Saturday, May 12, 2012

Of Memories and Freshness: Pasta alla Formiana

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"It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato." - Lewis Grizzard

When I was in elementary school (somewhere between 1st and 3rd grade, the dates are hazy) my parents, sister and I lived in a house in Southern California that had been previously owned by my grandparents. It was a bizarre kind of doubling of childhood memories: I can remember sitting with squirming impatience on the piano bench at the long dinner table during family Thanksgiving, waiting for the moment when I would be released to sit on the back steps with my Great-Uncle, hoping he would teach me more words to “You Are My Sunshine”. On top of that is the breathless weight of lying in bed in my uniquely constructed bedroom, three walls of windows swallowing me in the hum and buzz of a summer night.

But the most lasting legacy of my grandparents’ inhabitance of that house came from a row of tomato plants that ran along the back fence. If you’ve never had a fresh-picked tomato that still carries the fuzzy green scent of its attatchment to the vine, you’re missing out: I can still taste the tartfresh slide of it against a piece of cheese and bread, the overwhelming tomato-ness of it standing up to the bite of yellow mustard.

(I never said my tastes as a child were gourmet. I still contend that yellow mustard is awesome, though I have since discovered the magic of Dijon and other varieties on a sandwich and elsewhere.)

More nostalgia and tomato-fueled deliciousness after the jump!

Now that the weather has solidly turned to spring/early summer, I can’t wait for the start of tomato season in the Bay Area—a time, prerusal of handy Seasonal Produce websites tell me, is June. However, if you can get yours hands on some ripe organic tomatoes, this recipe for Pasta alla Formiana (which, if you don’t speak Italian, translates to pasta with a crazy amount of tomatoes*) can help sate all your tomato based desires and then some. If you don’t try to break into your oven while it’s cooking, because the smell is amazing.

*Hopefully obvious this not an actual translation. I took Spanish in college.

Pasta alla Formiana
Adapted from a recipe by Giadia de Laurentis (here)


8x8 casserole dish, greased/buttered
Knife to cut tomatoes. 
Can opener, as might be obvious.
Spoon to dish the awesomeness afterwards!


2 cans petite cut diced tomatoes (28 oz all together)
8 ounces small pasta
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minched or crushed.
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4-5 tomatoes, sliced ½ inch thick
1 onion, diced and carmelized (optional but totally awesome)

Other optional additions:
parmesan cheese
frozen or fresh spinach
diced cooked chicken



As I so rarely do. I actually just made a sign, I’m sticking it somewhere obvious in my kitchen. Somewhere Anthony Bourdain is feeling inordinately pleased with himself (even more so than usual) and doesn’t know why.  So chop all the things, carmelize your onions, etc.  Now would be a good time to do the next step, because preheating your oven to 450 can take awhile.

Put oven rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 450 degrees F.

Blend together diced tomatoes and garlic in large bowl (or in the tomato can, because I am Macgyver-y like that). Add uncooked pasta, ½ cup olive oil (I sort of drizzled in a whole bunch), oregano, salt and pepper. Toss or mix gently until all the ingredients are coated. Add onions and mix again. If the mixture looks too dry, add more olive oil. You want everything to look wet enough that it won't burn in the oven.

Place half (or a little less than half) of the tomato slices on the bottom of the casserole dish. You will need the rest to cover the top of your casserole (otherwise it will burn the pasta tops and have bizarre uncooked pasta bits), so be aware of the math.

You can use the smaller pieces to sort of fill in the blank spots.

Then pour the pasta mixture into the dish and spread it evenly.


Arrange the rest of the tomatoes (hopefully you did the math right?) on to of the mixture. As with the bottom layer, any extra tomato slices can be cut smaller to use to fill in the inevitable holes when you places circles over a slightly more square space. This will also halt the dreaded "burnt and hard pasta" phenomenon.

I feel this is what a casserole would look like if Macgyver made it.

Drizzle with some olive oil. Bake until the tomatoes are slightly crispy and the pasta is cooked, about 1 hour.  Try not to die from how good it now smells in your kitchen.
Remove dish from oven and let cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.

A sprinkle of Parmesan cheese on top would be excellent, also some warmed bread to sop up all the lovely sauce/roasted tomato mushiness you’ve now made.

So many tomatoes, so little time... omnomnom.


Smelled awesome in the oven and had a complex tomato flavor, an exciting blend of roasted tomato in varying sizes. The dish can be cooked even longer (if you’re me and decide to multi-task and do some yoga that runs a little long) but you run the risk of slightly overcooking the pasta and making it mushy. Still tastes good, but do as I say, not as I did.

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