Simple summer pasta recipes for the whole family
I’ve just had a plateful of spaghetti alla Claudia Cardinale. It’s simply pasta with ham, melted butter, herbs and lots of Parmesan. I served it on my most Italian plate, one of the few bought from Divertimenti in the 1980s that has survived. I now want to jet off to Amalfi.
These days we regard pasta as such an everyday staple that we forget how it once made us think of glamour. I chanced on the Claudia Cardinale recipe on the Instagram feed of Italian-American food writer Domenica Marchetti and was seduced. You have to be of a certain age and have grown up watching late-night foreign-language films, to care about Claudia. If you’re a Fellini or a Visconti fan, you’ll know her. She’s part of that group of luscious Italian women – Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida are another two – who have gorgeous names and curvaceous bodies and set the standard for beauty before the words ‘size zero’ were uttered. Look at Gina and Claudia and you’ll set about boiling a big pan of water for pasta.
I cook pasta more in the cold months. In November you want lasagne. You can wallow in the deep pleasure of contrast, the meeting of an umami-rich meat sauce with the nutmeggy creaminess of béchamel.
Summer pasta, though, is what we think of in our most romantic fantasies of Italian life. To be twirling spaghetti around your fork while looking at a patchwork of honey-coloured houses and blue sea is as good as life can get.
The summer approach to pasta is different to the winter one. Summer pasta is lighter, you might almost say ‘skimpy’. It isn’t about bulk or warmth, but about tossing the most basic ingredients together, so they meld. I got in touch with Domenica, and she confirmed the summer mindset. ‘I can’t imagine not cooking pasta in the summer when there are so many wonderful ingredients to dress it with. I often just make a sauté of vegetables and herbs and good olive oil for it.’ ‘Dress’ is the important word here. Although Italians always dress pasta, they don’t drown it. It pays to think of summer pasta sauces as you might a vinaigrette. They have to coat pasta as a dressing coats leaves.
Your ingredients need to be excellent, though, which is why I’ve never been able to make a good raw summer tomato sauce. Armed with Viana La Place’s book, Pasta Fresca, I’ve tried. But tossing warm pasta with chopped tomatoes and basil doesn’t cut it if you’re cooking in England. The tomatoes rarely have that perfect balance of sweetness and acidity.
Domenica described a summer tomato sauce that’s a good halfway house between raw and cooked. ‘Sauté cherry tomatoes – whole or halved – in a skillet with good olive oil and garlic until the tomatoes burst. Then the jelly-like interior of the tomatoes emulsifies with the oil, creating a sauce.’ She adds that there are pasta shapes more suited to summer than winter. ‘I go for short twisty shapes – cavatappi, fusilli, gemelli, trofie and farfalle.’
She reels off a lexicon of summer sauces for these: garlic, olive oil and anchovies, the anchovies cooked in a skillet until melting; grated courgettes and fried guanciale with saffron; and, the one I really want to try, shellfish and courgette blossoms.
My favourite summer pasta dish is orecchiette with courgettes, lemon, basil and ricotta. Some of the ricotta breaks down to create a creamy sauce, some of it stays in little nuggets, finding a home in the hollows of the ‘little ears’.
In summer, ask yourself, ‘What ingredients do I have that will work together?’ Olive oil is the vehicle that will pull them into a sauce. You need to be nimble and hungry as you cook. And think about Italian holidays.
Linguine with prawns, peas, ricotta, chilli and mint
I just made this up because I had all the ingredients. It’s a great way to think about pasta in the summer: ‘What do I have and what will go together?’ Here, the ricotta contrasts with the heat of chilli, and the almonds – a much more important ingredient than you might think – bring crunch.
Turkish-spiced lamb with onions, yogurt and pasta
Completely un-Italian, this was inspired by the Turkish dish manti – pasta parcels stuffed with lamb and dressed with spiced butter. It’s for those grey summer days when the weather makes you want something more substantial than pasta tossed with artichoke hearts.
Trofie with courgette pesto
My family prefers this to regular pesto. The basil is more muted and the green vegetal flavour, which courgettes bring, is at the forefront.