I hate to be the one to bring it up, but… summer is coming to a close. We still have some time, sure, but we’re without a doubt over the halfway mark. Part of me is ready; ready for fall, the leaves changing and falling, cool weather rolling in, the glisten of a light frost and, of course, the food. Chili; Bolognese; stews; cold-weather produce like Brussels sprouts, kale, winter squashes, turnips, apples, and quince are all at their peaks come fall and winter, not to mention a second round of rhubarb, if only briefly, come fall. Then I think about having to rake and bag leaves, sniffles and headaches from fluctuating temperatures, having to chop down the literal hundreds of hostas I inherited in this new garden and, of course, the food. No more farm-fresh strawberries, corn or tomatoes. So now I am clinging desperately to summer in the most embarrassing show of desperation.
I’ve already said that tomatoes, like strawberries, are essential to summer. A good summer tomato is like nothing else; I leave cherry or grape tomatoes (either bought or grown) on the counter in a bowl and just snack on them bit by bit over the next few days until they’re all gone. Despite living in a two-person household, and being the only one that likes tomatoes, I still plant as many of them in the spring that I can fit in the garden so I can make the most of them in their season. I think one year I had five or six plants… it got a little out of hand towards the end but well worth it.
When I lived in Michigan there was an older couple that, after retiring from their careers, decided to buy a farm just down the street from where I worked. They’d set up a card table at the end of their driveway with whatever had been picked that day for sale on display. Everything was either bagged in brown paper sacks, prices written on the outside of the bag, or left in baskets with a card taped to them indicating their cost. There was a little cash box nestled somewhere on the table; the whole operation ran on the honesty policy and it worked, I think in part because their prices would put any produce purveyor to shame. The wife—I think her name was Anita—was out refilling the table one day when a few co-workers and I stopped by. She told us about what she had to still put out, what would be ready soon and what she was clean out of. She was one of the happiest people I think I’ve ever met—which was the point. She said that their kids had made a big stink about the farm, saying that they should be enjoying themselves and having fun in their retirement, not waking up at the crack of dawn and hand picking buckets and buckets of string beans and strawberries. She rolled her eyes and said she insisted that this is fun for them—they loved it. We should all be so lucky.
They had everything, too. Zucchini and yellow summer squash, strawberries, string beans and yellow wax beans, bell peppers of every color (green, red, yellow, orange, purple/black), piles of basil, cucumbers, big green chilies like Hungarian and Cubanelle, and tomatoes. They had the bigger tomatoes, sure, but there were bags and bags full of cherry and grape tomatoes—the Maltese Falcon of tomatoes. This was also where I first saw black cherry tomatoes. They were a deep, dark almost-black color, with the slightest hint of a winey-purple hue when the light hit them just right. They were sweet like their red counterparts but not spry and sprightly so; they were a deeper sweetness akin to the way beets are. It’s like, I don’t know, a more mature sweetness. Children like milk chocolate, naval oranges and red cherry tomatoes, but adults like minimum 70% cacao dark chocolate, blood orange cosmos and black cherry tomatoes. I will admit that I do think that part of their real allure is in their color, rather than flavor, but never the less… I finally grew some this year and mine aren’t nearly as dark but they taste just as good.
So now, in that pathetically desperate attempt to hold onto every last moment of summer with the utmost fervor, I go back to this old favorite. The inspiration for this did not in fact come from summer, though. I was scouring the Internet one evening for retro kitchenware and décor. I stumbled upon on site (now one of my favorites—Retro Planet) and found a giant serving bowl; fire-engine red on the outside and, on the inside, printed with the image of what looked like canned spaghetti in tomato sauce and dotted with rings of black olives. It was kitschy, it was campy, it was everything. With some notable tinkering and improvements it turned out to be a summer favorite of mine.
Now let’s talk about pasta (I don’t need no stinkin’ transitions). It has to be spaghetti. There’s no questioning its ability to hold up to tomato sauces of all sorts, not to mention—c’mon—spaghetti! I say sauce but that’s a bit misleading. It’s light, nothing like the slow-simmered, heavy and often too-dense pomodoro sauce we’re used to, but there is some cooking involved so it’s not quite sugo crudo. (I am going to try to refrain from professing my deeply passionate love for pasta here and my manifesto on all things related to it and just stick with one off-topic interjection: tomato sauce shouldn’t to be simmered for hours. That’s all I’m going to say… I’ll save it for another post or twelve). Think of the “sauce” as more of a dressing for the spaghetti, like a tomato vinaigrette—only without the pretension—or a tomato salad that you use to dress the semolina strands. Sounds easy, right?
Start by boiling a HUGE pot of water for the pasta. Don’t try to cram pasta into a small pan. It needs a lot of room to move in the water, so that the entire surface of each noodle is touched by boiling water, cooking it evenly. And no, you cannot break the spaghetti in half. If you do, we are no longer on speaking terms. Once the water is boiling viciously salt it very heavily so that it seasons the pasta itself.
While you’re waiting on the water to boil put your cherry or grape tomatoes into a large sealable bag and, with the palms of your hand, squish them until they burst. There’s a method to my madness… Larger tomatoes, though easier to de-seed and de-pulp, are often disappointing in their flavor and texture and their skin is thicker and really should be peeled from the flesh. Cherry and grape tomatoes are almost always good but can you imagine halving and scooping each one of their seeds and pulp? No thanks. So, once all the little babies are squished, remove them from the bag, leaving their seedy innards behind, and chop them up roughly.
Drop the pasta into the boiling water, which you’ve salted and cook to al dente. When it has about 5 minutes left, start to heat some extra virgin olive oil, garlic (either 2 smashed cloves or 1 minced), tomato paste and a few pinches of chili flakes over low-low-low heat. Stir it around as it heats so the paste melts into the oil and it all becomes infused with the garlic.
While this is going on, slice up some black olives. I like oil or dry-cured black olives rather than brine-cured. They have a full-bodied, concentrated flavor and don’t get that waterlogged squishy texture of brined ones. Squish them a little to free them of their pits (unless you’re lucky enough to have pitted ones) and slice the crocodile-skinned patent leather jewels into cheeky little rounds, like what you find on a pizza.
When the pasta has about 1 minute left, crank the heat on the tomato pan up to medium and drop in half the tomatoes. Remove a cupful of pasta water from the pot and add about ¼ cup to the tomato pan. Stir it all to combine.
Drain the pasta, shake it free of water and drop it into the simmering sauce. Toss it to combine, adding a bit more water if need be to help the sauce coat the pasta. Dump in the remaining tomatoes, sliced olives, some lemon juice and a final anointment of extra virgin olive oil.
Toss it to combine before divvying up between two wide bowls, scatter with Parmigiano-Reggiano and torn sweet basil and devour immediately.
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