We often return to what we know, when ill or simply unsure of how to proceed. Familiarity breeds a certain comfort, a known amongst the unknown. In this warmth, we can sigh and let our walls down. So let me make a confession. I am a voyeur, especially when I go on evening walks, hoping to find something interesting when glancing in open windows. A sort of theatre on display, because it is new to me, and not my own.
There is one house on the way where a middle aged man prepares sandwiches without a shirt on, his kitchen at street level, curtains drawn open. The light coming through the window creates a glow on the sidewalk, which is otherwise lit by a lackluster street lamp. One wall prominently displays copies of Cooks Illustrated on each of the three magazine rows hanging up, while other titles are hidden in the background. Every time I pass by, I find him at his task, mise en place for the sandwiches.
Spaghetti is my sandwich equivalent. Every time I am thinking about dinner with a sense of panic, spaghetti emerges from the cabinet, quietly yet brilliantly. Long, frustrating days lead to spaghetti dressed simply with grated cheese. Cold weather means spaghetti with meatballs in red sauce. Warm weather means chilled spaghetti with lightly cooked vegetables. Dinner parties are spaghetti with seafood, or demanding sauces. The joys never cease. And though it seems demure, especially in the presence of showier relatives like farfalle or fusilli, simple spaghetti in a plastic bag delivers the pomp and circumstance I am looking for every single time.
This summer recipe relies on the balance of sweet and acidic tomatoes, smokey grilled corn, and peppery aromatic basil. These flavors remind me of summer, and yet make the meal light. This is by no means the stick to your ribs spaghetti reserved for winter time. The affair here is a reflection of what you want to feel when the sun is warm, shining longer into the evenings. Omit the chicken, if you’d like, but don’t forego finding the best tomatoes and a nice ear of corn for this meal. Best of all, it comes together in about twenty minutes, with plenty of time left for an after dinner stroll.
Summer Spaghetti with Corn and Tomatoes
Ingredients (serves two – with plenty of leftovers, or four, accompanied by a salad):
half a pound of spaghetti
one tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
half of a large onion (white or yellow), diced
a hefty garlic clove, diced or sliced
dried basil, if fresh is not available (though I advocate for fresh whenever possible)
five small tomatoes
an ear of corn, with husk
6 ounces of rotisserie or pre-cooked chicken, cut into bite size pieces
one tablespoon + heavy cream, at room temperature
lemon juice from half of a small lemon
salt & pepper
fresh basil, five to six leaves, if you are using it
1) Start cooking the spaghetti by following the directions on the package. Since half a pound is usually half the package, simply cut the water needed in half, and add a palmful (about a tablespoon) of salt. While the water is boiling, place the olive oil in a pan or pot on medium heat, and once heated add your onion. Leave the onion alone for a couple of minutes, and once it starts becoming translucent, add the garlic, and stirring often so that the garlic does not burn. Lower the heat if needed.
2) Once the water has come to a rolling boil, add the spaghetti. Make sure to cook al dente, meaning a minute or two less than the directions on the package (i.e. 7 minutes if it says ready in 9 minutes). If using dried basil, grind it lightly between your palms, over the pot, and stir it into your onion mixture. Lower the heat.
3) Cross the bottom of your tomatoes, and cover them with water in a bowl or container. Place the tomatoes and corn in the microwave for two minutes. Yes, the corn with the husk in place. After about two minutes, the corn should be ready, but your tomatoes might need more time to blanch, so give them thirty second in intervals until you can begin to see the skin on the bottom peeling back slightly. Take out the tomatoes, and place them in an ice water bath, or simply on the counter, to cool down. Let the corn cool down if it is too hot to handle, but otherwise remove the husk and silk.
4) If your pasta is done by now, drain it, reserving about a quarter cup of water. Leave it to the side, while you work on peeling the tomatoes, and chopping them. Add the tomatoes and juices to the onion mixture. Cut the corn in half, and place one half on the stove top to grill (alternatively, a grill would be helpful here). Aim for slightly grilled, so that the kernels are blistered, but not blackened all the way. Once the corn is grilled, cut off the kernels by slicing down with a knife. Add these to the pot or pan as well. Add the chicken, and let everything cook for about five to six minutes, so that the water content of the tomatoes is almost gone. Don’t stir too often.
5) Once the mixture seems as if it drying, add the heavy cream. Stir, then squeeze the lemon juice into the pan. Stir until incorporated, and if everything seems dry still, add some pasta water that you reserved. Start with one tablespoon at a time, adding as needed. Leave to cook for a couple of minutes, while you chiffonade the fresh basil. Add the spaghetti to the pot, grind some pepper, taste for salt (and adjust as needed), and toss to make sure the spaghetti is evenly covered in the sauce and chicken. Add the basil at the end, or simply on top when plating.