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A Patch of Summer

What does summer make you think of?

Swimming at the beach? Vacations to far-away places? Or simply fanning yourself by the AC while sipping cool lemonade?

To me, summer is all about the glorious produce: exuberant farmer’s markets, bountiful gardens, and absolutely massive bouquets of basil.

This missions relies on two key ingredients to evoke the flavors of summer: tomato and basil. Get the best tomatoes you can find: ripe, ever so slightly yielding to the touch, and vibrant red. During winter, this can be hard to come by—so splurge a bit on the pricey greenhouse tomatoes cradled in clear plastic boxes. You will also need fresh leafy basil—the kind that comes in the produce section of your grocery store, not the dried kind in the spice aisle.

A word of caution: if you can’t find either of these ingredients in the middle of winter, it’s best to skip this mission and wait for actual summer, when ripe local tomatoes and basil come into their own. Otherwise (even though I encourage you to eat seasonally whenever possible), don’t deny yourself you this small reminder of what real sunshine feels like.

So obtain the best tomatoes and basil you can find, gather your equipment and other ingredients, and let’s begin!

Boil water for pasta

Take your pot and fill it slightly more than halfway with water. Put it on your stove and turn it all the way up. Put the lid on so it boils faster.

Once it boils (you’ll know because the lid will clatter excitedly), carefully remove the lid (watch out for steam!) and turn the heat down to medium-low to hold it at a less exuberant boil.

While you wait for the cold water to boil, let’s do some chopping.

Dice a tomato

Start by cutting a tomato in half.

Then cut it into slices.

Next, stack them and cut them into strips, and finally into cubes.

Dice a total of one tomato. When you’re done, put it in a large bowl.

Salt the pasta water

Here’s what the pros do to cook tasty pasta: add salt to the water.

The salt migrates into your pasta as it cooks, giving it a base of flavor. Otherwise, pasta can be a tad bland, relying too much on a coating of sauce to give it interest.

To salt the water, just grab a few big pinch-fuls of salt and drop it in the water. The boiling action will distribute the salt and help it dissolve. Wait a bit, and then dip a spoon in and—yes—actually taste the water. It should taste about as salty as a good chicken soup. Do this until the water is the right level of saltiness. (In the future, you can skip the tasting step because you’ll develop a natural intuition for this!)

Add the pasta

Now we add our pasta!

How much depends on how hungry you are. I usually cook 1/4 of the box for a large serving. Just pour some out into your hand, and hold it in a bundle in your fist. It should be about the diameter of a US quarter.

To add long pasta such as linguine, here’s a neat trick: hold the pasta in your two hands, then twist. Hold the twisted pasta just above the boiling water, and release it from both hands at once. The pasta “unfurls” into a spiral that you can then push into the pot bit by bit.

Releasing the pasta this way ensures each strand gets equal contact with the hot water, preventing clumps that cause uneven cooking. If you’re bored, you can practice in your spare time with dry pasta over an empty pot. This is guaranteed to get you Food Nerd Points™ with anyone who is watching.

Okay! Is your pasta in the pot? Good! Now start a timer for 10-11 minutes (or whatever it says on your pasta box). Use the timer on your microwave or phone if you don’t have a dedicated kitchen timer.

Mince the garlic

While the pasta’s cooking, let’s mince a clove garlic:

First peel it. Put a clove on your cutting board, lay the flat of your knife on top of it, and HULKSMASH with your fist. The garlic should be kind of crushed. Wiggle the peel and it will pop right off.

Now lay the garlic on its side and slice it thinly. To achieve thin, even slices, remember your “claw grip” from Knife Fu 101. Press the flat of the blade right up against your knuckles, and as you chop, slowly move your knuckles back, a tiny bit at a time.. This will guide your chopping so your slices are thin and even.

Now arrange the slices neatly and cut them into tiny strips.

Now arrange the tiny strips neatly and cut them into tiny dice.

You’ve just minced the garlic! Add it to the bowl with the tomatoes.

Cut a chiffonade of basil

A chiffonade (pronounced SHE-phone-odd) is a fancy French word for rolling up a stack of thin things and then cutting them into strips. We owe it to the French person who discovered that a roll truly is more satisfying to cut than a stack.

First, detach a bunch of basil leaves from the stem, and stack them neatly.

Then roll them up.

Then slice them thinly. (Remember your claw grip!)

You’ll get pretty, thin little ribbons of basil. Now you are a fancy French Food Nerd! Add it to the bowl with the tomato and garlic.

Note: As you may have noticed, chopping is 90% arranging things neatly and 10% actual chopping. Don’t skimp on the arranging part. It’s what makes knife work easy and fun, instead of frustrating and messy.

Cut the brie into chunks

Finally, use your knife to roughly cut your brie into chunks. Doesn’t matter the shape.

If your pasta timer still hasn’t gone off yet, feel free to get real fancy with the shapes. Try a cat. Or a star. Or even Mr. T in profile.

Or just cut the brie into chunks. And add it to your bowl of tomatoes, etc.

Neat Trick

Why are we using brie here? It’s not very Italian, sure (brie is a French cheese), but in this dish it does something quite magical: it transforms into a creamy sauce as you stir it into the hot pasta. This sure beats having to get out another pot to make sauce! Another reason we use brie: It’s a mild enough cheese that it could pair well with any number of flavors. Don’t just stop with tomato and basil—experiment with using brie as makeshift “sauce” for pasta toppings like shrimp, bacon, broccoli, ham, mushrooms, etc.

Drain the pasta

When the timer beeps, the pasta is done! Double check by eating a piece. It should feel “al dente”—not too soft, not too hard. There should be no sign of crunch, no hard candy shell, no chewy nougat center (if this is the case, we have an amazing food discovery on our hands)—you’re looking for perfect, evenly cooked pasta all the way through.

Pasta all good? Okay! Let’s drain out all that water.

This step is a tad tricky. Hold the pot lid ever so slightly ajar and grip it firmly with a towel.

Now tilt the pot over the sink and pour out the water through the gap.

Once the water is all gone, put the pot back on the stove with the pasta in it.

Ta-da! No need for a colander!

If you drop some pasta in the sink like I did the first 10 times I did this, just rinse it really, really thoroughly and put it back in the pot. No one will know. And next time, for goodness’ sake, make sure your sink is clean.

Add olive oil

This part’s fairly straightforward. Add a good pour (1-2 tablespoons) of extra-virgin olive oil to the pasta and stir. The oil keeps the pasta from sticking together. More importantly, it helps all the other flavors infuse and meld together.

Stir together all the ingredients

Finally, add the diced tomatoes, minced garlic, basil, and brie to the still-hot pasta and give it a good vigorous stir.

And just like that, dinner (or lunch) is served!

Nicely done!

You made some delicious food. Now go enjoy it!

P.S. - If you want to show off your work on the lesson gallery, send me a picture.

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