Small, Good Things: Last Chance, for Now…

By Joe Dizney

Tempus fugit. There’s no denying it this time of year. As I write these words, it’s still officially summer, even though there’s an occasional chill. As you read this, fall will be upon us. Days are growing shorter, leaves are turning and now —and I mean now! — is the time for tomatoes.

While not a crop for the history books, this year’s has been good. Let’s take the moment we have left before they are gone to revel in the heirloom crop before it’s succeeded by the dense, flavor-free supermarket simulacra.

I’ll cop to a fondness for the sandwich of perfect, fat, berry-sweet slices with just a schmear of olive oil-whipped ricotta, or slices topped with creamy burrata or drizzled with the best fruity oil I can find, garnished with garden basil and a sprinkling of crunchy salt to amplify the sweetness.

But at least once a year I indulge in the barely cooked pasta dish recipe shared below. It’s so simple it barely qualifies as a recipe: While the pasta boils, the sauce (such as it is) is quickly prepared and tossed with pasta. The garnish is typically basil and a dusting of cheese — anything else is overkill. The glory is in the freshness and absolute quality of the few ingredients required.

Last-Chance Tomato Pasta with Pangrattato (Photo by J. Dizney)

As I prepared this year’s edition, the lingering chill and drought had blackened the basil in the field. While flat-leaf parsley or mint would be my substitutes, all I had was oregano. Rather than add that to the tomatoes, which would have been overpowering, I substituted a humbler pangrattato for the grated cheese.

Far from being complicated, pangrattato is a sauté of olive oil, garlic and breadcrumbs. Tossed with lemon zest and herbs, the mix can top or be tossed with pasta for a dish known as pasta con la mollica. For the version here, unseasoned panko replaces the breadcrumbs for a more pronounced textural crunch.

The accepted history of pangrattato is that it was a poor man’s substitute for Parmesan or other cheese, but it sometimes includes grated cheeses, so feel free to add some. Other traditional ingredients include nuts (or anchovies). Use it to add texture and flavor to roast or sautéed vegetables (particularly brassicas or greens). There’s always something coming around to celebrate in some small way.

Joe Dizney is a designer, art director and unrepentant sensualist. When the Cold Spring resident is not thinking about food, he is foraging for, cooking or eating it. Email him at jdizney@highlandscurrent.org.

Last-Chance Tomato Pasta with Pangrattato

Serves four

For the pangrattato:

1 cup unseasoned panko breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
Finely grated zest of one lemon
¼ to ½ cup chopped basil, parsley, mint or another herb
Salt and pepper
Optional: ¼ cup or more grated Parmesan cheese

For the pasta:

4 ripe tomatoes, cored of stem ends, chopped in a rough dice
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
12 ounces pasta (preferably spaghetti, bucatini or perciatelli)

Salt and pepper

1. Prepare the pangrattato: Heat olive oil over medium-low heat in a small skillet. Add minced garlic and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Before the garlic starts to color, add the panko crumbs until they just begin to brown. Transfer to a bowl, cool slightly and add herbs and lemon zest (and Parmesan, if using); mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper; reserve.

2. Heat ample water in large pasta pot and salt generously. While the water is heating, place the diced tomato flesh in a wire strainer over a large bowl and sprinkle a teaspoon or so of salt over all. Heat the ½-cup olive oil in a heavy skillet until hot but not smoking. When pasta water boils, cook pasta as per package directions.

3. While pasta cooks, prepare the “sauce” — in the heated skillet, quickly sauté garlic in the hot oil for 1 to  minutes. Before it starts to color, add the drained tomatoes and cook until softened and bubbling. Add just enough of the drained tomato juices to moisten if needed, lower the heat and cook a couple of minutes more while you quickly drain the cooked pasta. Return pasta to the warm pot (with an extra glug of olive oil) and toss with the cooked tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in individual bowls, dusted with pangrattato, as well as cheese if desired.

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