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Fresh tomato pasta: a late summer delight

Fresh tomato pasta with penne (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Garden tomatoes are at their peak right now – but in mid-September, frost threatens. Modern agriculture has given us the hard, tasteless, round, starchy orange thing available year-round at the supermarket – but locally grown, fresh tomatoes in season are totally different. Soft, juicy, tart, and sweet, garden tomatoes come in as many varieties, colors, and sizes as flowers do. Some are red; others are orange; others yellow. Some are big, some are little. Each variety has a unique flavor. Altogether, we have a bouquet of tomatoes.

Delicate and vulnerable, they must be eaten fresh. Store them on your kitchen counter, not in the refrigerator. This avoids the bland taste and tennis-ball texture of their supermarket cousins.

Use your summer tomato bounty to make a batch of fresh tomato sauce. Look for really ripe tomatoes at the farm stand or farmers’ market. They should not have any green spots. It’s ok if they’re a little past their prime, over-ripe, slightly bruised or cracked. They will still make a wonderful sauce.

This is a busy time; a time for light, refreshing fare rather than heavy-duty cooking. (There will be time for that in winter). Simple, fast and delicious, nothing tastes better than pasta with fresh tomatoes, lots of basil, garlic and grated cheese.

Pasta originated in Italy – where simplicity rules. It offers an endless array of shapes beyond spaghetti or macaroni. There is bow-tie pasta, little ears or orecchiette, tubular pasta like ziti or rigatoni. You can even use gluten-free pasta or whole-grain.

Cook your pasta according to the directions on the package. Before draining your noodles, however, reserve a little pasta water for your dish. Simply scoop some out with a cup or mug when the pasta is almost done. Salty and starchy from the cooking noodles, this cooking liquid is great added to tomato sauces. This time-honored Italian tradition helps create a creamy, starchy sauce that sticks to the pasta.

Want more protein? Add cooked beans (like garbanzos or black beans) or leftover diced cooked chicken. A generous handful of flavorful cheese like feta, cheddar, pecorino romano or parmesan will enhance any pasta-vegetable combination.

Don’t skip the cheese. A generous handful of flavorful cheese like feta, cheddar, pecorino romano or parmesan adds personality to your dish and augments the flavor. Delicious, fresh cheeses are plentiful at the farmers’ market.

The best summer sauce is made with barely-cooked tomatoes, salt and pepper, lots of basil and garlic. Because the sauce doesn’t cook a long time, this simple meal comes together quickly. Made quickly, the sauce will be chunky. For a smoother sauce, use an immersion blender to puree it.

Fresh tomato pasta

Ingredients:

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 onion

2 – 4 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon each black pepper, ground turmeric and/or sugar, optional

3 – 4 pounds very ripe tomatoes

1/2 pound pasta of your choice – spaghetti or penne work well

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup diced cooked chicken or garbanzo beans, optional (to add a little protein)

Several fresh basil leaves (about 1/4 cup thinly sliced)

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, optional

Generous amount of freshly grated sharp cheese of your choice

Directions:

In a large skillet or pan, heat the olive oil on low for a minute or two.

Peel and mince the onion. Add to the skillet with the olive oil; sprinkle with salt. Cover and cook on low 10 minutes or longer, to caramelize. Peel and mince the garlic and cook a minute or two longer. Turn off the heat and add optional seasonings, if using.

Prepare the tomatoes. (You can do this while onions caramelize). To slip off the skins, cut an x on the bottom of the tomato with a sharp knife, plunge into boiling water for one minute, then remove to ice water, slip off the skin and put the tomato in a bowl. This step is optional; if you don’t mind having skins in your sauce you can skip it.

If the end where the tomato meets the stem is hard, cut off and discard. Chop tomatoes or grate with the large holes of a box grater. Add to the skillet, mix well to coat with oil and seasonings. Marinate about ten minutes to absorb the flavors.

Put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Add a teaspoon of salt. When water boils, add pasta and cook according to package directions.

Turn on the skillet to cook and soften tomatoes 5 – 10 minutes while the pasta cooks. Add about half-cup of pasta water to the tomatoes, then drain the pasta.

Chop the basil and grate the cheese.

Add the tomato mixture to the pasta and stir. Stir in the chicken or garbanzos (if using), the basil and the cheese. Cook 1 – 2 minutes to blend flavors and melt the cheese.

Serves: 2 large (restaurant-sized) portions or 4 more reasonable servings.

Fresh Tomato Dip

or Salad

Ingredients:

2 cups red cherry tomatoes

2 cups yellow cherry tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 sweet onion

1/2 cup pitted olives, like Kalamata

1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

8 oz. feta cheese

1/3 cup fresh basil leaves

Pita bread cut in wedges or a nice baguette, for serving

Directions:

Wash tomatoes, remove stems, and quarter into a bowl. Sprinkle with salt & pepper.

Peel the onion, dice fine. Slice the olives. Stir both into the tomatoess.

Drizzle on the olive oil. Crumble the feta and chop the basil. Sprinkle over the tomatoes and toss gently to combine.

Warm up the pita or baguette in the oven.

Serve salad with warm pita wedges or baguette slices.

Serves 2 – 4, depending on size of servings.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com or on Facebook as Author Yvona Fast.

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