Recipe: garlicky summer tomato pasta with brie (and reflections)

25 June 2012

Garlicky No-Cook Summer Tomato Pasta with Brie 
or, I Stand Here Chopping
(apologies/ compliments to Tillie Olsen)

Ingredients for about 4 healthy servings (halve the recipe if there are only 2 of you):

  • 3-4 lbs beautiful red tomatoes (I prefer beefsteak over roma for this recipe)
  • 1-3 cloves garlic, depending on your tolerance
  • about 1/2 c packed fresh basil (you want lots; don’t skimp)
  • 1 smallish wedge brie
  • ca. 4 tablespoons olive oil, maybe more
  • salt and pepper
  • (optional) dash of balsamic vinegar
  • (optional) dash of dried oregano
  • 1 lb pasta (your choice; I like using something fork-able, like fusilli)

It is 10am on a beautiful morning, and this is the time to start chopping, because you want the mix to sit around all day to marinate.

I love this recipe, which I’ve been making for 20 years after I got it from Lorna, the wife of a close friend, when I was first learning to live like adults do.

Lorna was very unhappily married. She’s still unhappy.

Mince the garlic, placing it in a large bowl with the olive oil.

Don’t worry about the garlic being too strong. It will mellow during the course of the day as it marinates with the acidic tomatoes.

It occurs to me as I chop that I never do this: prepare dinner ingredients so early in the day. Doing something so unusual makes me feel like I’m dabbling in domesticity. Normally I’m deep in thought right now, writing or reading something, often sitting with a bowl of cold cereal next to my laptop as I try to write. 

I never fail to marvel that I’m lucky enough to dabble in domesticity, that my partner shares in the labor. 

Chop the basil and add to the bowl. You can easily use twice the amount listed — a full cup — it’ll only improve the flavor of the pasta sauce.

Basil is expensive where I live because it’s not thriving in people’s gardens (yet). So I was more sparing than I will be in August. 

I’m chopping right now in a kitchen I love. I’ll be in a different kitchen in August. I’ll be prepping for school in August. I can already sense that I’ll be more short-tempered in August.

Chop the wedge of brie into bite-size pieces — and don’t worry about this being 1) too much cheese or 2) clumped together due to its cheesy stickiness. The pieces will separate due to their contact with the oil and the tomato juices.

It doesn’t have to be great brie. I used Président brand, which is run of the mill — it was the only kind our little market had yesterday. On some level I believe that adage, “If you don’t want to eat (drink) it, don’t cook with it.” But hey, you get by.

You can make it with other soft cheeses, too. Mozzarella di bufala is good; I’ve heard of people using cream cheese. Still: you’ll have to trust me that brie is best.

In Lorna’s marriage to her charming but irresponsible husband, she didn’t have a choice about being domestic and keep up her career. He worked too, but it’s not like he was going to clean the house or feed the kids. He was more like one of the kids.

It’s hard to see them now, because they’re so often furious with each other. Or, rather, he behaves badly and she gets furious — and she’s no longer embarrassed to explode at him in public.

It’s worth pausing to consider how nice this exercise is: all day, every time you walk into the kitchen you’ll get blasted by the smells of garlic, basil, and tomato.

It’s easiest to chop the garlic, basil, and brie before you start on the tomatoes, which make a mess.

How juicy are your tomatoes? You’ll want to squeeze out the seeds and juicy innards of about ½ to ¾ of them before chopping — otherwise the pasta sauce will be too watery. Chop them into small, bite-sized pieces and add them to the bowl with the garlic.

I love the neatnik fussiness of chopping the garlic/ basil/ cheese before starting on the tomatoes. It’s like learning how to fold fitted sheets. 

The lovely friend who taught me how to fold fitted sheets all those years ago had another bit of wisdom. “Boyfriends aren’t supposed to make your life harder!” she said. “They’re supposed to make your life easier!” 

The spectacular insight of that simple comment still rocks my world when I consider how many women assume that partnering with a man requires the opposite: that men make your life harder, like all those men in laundry detergent commercials. The men who clumsily get those stubborn stains on their shirts, leaving their wives to use secret domestic knowledges to maintain their family’s middle-class respectability via clean shirts.

If squeezing the tomatoes has led you to spray tomato juice all over your shirt, you can pause to curse, locate stain remover, and remember why aprons exist. I never wear an apron. Instead, this is my life: I stain — and treat — my own shirts.

A quick note: you can save all the squeezed-out innards and simmer it over low heat on the stove till it becomes a juicy paste. A nice lunch is a piece of bread spread with this paste and sliced avocado on top, sprinkled with a little lime juice, salt, and chili powder. 

Back to the dish at hand.

Add a little bit of salt and freshly ground pepper. Not too much salt  — you can adjust it later. If the tomatoes aren’t perfect, adding a dash or two of balsamic vinegar can help sweeten them and help them release their juicy goodness.

I sometimes add a dash of dried oregano too, but you don’t need it. I just like the surprise of a teensy bit of oregano.

