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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Pasta Nicole - easy and delicious! (The pasta, not Nicole!)

Pasta Nicole

A few years ago, my friend Nicole and I traveled around Italy. She was an American living in Sicily at the time. Our other friend said that getting us through the streets without veering into every shop was like trying to herd cats. It was kind of true. :)

The food was amazing, but totally not what I expected it to be. In the US, we're familiar with the big heavy garlic-laden sauces that cook on the stove for hours until they have an almost ketchup-like quality to them.

To truly understand Italian food, you have to understand the country. Until 1861, it was a collection of much smaller countries with different cultures and styles of food. Sicily is the island at the tip of the boot. Due to its geographical separation, the cultural difference between Sicily and the rest of Italy are quite large. (They'll be the first to tell you that they're Sicilian, not Italian. And if you disagree, get ready for a fight!) Sicily was, and still is, the poorest part of Italy. It's also hands-down the most beautiful part. It's absolutely breathtaking. Most of the Italians that immigrated to other countries are from there and brought the heavy cooked sauces with them.

In the rest of Italy, food is very different. My second trip there was during the winter and I'll never forget asking for lots of basil with my dish. The restaurant owner looked confused. I thought perhaps it was a language barrier and tried to ask again, pointing to a picture of basil on the wall. He said, "I understand you. I just don't understand why you're asking for something that isn't in season." And it clicked for me.

Nicole later taught me that Italians are really into simple dishes with extremely fresh seasonal ingredients that pack a lot of taste. In the winter, they eat cream sauces (mushrooms with truffle oil = divine!) because dairy and mushrooms are still available. During the summer and spring, they eat the lighter vegetable and tomato dishes. She introduced me to her favorite which was simply made with pasta, chopped tomatoes, fresh basil, and buffalo mozzarella. Not even any olive oil. It was HEAVEN! Who knew something so simple could be so ridiculously delicious?? (I'm no food historian, but I'm pretty certain the Italian flag was designed to mimic the colors in this amazing dish!)

Everyone's grandmother has a recipe with involves opening a can of tomatoes, throwing in a bunch of deyhyrdrated herbs and cooking for hours until it turns to ketchup. I still love my grandmother's sauce, but sometimes I want something that tastes "brighter" and can be whipped up in 15 minutes. I wouldn't dare suggest anyone deviate from their "secret" family recipe for Italian ketchup, but I'd like to introduce you to my favorite dish that better represents the rest of Italy.

The key to this recipe is getting quality ingredients. When you smell the tomatoes in the store, they should have a strong tomato smell. Mosquitos should fear the basil. Contrary to what many think, garlic is like a "bull in the China cabinet" to Italians. It's added for subtle flavor, not to keep away vampires. A large number of the dishes don't include garlic at all. This dish, in particular, is much better without garlic as it eclipses the complexity of the salted tomatoes and fresh basil.

This recipe is to give you a general guideline of proportions. Add more or less to suit your tastes. This dish is something delicious that authentic Italians just eat... I don't believe it has an actual name, so, I'm calling it Pasta Nicole since she introduced me to it. :)

1lbpasta (Use any kind you want. Traditionally, this would be made with spaghetti, but you can make it fancier by buying an interesting shape.)
2mediumripe tomatoes (If using smaller tomatos like Roma, use 3.)
1clovegarlic (if you must)
1tspkosher salt (or 1/2 tsp regular table salt)
1packagefresh mozzarella (buffalo mozzarella is the best, but usually only found at specialty stores)
1cupfresh basil leaves
  fresh grated hard Italian cheese to taste (pecorino romano, parmigiano reggiano or parmigian to taste

  1. Fill a large pot of water, add about 2 tablespoons of kosher salt (or 1 tablespoon regular table salt), cover and put on high. The cover helps it to boil faster. By the time the water is boiling, all your other ingredients will be ready.
    I'm a huge fan of this Campanelle pasta they just started carrying at Super Target. It's got a really interesting shape.

  2. Dice the tomato into 1/4" to 1/2" pieces.
    I found these interesting yellow tomatoes at the local farmer's market. Red would have looked a lot nicer in this dish, but they sure were tastey!
  3. Place the diced tomatoes into the large bowl you'll be serving the pasta from. Sprinkle them with the salt.
    This is a critical step as letting the salt sit on them gives them a very unique flavor
  4. Rinse the cutting board and knife. (The acid from the tomato will cause the basil to turn an unpleasant dark color almost immediately)
  5. Chiffonade the basil. To chiffonade it, stack a bunch of leaves on top of each other, roll them together like a cigarette, then slice the tip off and continue slicing horizontally. This is the easiest way to cut basil and it also allows you to get lots of basil flavor throughout while still being able to pick it up with your pasta when you eat it.
    Chiffonading the basil. Notice that I forgot to rinse the cutting board and knife so the basil is turning dark very quickly.
  6. If you absolutely must use garlic, mince it very fine.
  7. Toss all ingredients together except for the cheese. If you want, you can add a splash of extra virgin olive oil but I very rarely do. It tastes so delicious as it is, why add unnecessary calories?
  8. Grate fresh pecorino romano on top and garnish with some extra basil.
  9. If the entire pasta dish is going to be consumed at once, put the slices of fresh mozzarella on top. Normally there are leftovers so I serve the mozzarella on the side. That way, the leftover pasta can be reheated without melting the mozzrella which is a huge nightmare to try and scrub out of a dish! Plus, fresh mozzarella is really better when cold.


  1. Looks delicious........would live to read your musings on puttanesca!

    1. My love for green olives was only discovered recently via the delicious olives availble in Spain and the amazing Muffaletta sandwich at Central Market in New Orleans. Puttanesca has now been added to my "must try" food list, thank you for mentioning it! :)

      Another combination that goes great with this type of pasta is Italian sausage, roasted red pepper and sage. The sausages come 4 to a pack so I leave them in the freezer. When I want some quick pasta, I toss a frozen sausage into the water when I put it on to boil. It's cooked by the time the pasta is added and boiled so I chop it up and toss it in with the roasted red peppers and fresh sage. :)

  2. um, LOVE to read etc..................