Pasta turns a classic Italian salad into a quick vegetarian meal, Pasta alla Caprese. Tomatoes, mozzarella and basil are the key ingredients. Recipe below.
The thing about growing tomatoes is this. You plant them as soon as there’s no chance of frost, and then you wait. For a long time, there are no tomatoes. No tomatoes. No tomatoes. Still no tomatoes. And then one day, there are TOMATOES!!! Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes, TOMATOES!!! So you find yourself looking for lots of things to do with TOMATOES!!!
Right next to our tomato plants is our BASIL!!! The multiple plants have been doing quite well for a while now. You probably see where this is going. I didn’t right away. It took seeing an article on things to do with mozzarella. One recipe was a pasta dish with Italian sausage and small balls of mozzarella, bambini brocconcini. I mentally jettisoned the sausage and added our plentiful tomatoes and basil. A meal was born.
Essentially, this is a caprese salad turned into a pasta dish. The classic Italian salad is the essence of summer, bursting with seasonal flavor and easy to throw together—a handful of ingredients and no cooking. Layered slices of tomato and fresh mozzarella are topped with chopped basil, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt. Done.
Pasta alla Caprese is almost as simple, with just one additional ingredient, the pasta. Short pastas work best, I think, matching the chunky pieces of tomato and mozzarella. I used campanelle, little bells, because I like the frilled-edged shape—and because I had it on hand. Fusilli, rotini, farfalle or ziti would also work. And in a pinch, you can use ribbon pastas like fettuccine or linguine.
You can literally prepare everything for this dish while the water comes to a boil and you cook the pasta. About five minutes before the pasta is ready for draining, you throw the tomatoes into a warm pan with some oil, only half keeping an eye on them, stirring when you get around to it. Then you toss everything together at the end and dish it up. Summer cooking doesn’t get much easier than this.
Pasta alla Caprese
Serves 2 generously as a meal
6 ounces uncooked campanelle or other short pasta
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved if large (see Kitchen Notes)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil, packed (8 or 9 large leaves)
1/3 pound drained fresh small mozzarella balls (see Kitchen Notes)
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Salt it generously and cook pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile, prepare other ingredients. About 5 or 6 minutes before pasta is ready to drain, heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium flame. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes split open and begin to soften. When pasta is ready, turn off heat under tomatoes.
Drain pasta and add to tomato pan. Season with salt, sprinkle with basil and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in mozzarella. Divide between two shallow bowls and serve.
You say tomato, I say cherry. Cherry or grape tomatoes work well in this dish, the smaller the better. Grape tomatoes will probably be a good size as is. If the cherry tomatoes are largish, just cut them in half. You can also use regular tomatoes cut into chunks.
Fresh mozzarella, please. For this dish, you don’t want the hard, dry mozzarella in the packaged cheeses case. You want the fresh, white, semi-soft mozzarella packed in brine or in vacuum-sealed packages. You may find it at the deli counter. Look for the small balls of mozzarella, if possible. If you can’t find it, cut larger mozzarella into bite-sized pieces.
Hungry for more caprese ideas? Try this delicious version of the classic caprese salad that substitutes fresh peaches for the tomatoes.