- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Janet Fletcher is a wonderful cook — and she is a rebel. We know this because she has just come out with a cookbook that breaks all the conventions of modern dining. She has come out with a book on pasta.

“It’s just a wave, and I know that. Like a lot of other diet fads, eventually it will leave,” she says rather calmly, considering the seriousness of her miscalculation. Perhaps it’s the time she has spent abroad. Or perhaps it’s her life in California’s Napa Valley wine country, where she resides with her winemaker husband, who has encouraged and supported her love of good taste and balance.

She is courageous in proposing meals based on pasta when anti-carbohydrate fever has overtaken our nation. And she is optimistic in suggesting that we cook with the seasons, rather than pay $8 a pound for flavorless asparagus in December.

Will Americans accept these eccentric thoughts and forgive her? We are by history a forgiving nation. Will other renegades join her in private pasta dinners, quietly abandoning massive slabs of beef, chicken and seafood to relish the textures and versatility of penne, linguine and fusilli?

Find out soon, when her book reviews and sales come in. In the meantime, however, Mrs. Fletcher suggests celebrating summer by joining her with a few recipes from “Four Seasons Pasta” (Chronicle, 2004).

As any good teacher would, she offers tips. Try these ideas for improved pasta preparation:

• Cook pasta in plenty (6 quarts for 1 pound of pasta) of well-salted water (about 2 tablespoons of salt for 6 quarts of water).

• Don’t add oil to pasta water (with one exception, next).

• When boiling fresh sheets of pasta for lasagna or cannelloni, a little slick of oil on the water helps prevent the sheets from sticking together. But with other shapes of pasta, this is unnecessary and will inhibit pasta from absorbing the sauce.

• We can make the pasta ourselves, and this is certainly a nice idea. Or we can buy a good-quality commercially made brand. Good pasta is worth the price, Mrs. Fletcher assures us. Among supermarket brands, she likes De Cecco. For guests or special occasions, she springs for the higher-priced Rustichella, Latini and Martelli.

• Canned tomatoes are not necessarily a second choice to fresh tomatoes. During seasons when tomatoes are not flavorful, canned tomatoes are by far the better choice for sauces. Select a brand you like by tasting them. Look for canned tomatoes in flavorful, not watery, juice. Imported brands are not always better.

• When tomato sauce is too acidic, don’t add sugar. A pinch of baking soda (1/8 teaspoon to 11/2 cups tomato sauce) will neutralize the acid flavor. It will foam up, but then the foam will subside. Let it simmer for a minute or two, then taste it, and you will notice a mellower flavor.

All of this will add up to better pasta, if we dare eat it. And then there’s Mrs. Fletcher’s other offbeat habit: eating foods with the seasons so we can enjoy higher quality at lower prices.

“I love the idea of cooking with the seasons,” she says. “I got started years ago, when my husband and I lived near an Italian market. I’d stop at the produce market and get whatever I needed for dinner. The idea is to take advantage of what’s best at the farmers markets or corner markets.” And to shop inspired by the seasons, rather than in the American style of fighting against them by making precious dishes with hard-to-get ingredients.

Among our favorites: asparagus in December, red raspberries in January, tomatoes in February, all flown in from thousands of miles away, wildly expensive and poor in quality, having been harvested before peak ripeness so they are easier to transport.

When harvested in this manner, such ingredients lack the maximum nutrients possible in fresh produce. But then, Americans have proved themselves to be a people more interested in weight control than in good health.

“The most healthful produce you eat is probably produce that is harvested closest to you,” Mrs. Fletcher says. “It’s just another reason to shop at farmers markets and to cook with the seasons. You’ll also spend less. And you can keep your diet really varied throughout the year.”

Add to those thoughts the pleasure of looking forward to a dish you enjoy and the ingredients that go into it, and you have a recipe for satisfying dining.

“I think there’s a secret ingredient called anticipation,” Mrs. Fletcher says. “When you get asparagus that’s fresh, it’s really something you can look forward to.”

One of her issues is undoubtedly that she has been influenced by Europeans. “Italy is a favorite spot, largely because it’s a favored way of eating. My husband and I spent several weeks in Puglia, … and everybody has a garden or small farm. This is historically one of the poorest parts of Italy, and it was the most frugal way of eating.” Just add pasta, and the seasonal meal is complete; no expensive meat, fish or fowl necessary.

