This current round of America’s Food Secrets has immersed me in mediocrity for all too long. It is amazing how poorly written and edited are many of these community fund raiser cookbooks which are the subject texts of our project – as they say, “you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs, if you want to find a prince!” Ah, but why bore you with my problems? I have found a worthy candidate – one that in fact provides us with a wealth of interesting historical background in the process – and it’s not even in the South!
Our current winner is from an unlikely area of our nation – Binghamton, New York, a mid-sized city of no special note, stuck midway between NYC and Buffalo. No special note, that is, until you look close enough to recognize that from the mid 1800s, the Binghamton area of the northeast has always been an area of economic stability – in fact, it attained the nickname, “the valley of opportunity”, because there always seemed to be jobs available, especially to the new immigrants flowing into Ellis Island. And chief among those immigrants seeking opportunity were the Italians, and from the late 1800s through the next half century, many thousands made their way to this valley to seek their fortune.
What was so special about the Binghamton area? There’s nothing on the map that would give you any clues. The answer lies in the fact that it was an area that was resource rich – there was abundant coal as industrial fuel, vast forests of available timber, and yet it was a rich, fertile valley of rolling hills, which easily shifted from timber forest to agricultural lands – the valley became, at the turn of the century, the nation’s premier cigar producer, producing more than 100 million cigars a year, in a time when the popularity of the cigar was at its peek – it was an “everyman” smoke.
But it was “national defense” that made Binghamton most secure – and right from the time of the American Civil War! For it was from the factories of Binghamton that the munitions of the Northern troops came – the history of the defense industry is the history of Binghamton. And as night follows day, the end of the wartime industrial effort in the 50s introduced a new era of high tech specialization in the valley of opportunity (IBM was born here). The citizens of Binghamton have always eaten well, and the Italian immigrants provided much of the innovation that was to soon make Italian food one of America’s new loves.
Ah yes, the cookbook itself is, “Favorite Recipes, St. Mary of the Assumption” – and as far as these books go, this is one of the better ones! You do get a sense of the editor’s diplomacy difficulties when you come across 4 or 5 recipes for the same dish – and in at least one case, I found one recipe that was an exact dup of another; only difference was the name of the contributor! Yeah, I’m sure the editor goes through hell getting these things to press.
As I perused the book, I was taken with just how many Italian recipes there were in here, and a little research revealed why – the valley was a magnet for the many Ellis immigrants. And the vegetable section of the cookbook was unusually large for a community cookbook – but then, I’m well aware of how good Italians are at growing things – while growing up, we often lived in neighborhoods with large Italian populations, and I became used to seeing not the usual front yard lawn, but rather, front yard gardens – and I’ve heard more than one Italian tell me, “If you can’t eat it, why grow it?”
The recipe I’ve pulled to share with you here is for “Pasta a la Caprese”. Never heard of this? Pity. It really is one of summer’s supreme treats – It’s my selection not because it evolved into something everyone knows, but because it should be more well known. It is a taste of summer, like no other tomato/pasta dish can be! And it bridges the gap between a salad and a hot pasta dish – you’ll see why in a moment.
Pasta a la Caprese is essentially an uncooked, fresh tomato pasta dish – after 10+ months of eating long simmered pasta sauces, the advent of summer provides the opportunity to shift gears and enjoy the fresh, sweet taste of dead ripe tomatoes in our pasta – and it’s a mind-blowing change.
I’m also including it now because we are just at the end of this summer’s bounty – and if you’re lucky, you have a bunch of ripe tomatoes that are still hanging on your plants, and you have already canned, frozen, and preserved as many as you possibly can. Can you really waste the rest? Well, here’s a simple way to enjoy them, and get that last reminder of summer freshness – take advantage of it.
Pasta a la Caprese
Favorite Recipes – St. Mary of the Assumption
Binghamton, New York
Lucy Johnston (maybe her daddy was an Italian!)
- 1 lb. penne, ziti, or rigatoni
- 8 oz. Mozzarella, grated
- 12 plum, or 4 large fresh tomatoes, sliced thin (about 4 cups)
- 3-4 mashed and minced garlic cloves
- 1 long thin, yellow-red Italian sweet pepper, sliced thin
- About 20 leaves of fresh basil, torn into pieces
- 1 tsp salt and pepper, or to taste (Salt and pepper are important to this dish – don’t skimp)
- Parmesan cheese, grated
- ½ cup olive oil (Yes, it’s a lot of oil – and yes, it’s necessary!)
- At least two hours before serving, combine all ingredients except for pasta and Parmesan cheese
- Let stand in a bowl at room temperature without refrigeration
- When ready to serve, cook and drain pasta
- When drained, add Mozzarella and toss lightly
- Then add sauce
- Mix quickly, but well, and serve at once
- Parmesan cheese may be sprinkled over the macaroni (Note the generic use of the term “macaroni”, always a sure sign that the speaker is definitely an Italian.)
If you have never had a fresh tomato pasta dish, I beg you to try this simple one – I promise it’ll make a convert out of you – if you simply haven’t had it for awhile, what’s the problem?