yen for endive, or shallots. Sometimes iceberg lettuce and onions just have to do. And as there are only two of us, I doubt if I really need 2 pounds of cherry tomatoes for one mid-week dinner. The good news is that we have started to pick our tomatoes, and there is plenty of basil growing in containers on the back porch. Life is good.
Here is the original recipe I almost followed from Cook’s Illustrated: warning, there is a paywall: https://www.cooksillustrated.com/recipes/12833-pasta-with-burst-cherry-tomato-sauce-and-fried-caper-crumbs
Here is my variation on Cook’s Illustrated The Fastest Fresh Tomato Sauce. “Pasta with burst cherry tomato sauce and fried caper crumbs.”
Food Friday’s Fresh Tomato Sauce – Kitchen Improv #1
A swizzle of olive oil in a small sauté pan
The rest of a jar of capers
About half of a cup of panko bread crumbs
Generous pinch of Maldon salt
Another of ground black pepper
5 big sprigs of basil, minced
Zest of 1 lemon
Cover the bottom of a small sauce pan with olive oil
2 large garlic cloves (I used a garlic press, you might want to slice or mince)
Half of a container of Campari tomatoes, halved (Or 2 pounds of cherry tomatoes, depending on the size of your dinner crowd)
Half of a container of cherry tomatoes, whole
Generous pinch of Maldon salt
Generous shake of red pepper flakes
Half a box of penne pasta (you might want to use ziti, or that fancy box of orecchiette you have been saving for a special occasion)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
TOPPING: Heat the oil in the sauté pan. Add the capers, and stir for 3 or 4 minutes, until they have darkened. Remove capers from the pan. You might need to add another splash of oil to heat before adding the panko bread crumbs, salt and pepper, and cook these on a medium heat, stirring until they are golden brown. About 5 minutes or so. Don’t walk away to check your Instagram feed, these can scorch in a heartbeat. Put the cooked panko in a bowl, and add the capers and lemon zest.
PASTA: Bowl a large pot of water. While waiting for water to boil, swish olive oil into a large, heated sauce pan. Add the garlic, and cook it gently over a medium heat. Do not burn. Add the halved Campari tomatoes and stir occasionally for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes have broken down and the juices are released. Add the whole cherry tomatoes and continue to stir for another 5 minutes or so, until the cherry tomatoes are softened. You do not want them to burst in the pan.
BOIL THE PASTA: Toss a tablespoon of salt into the water before adding the pasta. Boil the pasta until al dente, and drain in a colander. Reserve a cup of pasta water, just in case. Return the pasta to the pot, and add the 2 tablespoons of butter and toss, then add tomato mixture. Stir in the basil and toss again. You might need to add the reserved water, just a couple of tablespoons at a time, to make a nice silky sauce. Serve the pasta in shallow bowls, topped with the panko mixture. We also added freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A side salad, and fresh bread and butter is nice, too. Cheap white wine is a must.
The original recipe called for fresh parsley and several anchovy fillets. Not here, not ever. You might be lucky enough to have 2 pounds of tomatoes, but I used what was on hand. I felt accomplished and civilized that we had a lemon. This was crunchy, light, garlic-y and summery. An excellent meal that didn’t require another trip to the germ-y grocery store.
If you don’t want to do that much cooking, but still need your tomato, basil and pasta fix, here is a compromise pasta recipe from Martha. You do have to cook the pasta, but that’s it. Chop the tomatoes, press the garlic and go: https://www.marthastewart.com/904229/pasta-fresh-tomato-sauce
“The proprietor of the grocery store on the corner was bidding a silent farewell to a tomato which even he, though a dauntless optimist, had been compelled to recognize as having outlived its utility.” ― P.G. Wodehouse