Mrs. Fletcher loves pasta, she says, because it not only showcases the seasons and seasonal produce but it is also satisfying. Because it is satisfying, she may actually eat less.

“I don’t want to sound smug, but I eat anything and everything. I think I could still fit into my wedding dress, and that was 20 years ago. But I eat everything in moderation, and I get on the treadmill five days a week. We never eat dessert. For a first course, we might nibble on some almonds with wine.

“In Italy, they don’t diet. They gather for family meals. I went to stay with a family in Abruzzi, and I cooked with the matriarch of the family. Twice a day, the family came home for a meal, and they dined together.

“I realize this isn’t something that’s practical for most urban families, but it’s something to aim for, to take time for a meal and for a connectedness that can come from it. If it’s a priority to you to get this type of connectedness, then coming together around the table could be part of that.”

The question then becomes whether we want to, whether we are interested in this type of pleasure, interested enough to strive for at least one meal together each week. Mrs. Fletcher is, and if that makes her a rebel, so be it.

“At the end of the day, what my husband and I most love to do is to open a bottle of wine, make dinner and talk.” The result, like cooking with the seasons instead of against them, is that “we have something to look forward to every day,” Mrs. Fletcher says.

The delicious recipes that follow are from the summer segment of Janet Fletcher’s new book, “Four Seasons Pasta: A Year of Inspired Recipes in the Italian Tradition.”

Pasta with a pesto of almonds, tomatoes, capers, anchovies, garlic and basil

3 tablespoons blanched (skinless) almonds

1 pound tomatoes, halved and seeded, not peeled

1/4 cup salt-packed capers, well rinsed

4 anchovy fillets

2 cloves garlic

20 fresh basil leaves

5 fresh mint leaves

1 Calabrian chili or a pinch of hot red pepper flakes

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup freshly grated aged pecorino cheese


1 pound penne rigata, gemelli or fusilli

Place almonds in a food processor; pulse until finely chopped. Add the tomatoes, capers, anchovies, garlic, basil, mint and chili or hot red pepper flakes; puree until smooth. With the machine running, add the olive oil gradually.

Transfer the sauce to a bowl, and stir in the cheese. Season with salt to taste.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta; cook until al dente. Set aside 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain.

Put the pasta in a serving bowl, and add as much of the sauce as you like. (You may not need it all.) Toss well, moistening with some of the reserved pasta water as needed. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Long pierced pasta with onions, oregano and pecorino

2 pounds yellow onions

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon dried oregano

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

1 pound bucatini (perciatelli) or spaghetti

1 cup freshly grated aged pecorino cheese

Cut the ends off the onions, halve the onions lengthwise (through the ends) and peel. Slice thinly from tip end to root end. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over moderate heat.

Add the onions and oregano, crushing the herb between your fingers to release its fragrance. Season with salt to taste. Cook, tossing to coat the onions with the oil, until they wilt slightly, about 5 minutes. Then cover; reduce heat to low; and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very soft and sweet, about 1 hour.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta, and cook until about 1 minute shy of al dente. Set aside 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and return it to the warm pot over low heat.

Add the onion sauce, the cheese and a generous amount of pepper. Toss well, moistening with some of the reserved pasta water as needed. Divide among warm bowls; serve immediately. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Tony Terlato’s zucchini linguine


3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1½ pounds small zucchini, ends trimmed, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds

1 pound linguine

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

24 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces

Pinch of hot red pepper flakes

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan or aged pecorino cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over moderately high heat. Add zucchini in batches; do not crowd in pan. Fry until zucchini rounds are golden on the bottom, about 5 minutes, then turn with 2 forks and fry until the second side is golden, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with salt to taste while hot. Reserve the frying oil.

Add pasta to boiling water, and cook it until al dente. Set aside 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and return it to the warm pot over low heat. Add the butter, basil, hot red pepper flakes and 3 tablespoons of the frying oil.

Toss well, then add the zucchini and cheese, and toss again gently, moistening with some of the reserved pasta water as needed. Serve immediately in warm bowls. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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