By Steve Sicilliano
Mid-August is a bittersweet time for me. There is the poignancy from realizing that the bulk of the summer is in the rearview mirror and the baseball season is three quarters over. I know it won’t be long before the deck furniture will have to be stowed, the leaves on the big maples surrounding our house will begin falling, and that lurking in the weeks ahead are hours of tedious raking. But the slight sadness surrounding the awareness of a fading summer is balanced by the sweet anticipation of the boons of autumn. Before those leaves turn brown they’ll provide a few weeks of high-branching, multi-colored artwork that rival any made-made creation. Football is right around the corner, and we’ll soon be crushing, de-stemming and pressing grapes in the store’s back parking lot. And helping to ease the annual transition from summer to fall is the appearance this time of year of the highly anticipated bounty of vine-ripened tomatoes.
A favorite dish I make when those fresh tomatoes become available is a quick and easy pasta sauce that features a healthy dose of fresh basil. I cook by feel and instinct, something I call Zen cooking, so I’m afraid I won’t be providing exact measurements of the basic ingredients. But this dish is so easy to make even the most inexperienced chef will have incredible results.
I like using the biggest, ripest tomatoes I can find. Six to eight large ones will make more than enough sauce for one pound of pasta. Start by slicing a big sweet onion in quarters and gently sautéing it in some good extra-virgin olive oil in a deep frying pan. Chunk the tomatoes and toss them in the pan when the onion turns soft. Season with garlic salt, some crushed black pepper, and a couple of spoonful’s of sugar. When the tomatoes have been reduced into a sauce, toss in a big handful of the basil that, preferably, has just been plucked from the herb garden. Sugar is a key element here. It will balance the acidity of the tomatoes and help accentuate the flavor and aroma of the sweet basil. [Perch's note: a pinch or two of red pepper flakes will add a welcome kick, if you're into that kind of thing.]
I often accompany this dish with thin slices of chicken breasts that I cover in seasoned Italian breadcrumbs and broil on the grill. Look for boned breast filets that have already been thinly sliced. Dip the filets in olive oil, coat generously in the bread crumbs and then broil on high heat. It won’t take long for the filets to cook so be vigilant and turn them often so they don’t burn. The filets will be ready when the breading turns a nice golden brown.
This meal is further enhanced by thick slices of garlic bread. I like using a loaf of crusty bread that I slice lengthwise then brush with lots of olive oil and season with garlic salt and oregano. Broil the lengths of bread on the grill, again over high heat, and watch closely so they don’t burn. Remove and slice into thick, sauce-mopping chunks.