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, raved over it, as have so many other readers 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.


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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  8 Responses to “Readers Write: Dr. Brownlee and His Pasta Prodigy”

  1. The tomatoes in your garden look lovely! The pasta does too. I wish that you would have implemented a healthy food program at my elementary school. This pasta dish beats pizza dippers any day.

  2. What an absolutely lovely letter from Dr. Brownlee. It must warm your heart to receive such missives. I am saddened, but not particularly surprised, by the reaction to your own children’s school lunch program. My, but those kids really missed out on some wonderful food. What a pity that those parents refused to avail themselves of your knowledge.

    You book Pasta Classica is one of the first cookbooks I bought “way back when” I decided I wanted “to learn to really cook.” The book is a treasure indeed, and I have referred to it countles times over the years. I love the idea of the avocado and fresh tomato sauce. The avocado imparts its unique creaminess, making for a wonderful condimento. And I don’t have to go into the Sun golds again. Aren’t they just the best? As I mentioned the other day, we are remodeling our home, and we are now in a rental home. I planted just a tiny garden this year, but the Sun Golds are there, ripe now for the picking.

  3. Julia it also saddens me to hear about the “lost” school programme…what the heck are parents thinking don’t they read or haven’t they heard the statistics on diabetes, heart disease on so on!!! They just need to look around to see what’s been happening to our diets!! I remember seeing a Jamie Oliver T.V. show about his trying to implement healthy eating programmes in schools in the States…it seemed as though some parents would have loved to tar and feather him, then run him out of town!!! What in the world is going on?? As Adri said, it must be lovely to receive such kudos for making a great attempt and here’s hoping that at least some of your teachings stuck!

    BTW…my Sun Golds are coming along rather nicely…time to make this simple but luscious sounding pasta!

    • That happened seven years ago—before Jamie Oliver’s similar experiment—and I’m still at a loss to understand it fully. I can tell you, though, that the parents in question had bad eating habits themselves, and they fed their kids the way they ate. This crowd would have loved to tar and feather me, and they did metaphorically. And yes, they actually did “run [me] out of town”— get me fired, that is. I know it’s hard to imagine!

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