Though it was early September when my husband and I were cycling through the Po River Valley region of Italy, the summer sun still blazed, dry and scorching, lending a golden light to an already golden landscape.
As well as being oppressively hot, the afternoon was also deathly quiet. We were used to this Italian riposo by now, that time between about two and four in the afternoon when shops closed, the buzz of activity at the local café dwindled, and the wooden shutters on everyone’s homes were shut tightly against that flaming sun.
And so, it was with some surprise that I happened upon an elderly man who was up and about, despite the riposo. He was standing in a field that was parched, barren, and brown, walking carefully through the empty rows with a basket in hand. What on earth was he doing? As we pedaled closer, I could see: he was practicing the ancient art of gleaning, or collecting leftover crops from fields that have already been harvested. One by one, he plucked ripe, round tomatoes from the dirt, and placed them carefully into his basket.
Always one to get excited about food— free food especially —I braked to a stop and asked Tyler to hold my bike while I went to join in the gleaning. As I took to the field, I waved hello to the elderly man. In response, his weathered face crinkled upwards into a smile, and he nodded his head knowingly. Then, he resumed his work, bending to pick up another tomato.
While barren and empty-looking from the roadside, the field actually held countless tomatoes. Most were rotting under that inferno of a sun, but among the dearth of mushy, spotted ones, there were some perfectly good, wonderfully ripe red specimens. Before I knew it, the large back pocket of my cycling tank was full of fruit, and my arms held as much as they possibly could.
I returned to the road bearing my bounty, with a huge smile plastered across my face. I stowed the stash in my cooking pannier, and we set off again, feeling rich as could be with our free food. With those tomatoes and a few staple ingredients I already had, I knew we wouldn’t need to buy food for three days at least.
The next evening, when we were settled at camp near a public park, I sat at a picnic table and cooked our first meal from those gleaned tomatoes: a simple summery tomato pasta dish. I cooked up some penne, and added tomato and onion and garlic, as well as some salt and pepper. For a bit more substance and richness, I added some cheese, which melted into ribbons throughout the dish. We feasted on that pasta as the sun set, enjoying the delicious flavors of the practically free meal.
There is a fine line between boring blandness and exquisite simplicity. Pasta cooked every night with little but salt and butter? Boring. Pasta cooked with the freshest of in-season vegetables that need little seasoning to render them delectable? Deliciously simple. This recipe for fresh tomato pasta definitely falls into the latter category—though there isn’t much to it, it’s rich with flavor that celebrates the best of the summer season.
water for boiling
5 cloves garlic
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
1 ¼ teaspoons pepper
1 ¼ teaspoons garlic granules
a pinch of chili flakes (optional)
½ pound penne pasta
1 teaspoon salt
2 large, super ripe tomatoes, or several smaller ones
2 ounces good Parmesan cheese
While you’re waiting for the water to boil, begin preparing your veggies: mince the garlic and chop the onion, and add them to your frying pan along with a tablespoon of olive oil and one and a quarter teaspoons each of salt, pepper, and garlic granules. If you’re feeling feisty, add a pinch of chili flakes, too.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on the water—when it comes to a boil, add the dry pasta and one teaspoon of salt. Be sure to leave the lid off when boiling pasta, or your water will boil over!
While the pasta is cooking, chop the tomatoes and leave them on the cutting board for later.
When the pasta is al dente (fully cooked but still a bit firm), strain off the water, and set the pot in the grass. Switch your handle (if you only have one) to your frying pan, and set it on the stove, cooking the garlic and onion until the mixture is lightly browned and very fragrant. Pour the garlic and onion over the pasta, making sure to transfer all of those delicious spices and every last drop of the oil.
Now, set the pot back on the heat and stir everything to combine. Add the tomatoes and keep stirring.
At this point, you can stop when the tomatoes are just warmed up, or keep cooking until the tomatoes break down into their own sauce. Either way, now’s the time to slice some chunks of Parmesan cheese into the pasta. Fold them in so they’re surrounded by heat, and cook just until they’ve melted. Take the pasta off the heat, and enjoy.
Want to jazz up this pasta dish a bit? For some extra flavor, stir in some fresh basil leaves—no need to chop them, just add them in and let ’em wilt. Alternatively, add some fresh spinach. Mozzarella would be a great addition to this dish, too—either firm or fresh would be fantastic.
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