All this thinking about relationships reminds me of those 19th-c. novels about courtship, novels that display the spectrum of marriage possibilities. Would we like Lizzie Bennet of Pride & Prejudice nearly so well if she weren’t so aware of the dangers of marriage — the possibility that an unwise choice might land her in the same position as her unhappy, mismatched parents or her poor friend Charlotte (Mrs. Collins: now there’s a nightmare)?

It also reminds me how absurd the ideal of modern marriage is. You’re supposed to attain perfect synchronicity of feeling, taste, and character with another person for 50 years? No wonder divorce rates are so high.

Stir the bowl to mix the ingredients. Don’t bother tasting it at this point — you’ll lose confidence; you won’t believe me that this will transform into something magical by dinnertime.

Here’s what you do: you cover this bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter. Keep the big spoon nearby (or even in the bowl), as you may want to stir during the day.

Yes, I said leave it on the counter. Not the fridge. You’re going to let it sit out all day long. You don’t need to worry about anything going bad. The acids of the tomato break down the cheese, and you need room temperature to achieve it.

Did Lorna believe Robert’s levity, love of fun, and Irish charm and blather would make her laugh for 50 years or so?

When did they get so set in their ways — she angry and frustrated by him, he insistent on being infuriating and frustrating?  

By about 4 or 5 in the afternoon you can give it a nice stir and see how far we’ve come, as the brie begins to dissolve and the flavors merge:

You will probably need to take a bite. Now’s the time to adjust the salt level and think about whether it needs another dash of balsamic vinegar.

You will probably need to keep yourself from eating it by the spoonful.

It’s not that I dislike the idea of arguing with my partner. As two alpha/ eldest/ smartypants-type children, we love arguing. We’ll do it in public, too; one time my mom commented by saying something like, “I’m glad to see other couples argue, too.” We looked at each other and said, that wasn’t an argument! That was just a squabble, and that’s a daily occurrence! Squabbles make us enjoy each other! We were a little disturbed to think our squabble looked otherwise.

We had cocktails with a couple in their 80s last week — two people so delightful and quick-witted that they seem like a model for the rest of us. They brought out cheese and crackers and proceeded to have the funniest, affectionate squabble over whether Ritz or Wheat Thins are best. I found myself hoping that when we’re in our 80s, we have squabbles over crackers.

By 7:30, the sauce is perfect:

Boil the pasta till it’s al dente, drain it, and spoon healthy amounts of the sauce on top of each bowlful. The hot pasta will further melt the remaining bits of cheese.

No need to fuss with toppings, although a little more basil would be pretty. No need to make anything else to accompany it — it’s a salad and main dish all in one.


Don’t make more than you can eat at night. Like risotto, it isn’t the same the next day.

Focus on the here & now: use these flavors to put aside all those thoughts about relationships and housework and failures and bad marriages. Bite in, and enjoy that moment of bliss when you say, oh, that’s good

Recipes — their formulas, their regularity, their predictability — aren’t much like life, are they? Learning to fold fitted sheets will not offer lessons on relationships. Just occasions to think. Those elusive satisfactions.


6 Responses to “Recipe: garlicky summer tomato pasta with brie (and reflections)”

  1. servetus Says:

    In case anyone’s wondering I have eaten this from your hands and it is great.

    Cooking always makes me feel so efficient. In a way that I am not in real life. I know what you mean about the way that cooking during the day makes you feel domestic — I have been limiting myself to recipes that can be made within 45 minutes before their ETA on the table. Then I end up saying, hmm, this will taste better tomorrow, and my mom says, why didn’t you make it yesterday? Answer: because it breaks the 45 min rule.

    re: where do we get the idea that a relationship is going to be more trouble than it’s worth — the evidence is all around. As to people who are unhappily married for that long, after their kids are grown up, I always think they are somehow too invested in their unhappiness to let go.

    • Didion Says:

      A few years ago when everyone started using those Julia Child recipes that take 3 days, I thought, WHY? Who’s got the time/energy, when a bowl of soba with sesame and/or peanut sauce takes 15 minutes? And yet … the fresh summer tomato sauce requires an investment early in the day.

      I’m still quite convinced by that data from a few years ago that indicated that married men live longer & happier, but married women are less happy and have shorter lives. No duh.

  2. servetus Says:

    Is your German good enough to follow this? It looked really tasty and also low effort:

    I really like how your friend put it — that the relationship is supposed to improve things. I wish I could have understood that better when I was 25 🙂

    • Didion Says:

      Oh my, this looks beautiful. I’m confused, though: she achieved that beautiful pan with only olive oil, scallions, cherry tomatoes and feta? There seems to be such a gorgeous fluid that I assumed she must’ve used white wine or some such to thin it out, but apparently not.

      • servetus Says:

        yeah. The original recipe includes garlic, which she left out. The sauce is created by the feta melting. I can’t try this out here but it looks fantastic.

  3. […] this gorgeous recipe on Feminéma & fairly rushed out to buy the […]

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