Jul 172014
 
Ingredients for Pasta alla Destefanis. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Ingredients for Pasta alla Destefanis. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Every now and then someone sends me a message that’s a real charmer. Here’s one I received at the end of last summer about a recipe that appears in my very first cookbook, Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking. The writer, Dr. John Brownlee, and so many other readers, have raved about it over three decades, so I’m sharing the message and recipe here.

 I am preparing to make lo Stracotto for the second time from your book Pasta Classica, which I purchased in 1988 in New Orleans. It taught me to make pasta, a gift which I have passed onto my children and hundreds of Montessori school 5th graders. I have made soups and sauces and return to the book more than any other cookbook. As we live in the south our favorite summer recipe is Pasta Destefanis. I have found making pasta by hand to be therapeutic. I am a pediatric cardiologist and have some knob related stresses. Kneading dough and cooking while listening to music is much more enjoyable than a therapist. Thank you for your book, culinary wisdom, and your clear and entertaining writing.  I send an attached photo of the future pasta maker, my granddaughter Marie Elizabeth.  –Dr. John Brownlee

Here’s what I wrote back:

Dear Dr. Brownlee, Several years ago, I attempted to establish a healthy school food program in an independent school that my own two daughters had attended years before. The menus I created were filled with recipes from all my books, and wholesome and delicious food of all kinds, from Pasta alla Destefanis to New Orleans jambalaya that is no doubt dear to your heart. We taught kids and their parents to cook everything from Vietnamese spring rolls to Julia Child’s boef bourguingnon–calling it “beef stew” not to scare anyone off!–and got the young ones involved in a school garden. The program won awards and many of the kids loved the food and couldn’t get enough of it. But others balked at the absence of the industrially made chicken nuggets, white-flour bagels, and junk pizza that the kids were used to eating before— and at home. Parents of the latter kids panicked and pressured the administration to bring back the junk food menu. What I learned was that kids would eat good food only if parents instilled good eating habits. Kudos to you for passing on the gift of cooking to so many children. No doubt Marie Elizabeth will carry on the family tradition. --JdC

Because Pasta alla Destefanis is best made using vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, I decided to wait to re-publish the recipe, along with Dr. Brownlee’s message. This week, I plucked my first beautiful Sun Golds (the sweetest cherry tomatoes I know) from the vine in my vegetable garden to make this sensational and utterly simple dish.

Sungold tomatoes in my garden. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Sun Gold tomatoes in my garden. | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

The pleasant and surprising recipe was given to me by Flavia Destefanis, my long-time friend who was born in Italy but grew up in many different countries, traveling wherever her father, a diplomat, was transferred every few years. It 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. 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 the fussy school children I told you about.

Pasta alla Destefanis (Pasta with Raw Tomatoes and Avocado)
For 3-4 normal, or 2 hearty eaters

Recommended shapes include spaghetti or linguine,  or short cut pasta such as “snails,” medium “shells,” pennette, or fusilli. If you don’t like the taste of raw garlic in your mouth, 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 along with the olive oil, forms a creamy sauce.

1 ripe (but not spotty) Haas avocado
4 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil
3/4  pound fresh, sweet, vine-ripened cherry tomatoes or other fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes
1 small garlic clove, pressed or minced (optional)
2 or 3 leaves fresh basil, torn into small pieces (optional)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste freshly ground white or black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1/2  pound spaghetti, or short-cut pasta such as penne, shells, or fusilli

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 with the olive oil in an ample serving bowl.
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 (if using), 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 1/2 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.

avocado

Coat the avocado dice in the olive oil first to prevent it from turning dark.

Toss the cut-up or diced tomatoes with the avocado and other ingredients.

Toss the cut-up or diced tomatoes with the avocado and other ingredients.

Add coarse salt to the boiling water without skimping—you need 2-3 tablespoons for 5 quarts of water.

Add coarse salt to the boiling water without skimping—you need 2-3 tablespoons for 5 quarts of water.

Pasta alla Destefanis (Lumachine, "Little Snails" with Uncooked Tomato and Avocado Sauce | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

Pasta alla Destefanis (Lumachine, “Little Snails” with Uncooked Tomato and Avocado Sauce) | Photo: Nathan Hoyt

 

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Jul 022014
 

There’s thunder and lightening from where I’m sitting looking out my kitchen window, with no sign of let-up for July 4th. If that means a change of plans for you from an all-American barbecue, consider the Independence Day tradition of the American South: fried chicken. While I grew up in an Italian household, fried chicken was always a special dish and it fit in just fine with potato salad and all the other American trimmings. Whether it’s Kentucky-fried, Georgia-fried, or Italian-fried, it’s as American as grilling on the Fourth of July. Here’s my recipe, sprinkled with some fried chicken history. [...more...]

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True American Eats for the 4th: Fiery Italian-Fried Chicken Wings
Jun 152014
 

My father left his native Toritto as an infant in his mother’s arms in 1909. With his young parents and grandmother, he sailed for Ellis Island in steerage. The family said that in those bleak times in Puglia, they had survived by eating the wild greens that grew in the fields where they had toiled. Although he returned to Italy many times as an adult, especially to the Carrara quarries to buy marble for his shop in America, my father never went back to where he was born. What kindled his memory was the food he was raised on. His [...more...]

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Toritto, Puglia: An Afternoon in My Father's Land
Jun 102014
 

Besides home-grown tomatoes, green beans from my garden are the vegetable I most look forward to in summer. Right after my beans seeds went into the ground and my thoughts turned to eating them, it occurred to me to write Love Me Tender, a story for Zester Daily, about how I like them best. You may want to know my favorite way to cook them if you love them as much as I do, and if you don’t, you might change your mind after you read  here.  

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Love Me Tender: The Italian Way with Green Beans
May 192014
 

If you’ve been following my posts this month, you know that I’ve been in Italy at the invitation of the Italian Trade Commission exploring the products of food artisans working in the country’s twenty regions. Throughout May, I’ll be publishing vignettes on some of the food producers I met, both at the 78th annual artisans expo in Florence in April, and subsequently traveling throughout the country. Italian artisans have been making air-cured hams as far back as Etruscan times some 3,000 years ago, originally from the haunches of wild boar. Eventually, pigs were bred and pampered specially for producing prosciutto crudo, [...more...]

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A 3,000-Year Tradition Makes for Sublime Italian Prosciutto
May 162014
 

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Miggiano, Puglia: A Sighting of an Olive Wood Nymph
May 152014
 

Once, Italian merchants were on their own looking for markets to sell their goods. Today, the Italian Trade Commission facilitates commerce between Italian businesses and the U.S., among other countries, sending buyers, and journalists like myself throughout its twenty regions to explore products for export to an American public that is dazzled by the stroke of that fine Italian hand. My mission on a recent trip to the Mostra Internazionale dell’Artigianato (78th International Handicrafts Trade Fair) in Florence, sponsored by the I.T.C., was to ply the  stalls of Italian food and wine producers coming from all over Italy for exceptional [...more...]

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On the Road: That Fine Italian Hand