I have a real preoccupation with pesto in the summertime. When I was little, my mom and I used to spend the summer in Woodstock, in upstate New York. We would rent a house–this big white one–in the mountains, and I would pick wild flowers and ride horses and play with the wild turkeys and rabbits in our yard. It was Eden for a city child.
And a city child I certainly was (and continue to be) and my mom was most definitely a city mom (though she tries to resist). As though there could be nothing to be found to eat outside of the river borders of Manhattan, we used to drive through the heat into the city to collect supplies from Fairways (olives, fromage frais, vegetarian hot dogs) and this little ravioli shop just by Houston street that sold these fabulous frozen boxes of neatly piled ravioli in a wild array of flavors. [Ahh! I just Googled it after all these years and discovered it’s called Raffetto’s.] I can’t say how many boxes we would buy at a time, but I think my mom may have been running some kind of Woodstock ravioli racket–our freezer looked just like the shop, all the boxes neatly stacked and ready to take the plunge into the boiling water.
The only culinary concession my mom made to the country at that time was this farm stand out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by corn fields. It was iconic, the way I picture the American countryside now that I am so far from it. They sold “watermelon juice”, which was really just warm watermelon (seeds still intact–this was the ’80s!), whirled up in the blender and sipped through a straw. I loved it. And they sold mountains of summer fresh basil. This basil, maman would whiz up herself into these phenomenal pestos, the scent of which would linger on the hot summer air, wafting from our bowls of cheese ravioli, and hanging over the back deck where we ate, and the lawn behind. For me, it is the ultimate smell of comfort, reminding me viscerally of childhood, of summertime, of being happily full and free.
I went the farmers’ market last weekend in Marylebone with my friend Mary (it was her genius idea), and we found a pesto man called Seriously Italian. I often make my own pestos, and have experimented far and wide in the genre, but his neat little pots and inventive flavors and discount when you bought more than one led me to buy basil, pistachio, and “red”. I love red pesto because it, of course, contains tomatoes, but also because it is the traditional pesto, or pistou, from Provence–which, incidentally also reminds me of summers with maman, because we so often meet in Provence and I always order spaghetti with red pesto on our first night in.
Anyway, back to this recipe. What I also found at this market was a fresh summer tomato vendor–there is nothing like summer for tomatoes. She was selling one-pound bags of yellow grapes tomatoes. I thought to myself, done. A double summer tomato pasta.
The sauce is made while the pasta is cooking. I just blitz the yellow grape tomatoes into shards in the food processor, and then add good sea salt. Then I just let it sit and the salt draws all the liquid out of the tomatoes into its on fresh sauce. Then, after the liquid has been drawn, I whisk in a jar of good red pesto (you can of course make this yourself, and you can also use fresh basil pesto). Then, just toss the pasta in. The hot pasta sucks up all the tomato juice, and the garlic and cheese and herbs in the red pesto wake up with the heat and start wafting away like maman’s pesto on the terrace. You could do this with regular semolina pasta, but we all know I’ve been on a health kick, so I used whole wheat. And you could use any shape–I think rigatoni would also be especially good, because the tomatoes and pesto would get stuck inside all the tubes and they’d explode with freshness in your mouth.
This is just so effortless, so summer, so fresh and light and happy-making. I devoured the leftovers last night in a meal that I had been anticipating since breakfast at the office. It’s just lovely.
Whole Wheat Summer Tomato Spaghetti
serves 2 to 4
- 1 pound yellow and / or red grape or cherry tomatoes
- Sea salt
- 1 pound whole wheat spaghetti
- 3.5 ounces red pesto or pistou
- Olive oil or torn basil or fresh grated Parmesan for garnish (optional)
Put the tomatoes into the food processor and pulse them into a rubble—not smooth, but not too chunky either. Put them in a bowl with 1 teaspoon flaky sea salt, such as Maldon (if using a finer salt, just use less of it). Let the tomatoes sit for 15 minutes to begin to release their juices.
Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain. Add the salted tomatoes and red pesto to the pasta pot, and stir together. Add the pasta, and toss to combine. Serve.
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