It’s an Italian phrase meaning, “how much is enough?” It usually applies to food, when it means that you use as much as you need. You use enough. How much olive oil? Parmesan? Salt? Basil? Enough. It is the kind of delightfully obvious instruction the Italians are so adept at delivering in their no-nonsense tone–“What do you mean how much? You use enough.” In the mafioso-style Neapolitan slang sometimes heard in my own Italian-American family, a nice “Capisce?!” would be added on as a rhetorical “got it?”
You use as much as you need, got it? Capisco? Do you understand?
“Quando basta” is a philosophy for cooking and living. How much? Enough. It isn’t about austerity or an “everything in moderation” ideal of balance. Sometimes “enough” is very much, indeed. But it is the right amount. No more. No less. It’s not exactly a concrete science, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s about the knowledge you gain through lived experience. How much is enough? Well, give it a try and find out.
With our garden producing a seemingly endless bounty of zucchini and cherry tomatoes, I had to get creative with my cooking. Part of my reason for wanting a garden is the relief, however slight, we might be able to realize in our grocery bills when we grow some of our own food. But this requires me to actually use what is in the garden. And not as a starting point for some complicated recipe requiring dozens of other ingredients, but as the primary ingredients. I need to use what the earth is giving me in the moment, each day, no matter what it is. I have to find a way.
In short, I have to cook like an Italian. I love Italian food, and cook it often, but I rarely cook like an Italian. By this I mean that I’m not so good about being absolutely dedicated to that which is local and in-season. And I’m not usually one for the “quando basta” approach to cooking. I don’t throw things together in fits of culinary creativity and marvel at the results. I like recipes and measurements. I like clear instructions. But with my umpteenth zucchini and yet another heap of cherry tomatoes gracing my kitchen week after week, I had to figure out something. So I dove into “quando basta,” and it was life changing.
In that spirit, what follows is a recipe that chronicles what I did, more or less, to make garden pasta with the ingredients I had on hand. It is not a recipe in that it offers precise measurements and instructions, but I hope it proves useful nonetheless (if only to remind me next summer what I did to make such yummy pasta this summer). Even without a kitchen garden, this is a great approach to cooking from the farmer’s markets or farm shares that have become so wonderfully popular. And perhaps I can even learn to change up the ingredients as August turns to September and the autumn veggies start rolling in. By that time, we’ll be darn sick of eating zucchini anyway.
QUANDO BASTA GARDEN PASTA
Garden veggies (I used zucchini)
Tomatoes (I used mostly golden cherry tomatoes with some grape tomatoes, and red cherry tomatoes)
Pasta (I used penne)
First, I turned on my Motown pandora station. I went out to the garden and gathered a heap of golden cherry tomatoes, red cherry tomatoes, and a few grape tomatoes. I picked two medium-sized zucchini. I cut a bunch of basil.
Then, I started my pasta by chopping an onion and cooking it, along with a couple of cloves of garlic, in some olive oil in a moderately hot saute pan. I didn’t want the onions to brown, so I added a little salt and “sweat” them for several minutes. I then added a little white wine to the pan, scraped up any brown bits, and let it simmer for about 30 seconds.
I sang along with the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” I also danced.
While singing and dancing, I halved the cherry tomatoes–I used a pretty good pile of them, at least two cups worth, but, you know, quando basta, use what you have and as much as you need. I put the tomatoes in the pan and let them cook for around ten minutes. I wanted them to really cook down into a nice sauce.
I put my pasta in the boiling water about two minutes into the cherry tomato cooking time.
While all of this was cooking, and the Supremes were serenading me (and probably also the neighbors as I had my windows wide open), I sliced the zucchini. I sliced it pretty thin. Being extremely fresh, it needed little cooking time. Just enough to warm it through and take the raw bite out of it. When the pasta was about two minutes from being perfectly al dente, I added the zucchini to the pan. I then added enough chicken stock to turn my pan full of garden goodness into a nice pasta sauce.
When the pasta was ready, I added it to the pan, stirred everything together, and then added a bit of the pasta cooking water to further adjust the consistency of the sauce. I stirred in a nice heap of fresh basil and a generous amount of grated parmesan.
That was it. And it was extremely good. A perfect summertime pasta dinner.
It was so perfect, in fact, I took a photo of the finished pasta in order to blog about it. But I didn’t think ahead enough to take any shots of my cooking process. Perhaps it’s for the best. Quando basta, and all. You’ve got to figure it out with what you’ve got.