The calendar may not say summer yet, but the weather is clearly headed in the warm direction, bringing us many treats in the produce department, like red-ripe tomatoes and fragrant basil. It's lucky that tomatoes and basil are at their peak at the same time, because they taste so good together. Combining them with pasta is one of the season's delights. All you need is seasoning and a little enrichment with fine olive oil, butter or cream. A couple of weeks ago, my Jerusalemite nieces and I enjoyed a savory plate of pasta at a casual American restaurant. We were most enticed by the spaghetti with fresh diced tomatoes and fresh basil. The dish was light textured and tasty, moistened with a little cream and seasoned gently with white pepper and with Parmesan cheese. When tomatoes are fresh and flavorful, there is no need to simmer them at length to make hearty sauces. Using them raw or heating them only slightly highlights their natural flavor. This technique is customary in Italy, and may be even more popular in California. Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen, authors of Cooking from an Italian Garden, use tomatoes and basil in a refreshing, uncooked variation of the sauce for the Italian classic, pasta puttanesca. They mix finely chopped tomatoes with minced garlic, chopped olives, capers, olive oil and plenty of fresh basil. At serving time, they toss the sauce with hot cooked rigatoni. Erica de Mane, who wrote The Flavors of Southern Italy, uses the tomato-basil duo in a richer combination of pasta with cherry tomatoes, capocollo (cured meat) and arugula. "In keeping with the ways of southern Italy, I use very little" of the meat, "just enough to give the pasta and tomato a little flavor." She cooks the sauce for a few minutes, just enough time for some thinly sliced garlic to brown in olive oil and for cherry tomatoes to burst. A drizzle of red wine, coarsely chopped basil and arugula complete the sauce, which is tossed with tubular pasta. She serves it with provolone cheese for grating onto each portion, but you could omit it, or leave out the meat. California chefs Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, authors of Cucina Fresca, love pasta tossed with an uncooked sauce inspired by the delicious Italian insalata caprese trio - tomatoes, basil and mozzarella. It's a standard on the menu during the summer months, "when tomatoes are bursting with flavor and basil is fragrant and abundant. In Italy it is common to combine a room-temperature uncooked sauce with hot pasta during summer months." They mix diced tomatoes, chopped fresh basil, minced garlic, salt and pepper with olive oil, toss this simple sauce with hot cooked penne and add coarsely grated mozzarella. For an all-vegetable pasta sauce, they combine a generous amount of chopped fresh basil with diced tomatoes, plenty of fruity olive oil and raw garden vegetables - "the hot pasta lightly cooks the baby zucchini and tomato... and releases the fragrance of the basil." When cutting basil, be sure the leaves, the knife and the cutting board are dry so the basil won't discolor. Cutting basil in thin strips instead of chopping it fine also helps to keep its color bright green. LINGUINE AND MUSHROOMS WITH BASIL, PINE NUTS AND PLUM TOMATOES As a partner for pasta, basil's best known use is ground up in pesto sauce; but it's also delicious when cut in strips and tossed with the pesto elements - toasted pine nuts, chopped garlic, olive oil and Parmesan and with diced tomatoes. Makes 4 to 6 first-course or 2 to 3 main-course servings
4 to 5 Tbsp. pine nuts
225 gr. small ripe plum tomatoes or other small tomatoes
1â„4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus a bowl for extra Parmesan for serving
4 to 6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
100 to 170 gr. mushrooms, halved, sliced thin
2 or 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
225 gr. dried linguine or spaghetti
1â„3 cup fresh basil leaves, cut in thin strips, plus a few sprigs for garnish
Preheat oven to 175ÂºC. Toast pine nuts on a small baking sheet in oven until lightly browned, about 3 minutes (or toast them in a small skillet over medium heat, shaking skillet often, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes.) Transfer pine nuts to a plate and let cool.
Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise, squeeze well and remove seeds. Cut in small dice.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper and saute, stirring, about 3 minutes or until lightly browned. Add garlic and saute a few more seconds. Remove to a plate.
Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, separating strands occasionally with fork, about 8 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well and transfer to a heated serving bowl.
Add 2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil to pasta and toss. Add basil strips, mushrooms, tomatoes and 1â„4 cup Parmesan and toss again. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with toasted pine nuts and garnish with basil sprigs. Serve immediately, and pass extra grated cheese.
PASTA WITH GOAT CHEESE, TOMATOES, FRESH BASIL AND THYME
Goat cheese flavors this dish in two ways: in a creamy, easy-to-prepare sauce that is tossed with the pasta and, for an additional accent, in small chunks scattered over the top.
Makes 4 to 6 first-course or 3 main-course servings
115 gr. creamy goat cheese (about 3â„4 cup)
1 Tbsp. butter
2 green onions, minced, white and green parts separate
1â„2 cup whipping cream
1 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme leaves or 1 tsp. dried leaf, crumbled
225 gr. penne (rigatoni) or medium pasta shells (3 to 31â„2 cups)
Salt to taste
225 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, diced
1â„4 to 1â„3 cup fresh basil leaves, cut in thin strips, plus a few sprigs for garnish Cayenne pepper to taste
If goat cheese has a dark rind, cut it off. Crumble or dice cheese; set aside 1â„4 cup for garnish.
Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add white parts of green onions and cook, stirring often, for 1 or 2 minutes. Add cream and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Stir larger amount goat cheese into cream. Add thyme. Heat over medium heat, stirring, until smooth.
Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 9 minutes for penne or rigatoni or 5 to 8 minutes for shells, or until tender but firm to the bite.
Reheat sauce over medium heat to a simmer, stirring. Remove from heat and stir in green part of green onions.
Drain pasta, reserving 1â„4 cup of its cooking liquid. Transfer pasta to a heated serving dish and toss it with sauce. Add 3â„4 of the diced tomatoes, 2 tablespoons basil and salt and cayenne pepper to taste and toss. If sauce is too thick, dilute it with some pasta cooking liquid, adding it gradually. Serve immediately, sprinkled with reserved basil strips, tomato dice and crumbled or diced cheese.
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.