My mother has always been great at "cooking by feel," and I owe her a lot of credit for any ability I possess in this domain. She has a knack for taking whatever is in the fridge or the pantry and throwing together a simple, delicious meal. I remember many a warm summer night when, motivated by a strong aversion to turning on the oven, my mother would whip up a quick pasta with a no-cook sauce. An oven burner was lighted for all of 15 minutes, and dinner was on the table.
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One of my favorite iterations was a variation on a popular theme: pasta with raw tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and sometimes basil. (In case you missed them, there have been countless versions of this pasta published since the 1970s, including this one from Nigella Lawson in the New York Times). My mother decided to forgo the garlic, instead marinating diced fresh tomatoes and roughly chopped basil in a sea of olive oil spiked with a glug of good balsamic vinegar. After the tomatoes luxuriated in this aromatic bath for an hour or two, she would cook up some sort of beautiful, artisanal, corkscrew-shaped pasta (the kind she used was long like spaghetti and made me think of the ringlets of a beautiful princess) and fold it into the tomato-basil-oil-vinegar concotion, sometimes with a handful of diced fresh mozzarella or Brie, sometimes not. This room temperature pasta -- almost a pasta salad, really -- along with a big green salad, made the perfect dinner for a balmy summer evening.
My version incorporates finely chopped red onion in place of the classic garlic, but otherwise it's true to my mother's original recipe.
Summer Pasta alla Caprese
Serves 4 as a main course
3 medium red, ripe tomatoes
¼ cup finely chopped red onion
1 tablespoon good balsamic vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup loosely packed chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound curly pasta (I like cavatappi)
1 medium ball fresh mozzarella
1. A couple of hours before you plan to eat, core and roughly chop the tomatoes and tip them into a very large serving bowl. (You’ll be serving the pasta out of this very same bowl -- isn’t that great?) Add the chopped red onion, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, basil, a few healthy pinches of salt and several grinds of pepper. Gently stir these all together and let sit at room temperature for at least an hour so the flavors have a chance to meld.
2. Cook the pasta in a large pot of very salty water (as Amanda rightly says, it should taste like seawater) until al dente. Meanwhile, dice the mozzarella and add it to the big bowl of tomatoes, onion, basil, etc.
3. When the pasta is done, drain it thoroughly and add it to the bowl. Gently fold everything together and taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if you’d like. Let the pasta sit for 5 minutes or so before serving, folding gently a couple of times to distribute the tomato juices and olive oil. Serve with a big green salad, or as an accompaniment to some nice, juicy grilled steaks.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).