As a food writer and enthusiastic cook, making dinner is often the highlight of my day. My husband puts on some music, I pour us each a glass of wine and I get into “the zone.” For me, the zone is that mental space where I am totally in the moment, not thinking about some annoying thing that happened earlier that day or what’s on my to-do list tomorrow. I’m focused totally on the manual tasks ahead, like chopping garlic or trimming green beans.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned psychologist who studies happiness, calls it “flow,” that state when you are focused, content and creative. For some people, it happens while they’re painting, or playing the piano, or gardening. My happy place is the kitchen, so I get a bit agitated when people tell me they think of cooking as a chore they don’t have time for.
But especially in summer, when the Napa Farmers Market is overrun with tomatoes, you hardly have to cook to make dinner. I’m a big fan of uncooked pasta sauces, and most of them start with chopped tomatoes. Put them in a big bowl with some salt to make them release their juices. Add handfuls of fresh herbs or arugula. Maybe toss in some Kalamata olives and crumbled feta or goat cheese. Or, instead, add some chopped capers and olive oil-packed tuna. Add the hot pasta (yes, you have to boil the pasta) and you’re done.
Here’s a recipe that demonstrates the concept. But feel free to improvise with whatever speaks to you at the farmers market. Use whole-wheat or farro pasta for an even more healthful meal.
Spaghetti with Arugula, Tomatoes and Avocado
You can replace the arugula with basil or cilantro, or use chopped fresh green chile instead of the pepper flakes. For a heartier meal, add olive oil-packed tuna or sardines. Adapted from Pasta Harvest by Janet Fletcher (Chronicle Books).
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled if desired
1/2 pound arugula, coarsely chopped
1 ripe avocado, halved, pitted, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Pinch hot red pepper flakes
Kosher or sea salt
1 pound dried spaghetti or linguine
Core and halve the tomatoes; use your fingers to remove the seeds. Slice the tomatoes thinly crosswise and put in a large bowl. Add the arugula, avocado, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, pepper flakes and salt to taste.
Toss gently and let stand while you cook the pasta, stirring the salad gently from time to time.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and add to the bowl with the tomatoes. Toss well with tongs, then serve in bowls.
Free produce bags: Help the Napa Farmers’ Market go green. Bring 10 used plastic bags to the market’s information booth and receive a reusable mesh produce bag in return. Also, please save your berry baskets and return them to the information booth or to a berry vendor at the market.