I haven’t yet lived through a Texas summer, but I know better than to complain that it’s hot down here. Like, duh, of course it’s hot! Instead, I’ll say that it feels like summer arrived in April and we have plans to complete the comparative series of hot, hotter, hottest before summer is over. Oh well. At least I’ve got tomatoes to eat.
When it comes to the seasons, Texas has completely inverted my feelings. May I admit to you that I’m about a heartbeat away from drawing up a wintertime cooking list? Having rediscovered my copy of How to Eat—don’t worry, I didn’t lose it; it was just hanging out on the cookbook shelf—I’m lusting after big bowls of Nigella’s minestrone and her chickpea soup with pasta. But I just don’t know about making these sorts of things right now, not because I’m opposed to soup in the summer, but because they call for hours of cooking. Thirty minutes of simmer time I can handle, but two, three, four hours? That crosses a line between being passionate about soup to being just flat-out crazy. And my mother would kill me if she found out. She’s the one who, if I even looked longingly at the oven on a hot summer’s day, would let me know, on no uncertain terms, how I was not to even THINK about heating up her already hot kitchen. Don’t even think about it!
But now, with my own kitchen (and my own electric bill—oh boy, I can’t wait to see that thing for the month of June!), these decisions fall into my hands. And sometimes the oven gets turned on, along with the air-conditioner. In the past few weeks, I’ve made banana bread and roasted potatoes. Homemade tortilla chips have graced my table more than once, and on Wednesday I made my best frittata yet, with onions, kale, and a generous scattering of crumbled feta cheese. But on the nights when the oven remains off, I’ve got a delicious little pasta dish to remind me that sometimes, the stovetop is all you need.
This pasta dish is a jumble of fresh tomatoes, well-seasoned caramelized onions, curly pasta, and fresh mozzarella, drizzled with excellent balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with salt and pepper. It is, to me, what pasta salad wishes it could be, fresh and bright and flavorful. I took a slightly unconventional route with the seasonings, using smoked paprika and Aleppo pepper to add smoke and spice. These darker flavors add an intriguing layer to balance the bright sweetness of tomatoes and onions.
I should tell you that I’ve been a tiny bit obsessed with fresh mozzarella lately, and it goes beautifully with Aleppo pepper. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this, but I think I like it better than fresh basil. I mean, I still like fresh basil and I especially like it when Matt’s making his caprese salad, but Aleppo pepper is really nice too. I like its very subtle heat and rich taste. The Spice House describes it as having some “fruitiness and mild, cumin-like undertones.” Sprinkled on fresh mozzarella that’s been dribbled with olive oil and some salt, it is so delicious. There’s something about cream and spice together that just works, like when a handful of cheddar gets sprinkled on top of a spicy chili.
It is possible, however, to overdo the fresh mozzarella. This pasta dish benefits from a tiny bit of restraint. I learned this the hard way. It may look fine, but I used way too much mozzarella in the photo you see above. I think I ate half of what I put on my pasta. Too much cheese and you can’t taste the other flavors as well. The mozzarella just takes over. If you are feeling indulgent and must have several generous mouthfuls of fresh mozzarella, slice up a few rounds and dress them as you see fit—with Aleppo pepper or fresh basil or maybe even just some salt and garlic-infused olive oil. Then serve your pasta accompanied by something green, like a spinach salad or some lightly cooked kale. For dessert, a glass of wine or perhaps a square or two of dark chocolate. That’s my kind of summer cooking, especially that last part.
Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes, Spicy Caramelized Onions, and Fresh Mozzarella
Inspired by this recipe
Serves 3-4 as a main course
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium white onions, thinly sliced
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper
2 cups uncooked dried rotini pasta, such as Barilla PLUS Rotini
3-4 medium tomatoes, chopped (I’d go with 4 tomatoes here if I had them on hand)
Salt and pepper to taste
4 oz. fresh mozzarella
Balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
1) In a big skillet (preferably one that is not non-stick), heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. I use my ten-inch cast-iron skillet here. Add the sliced onions, season with a good sprinkle of salt, stir everything around, and cook them for several minutes until they are starting to soften and turn translucent. Then turn the heat down to medium-low and let the onions cook until the pasta is done, stirring them every once in a while.
2) Cook the pasta according to the package’s directions.
3) While the pasta and the onions are going, chop the tomatoes (if they aren’t already chopped) and place them in a medium-sized mixing bowl.
4) When the pasta is done, drain it and add it to the tomatoes. Toss together.
5) By now, the onions should be growing brown and sweet. Add the Aleppo pepper and smoked paprika to them and stir everything around. Allow the spices to cook with the onions for a minute, then turn off the heat and add them to the tomato-pasta mixture. Toss everything together, have a taste, and season with salt and pepper.
6) Plate the pasta and add about 1 ounce of diced fresh mozzarella to each serving. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and serve. I’d put the vinegar on the table, along with salt and pepper, to let people drizzle more on top of the pasta if they’d like.