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Published August 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Snip those herbs and savor them in pasta dish

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned that she was washing peas and beans and spinach that she had just plucked from her garden. She wanted to incorporate all the freshly harvested green vegetables into her dinner, but was trying to think of exactly how she’d prepare them.

By: Sue Doeden, Bemidji Pioneer

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned that she was washing peas and beans and spinach that she had just plucked from her garden. She wanted to incorporate all the freshly harvested green vegetables into her dinner, but was trying to think of exactly how she’d prepare them.

My love for pasta gave me a quick and easy meal idea to suggest to my friend with the bountiful vegetable garden. How about steaming the beans and peas and tossing them up with some pasta, olive oil, garlic, white wine, lots of garlic and the spinach? It sounded so good to me that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I don’t have a vegetable garden, but lucky for me, most herbs can tolerate poor soil, light watering and very little fertilizer. I do have an abundance of fresh, flavorful herbs growing right outside my door. And the intense flavor of freshly snipped herbs truly shines when combined with pasta for a quick-to-make dish.

Besides helping to flavor foods when cutting back on salt, fat and sugar, herbs may offer additional benefits of their own. Culinary herbs offer antioxidants and the intense flavor they add to food may stimulate the brain’s satiety center so that we feel full faster.

The part of the herb used for cooking is mainly the green leaves and in some cases the seeds or flowers. I chose to mix basil and parsley with angel hair pasta. These two herbs can be used in large quantities without overpowering the taste of fresh tomatoes, also tossed up with the pasta. Experiment with other combinations of fresh herbs for this dish. Some mint or oregano would be fine flavor choices to marry with basil and parsley. I’m always a little more cautious with the more powerful herbs like rosemary and thyme. A little goes a long way, so just add a pinch at a time.

Pasta with Fresh Herbs and Tomatoes takes full advantage of the beautiful tomatoes I can finally buy at my local farmers market and fresh herbs from my own garden. This dish is much like a soup or a salad. You can add any flavors or textures you prefer to make it your own. You know how I love garlic, so I add plenty along with some chopped onion. A little cream with the pasta adds rich, flavorful moisture. If you’re watching your fat intake, replace the cream with some of the water used for cooking the pasta. I’m always generous with the Parmesan cheese that I grate into the dish. Often, the pan I use to sauté the onions and garlic is first used to fry pork chops or chicken breasts. When I take the cooked meat from the pan, I add the onions along with some butter. All of the brown, caramelized bits stuck to the bottom of the pan contribute great flavor.

When I’m cooking for two, I find that 1/2 pound of pasta is way plenty. Leftover Pasta with Fresh Herbs and Tomatoes gets packed into individual serving-size microwave-safe containers and stored in the refrigerator for up to a couple of days. The pasta dish can be reheated for another meal. I usually add a bit more liquid to the pasta when I heat it up, depending on what I have in my refrigerator. I’ve used half-and-half, skim milk and broth, all with tasty results.

May the heady perfume of fresh herbs fill your kitchen as the warm summer days lead us into the cool days of autumn. Whether you snip them yourself, get them from a neighbor’s garden or pick them up at the farmers market, fresh herbs can make a delicious difference in just about everything you cook.

Pasta with Fresh Herbs and Tomatoes
4 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cups seeded, chopped plum tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (8-ounces) angel hair pasta
1 cup half-and-half
1/4 cup or more chopped fresh herbs of choice
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Bring a large, covered pot of water to a boil. While water is heating, melt butter in a large skillet. Add chopped onion and sauté until tender. Add garlic and continue to stir mixture until garlic just begins to turn golden. Add tomatoes and salt and stir until tomatoes are heated through. Turn off heat.

Salt the boiling water and cook pasta until just tender, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain pasta and immediately add to tomato mixture in pan. Combine well. Stir in half-and-half, fresh herbs and Parmesan. Season with black pepper and more parmesan. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Tips from the cook

--A dash of red wine vinegar added to the pan along with the tomatoes gives this pasta dish additional sparkle. It seems to bring out the sweet flavor of the tomatoes. Try it sometime and see what you think.

--Some of my favorite add-ins to Pasta with Fresh Herbs and Tomatoes: chopped kalamata olives, toasted pine nuts, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.

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