When I think of comfort food Italian style, I think of polenta and this is the perfect time of the year for it. Not only because of the cold...
Every now and then someone sends me a message that’s a real charmer. Here’s one I received about a recipe that appears in my first cookbook, Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking. Because the writer and so many other readers over three decades have raved about it, I’m sharing it here. He wrote:
I … purchased your book, Pasta Classica, in 1988 in New Orleans. It taught me to make pasta, a gift that I have passed on to my children and hundreds of Montessori school 5th graders. I am a pediatric cardiologist with some knob related stresses and I have found making pasta by hand to be therapeutic. Kneading dough and cooking while listening to music is much more enjoyable than a therapist. I have made fresh pasta and dried pasta, soups, cooked sauces and uncooked sauces, and return to the book more than any other cookbook. As we live in the south, our favorite summer recipe is “Pasta with Raw Tomatoes and Avocado …. I send an attached photo of the future pasta maker, my granddaughter Marie Elizabeth.” —Dr. J. B.
I admit, I don’t know what “knob related stresses” are, but I get the idea. Here’s what I wrote back:
Dear Dr. J.B.,
Several years ago, I attempted to establish a healthy school food program in an independent school that my children once attended. The menus I created were filled with recipes from all of my books, including the Pasta with Raw Tomatoes and Avocado dish that your granddaughter loves, and other wholesome and delicious dishes besides. We taught kids and their parents to make everything from fresh pasta to Vietnamese spring rolls to Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon—calling it “beef stew” not to scare anyone off—and got the young ones involved in a school garden. Most everyone loved the food and the program won awards, but some of the kids balked at the absence of the chicken nuggets, white-flour bagels, and frozen pizza they were accustomed to eating. Parents of the latter panicked and pressured the administration into bringing back the junk food menu the following year. What I learned was that kids eat good food if parents instill good eating habits at home. Kudos to you for doing just that. No doubt Marie Elizabeth will carry on the family tradition. –-JdC
Because Pasta alla Destefanis is best made using vine-ripened tomatoes, I decided to wait until summer to re-publish the recipe, along with Dr. J.B.’s message. This week, I plucked my first Sun Golds from the vine (the sweetest cherry tomatoes I know outside the borders of Italy) to make this sensational and utterly simple dish. If you think the notion of an avocado and tomato sauce for hot pasta sounds odd, I can tell you that I have served it to many hundreds of people over the years, and delighted them all, every time—including fussy children.
Short Pasta with Raw Tomatoes and Avocado
For 2 hearty eaters
My friend, Flavia Destefanis, who was born in Italy but grew up all over the world, gave me this pleasant and surprising recipe. Moving with her family wherever her father, a diplomat, was transferred every few years, made her think outside the box about food as much as most things, and she is good at combining the best Italian cooking traditions with ingredients considered exotic in Italian cooking. The trick, as with all raw tomato sauces, is to make it with sweet, vine-ripened tomatoes in season. Recommended pasta shapes include short cut pasta such as “snails,” pennette, or fusilli. If you don’t like the taste of raw garlic, don’t use it; there will be plenty of flavor without it. When the avocado is tossed with the piping hot pasta, it clings to its porous surface and combined with the olive oil, forms a creamy sauce.
•1 ripe Haas avocado
•4 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil
•3/4 pound fresh, sweet, vine-ripened cherry tomatoes or other vine-ripened tomatoes of the season
•small garlic clove, minced (optional)
•4 leaves fresh basil, torn into small pieces
• 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
•freshly ground pepper to taste
•2 tablespoons kosher salt
•1/2 pound short-cut pasta (see headnote)
1. Fill an ample pot with 5 quarts cold water and bring to a rapid boil.
2. Peel and dice the avocado and toss it immediately in an ample serving bowl with the olive oil to prevent it from discoloring.
3. If using cherry tomatoes, slice them in quarters, or if they are very small, into halves. If using larger tomatoes, remove cores and slice and cut them into small dice.
4. In the serving bowl, toss the tomatoes, garlic (if using), basil, salt, and pepper.
5. To the pot of boiling water, add the kosher salt, followed by the pasta. Bring the water back to a rolling boil. Follow the pasta manufacturer’s cooking directions for “al dente,” stirring occasionally. Drain, reserving about 1/3 cup of the cooking water.
6. Immediately toss the hot pasta with the tomato and avocado sauce. Add a little of the reserved pasta water if necessary to moisten. Serve immediately.
Julia della Croce is a food writer and James Beard award-winning cookbook author and recipe developer based in New York. She is presently incubating a book about her family's ancestral region, Sardegna. Visit her website, www.juliadellacroce.com and blog, http://juliadellacroce.com/forktales1/, connect on Facebook: Julia della Croce - chef & foodwriter, Twitter: @juliadellacroce and Instagram: juliadellacroce.