I’m about to post a pasta recipe, and I’ve never been to Italy. How can I post a recipe without a travel story to match? Well, the truth is that – if you want to get technical – I don’t know how Italian this recipe is, anyway.
I often ask my students to imagine their favourite foods before tomatoes. I explain to them that tomatoes originated in South America, and before the Age of Exploration there were no tomatoes in Italian pasta or Indian curries or French Ratatouille. Can you imagine pizza before exploration, I ask them? Not that I am trying to downplay the centuries of genocide that ensued during the age of exploration, but I wanted to point out that food as it is today, in all of it’s simplicity or complexity, is a result of people travelling, trading, sharing, tasting and trying new things. The tomato is no exception.
Here’s a brief history lesson on the tomato. The tomato probably originated in Peru, where it grew as a wild weed. It eventually spread to Central America, where the Aztecs would eat it with pepper and salt. There are some theories that Cortez brought the tomato to Mexico where they began to cultivate it; others suggest it was Columbus. However, it was not until the late 1600s that its mention even appeared in Europe. It’s no surprise that the Italians were the first to include it in a cookbook in the late 17th century. By the late 18th century, it appeared in recipes for soups in Britain.
The other main ingredient in this recipe is basil. Basil originally came from Iran and had made its way to Europe by the 14th century. It is an aromatic herb and grows in many varieties; natural health practitioners suggest that it helps prevent migraines, vertigo and colic, as well as some kidney problems. But more importantly, it is just so wonderfully fragrant – one of those foods that tastes great and also happens to be great or you! Basil does not keep well after picked, so it is best to shop for this simple meal no more than a day or two before making it.
We are fortunate to have a good and constant supply of the main ingredient to this recipe – grape tomatoes – throughout the year, and sometimes in the dark depths of winter, there is nothing like the comfort of sweet tomatoes and fresh basil to hearken back to the better days of summer.
This is a healthy, low fat and easy recipe – definitely possible to make for a worknight meal.
Serves: 4 (small)
2-3 pints of grape tomatoes, sliced in half lengthways
4-5 whole garlic cloves, peeled but not crushed
30 fresh basil leaves, washed and sliced (if you have time on your hands, the best way to do this is to roll up the leaves like a little cigar and then cut each roll finely)
¼ tsp of good quality sea salt or fleur de sel (omit if you don’t have this)
1 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 generous handfulls of baby spinach leaves, sliced finely like the basil
2-3 oz chevre (soft goat’s cheese – I like the peppercorn variety best, and President’s Choice makes a great one, as does Woolwich Dairies in Wellington County)
Pine nuts (optional)
In a bowl, combine tomato halves, garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt. Toss until all tomatoes are “bathed” in the sauce. Line a cookie sheet with tin foil and heat the oven to 400 degrees. Pour the tomatoes, sauce and all, onto the baking sheet and pop them in the oven for approximately 30 minutes. Every 10 minutes, use a spatula or wooden spoon to gently turn them. Meanwhile, cook your whole grain linguine according to instructions. The tomatoes are done when the liquid is mostly gone, the tomatoes are shrivelled but still maintaining their shape, and just starting to char.
Heat a wok or non stick fry pan over medium heat. If you want to add more olive oil, go ahead, but if you are health conscious, you really don’t need to. Remove the whole garlic cloves from the cookie sheet and chop them coarsely. Add the spinach and chopped garlic to the fry pan and cook, stirring gently but consistently until the spinach is just wilted. Immediately add the tomatoes from the cookie sheet, along with any liquid which may remain on the tin foil, and the basil leaves. Toss gently for 1-2 minutes until the entire mixture is warmed and the basil is slightly wilted.
Serve the tomatoes over the linguine, and crumble the chevre on top, as well as optional pine nuts.