Domenica Marchetti for NPR
If I say the words "pasta sauce," I'm pretty sure what sort of image it will conjure in your head: a big plate of spaghetti with dark red tomato sauce ladled thickly over it. Maybe topped with a couple of meatballs.
There is certainly nothing wrong with a nice dish of spaghetti and meatballs; it's just not what I crave in midsummer. I'm guessing you feel the same way.
Fortunately for pasta lovers like me, this does not mean having to forsake my favorite food between June and September. In fact, while it may seem counterintuitive, summer is one of the best times of the year to enjoy pasta.
Think about it: What better way to showcase summer's glorious bounty of fresh vegetables and herbs than to pair them with a bowl of silky linguine or pretty bowtie pasta? Right now, shiny eggplants, summer squashes (some with their blossoms still attached), tomatoes — plum, heirloom, and cherry — and spicy salad greens are already piled high on tables at the farmers markets near my house in northern Virginia. Sweet peppers — red, gold, orange and purple — are up next. All of these find their way into my pasta sauces in summer.
And when I say "sauce" I don't necessarily mean a saucy sauce or a pasty tomato sauce and definitely not a meat ragu that has been simmering on the stove all day. Summer sauces are fast and fresh. In many cases, they are hardly a sauce at all but rather a simple saute of fresh vegetables and herbs in olive oil. If there is meat involved, it's usually a bit of sauteed pancetta, which adds a lot of flavor but not too much heft.
Italians use the verb condire — to dress — when referring to saucing their pasta. And they often refer to the sauce itself as un condimento — a condiment. To me, this is the most accurate description of the way pasta ought to be served. If you've ever had the pleasure of enjoying a dish of pasta in Italy, you know that Italian cooks never douse their pasta with sauce.
Instead, they lightly toss the cooked noodles together with a judicious amount of sauce — whether it's a winter meat sauce, a summer vegetable sauce or something as simple as olive oil, garlic and parsley. They also add a splash or two of the starchy water in which the pasta is cooked to help bring the noodles and sauce together and to prevent clumping.
Stick with that simple technique, and with the season's peak vegetables, you will always have a fresh pasta sauce at the ready.
When I say pasta, I mean more than spaghetti. Yes, traditional, ubiquitous spaghetti is always welcomed at my dinner table. However, there are countless other great pasta shapes — from long, slippery linguine to short, fat rigatoni. Many supermarkets and gourmet shops carry artisan pasta brands that feature whimsical shapes with catchy, revealing names such as orecchiette (little ears) or strozzapreti (priest stranglers). The world of pasta is broad. It is also flat, wide, round, narrow, fat, skinny, ruffled, curly and loopy. Pairing these fun shapes with summer's colorful vegetables brings even more appeal to one of the world's most appealing foods.
Summer Pasta Tips
- Be sure to cut vegetables, such as eggplant or zucchini, into bite-size pieces so that they will cook uniformly and mix well with pasta.
- Don't undercook the vegetables. Pasta with summer vegetables is not the same as pasta salad. Vegetables that are undercooked will not absorb oil, tomatoes, or pasta water and will not be the right consistency to properly meld with and flavor the noodles.
- Don't forget summer herbs. Fresh basil, mint, thyme and oregano are just a few of summer's prolific herbs. They enhance the flavor of summer vegetables and are delicious tossed with pasta.
- Add cheese. Almost all summer vegetables pair beautifully with Italian cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino romano, so don't forget to add a generous sprinkle of grated cheese as you are tossing your pasta and vegetables together.