A great way to celebrate peak tomato (and basil) season
It’s been summer for a while here in North America. Which means our veggie gardens are overflowing with ripe tomatoes and knee-high basil. And every farmers’ market has mounds of both. So now is the perfect time to enjoy the classic pairing of these two warm-weather favorites.
If you add fresh mozzarella to the mix—taking an already wonderful flavor combination to an even higher level—you have the makings for Caprese salad. We eat a lot of that at our house, but sometimes we want something more substantial. Something that can also serve as a one-dish meal. Then we opt for Pasta Caprese—which is really just Caprese salad with a pasta base.
Pasta Caprese serves up healthy flavor that almost everyone likes—kids included. It’s also an easy-to-make recipe that can be ready in minutes. You won’t spend much time in the kitchen preparing this beauty. Which means you’ll have more time to enjoy all that summer sunshine.
Recipe: Pasta Caprese
Caprese means “of Capri”—that magical island off the Sorrento coast (south of Naples). Some say the colors of Caprese salad (red, green, and white) represent the Italian flag.
Pasta Caprese allows for flexible measurements—you can vary quantities of ingredients to suit your taste. But you really want to use only the ripest tomatoes and best tasting, freshest mozzarella (they give the dish much of its flavor and pizazz). And use only fresh basil—the dried stuff won’t work in this dish.
There are several ways to make and serve Pasta Caprese. Some people prepare the dish ahead of time, chill it, then serve it cold. Others cook the tomatoes a bit to make a sauce. We opt for a middle-way method (our version isn’t as piping hot as one with a cooked sauce, but the cooked pasta makes it nicely warm nevertheless). We offer some alternative recipes in the Notes.
This dish takes 20 to 30 minutes to prepare.
This recipe serves 2 to 3 as a main course, or 4 to 6 as a first course. Leftovers will keep for a day or two if stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
- 8 ounces dried pasta (any shape will do, although we prefer something with character, like farfalle—butterfly shaped—or rotini; may substitute fresh pasta—see Notes)
- 1 tablespoon salt for pasta water
- 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced finely (optional; see Notes)
- ~8 ounces cherry tomatoes (to taste; you may want to reserve several for garnish)
- salt to taste (a few pinches)
- freshly ground black pepper to taste (a few pinches)
- ~6 ounces fresh mozzarella (the kind that comes packed in water—see Notes; to taste)
- 3 to 4 tablespoons fresh basil, minced (or to taste; see Notes; may want to reserve a bit for garnish)
- Fill a 4-quart cooking pot half full with water. Bring to a boil. Measure out the pasta. Measure out a tablespoon of salt to add to the pasta water (but don’t add it yet).
- While the water is coming to a boil, add the extra virgin olive oil to a large mixing bowl (one large enough to hold all the cooked pasta). Peel the garlic, if using, and mince it finely. Add the minced garlic to the bowl.
- Wash the cherry tomatoes and cut them into halves or quarters. Add the tomatoes to the bowl with the oil and garlic.
- Add salt and black pepper (to taste) to the tomatoes, and toss all together.
- By this time, the water should be boiling. Add the measured-out salt (Step 1) and the pasta to the water. Reduce the stovetop heat enough to just maintain a boil, then cook the pasta until done (see package instructions—it usually takes 7 minutes or so to reach the al dente stage).
- While the pasta is cooking, do the following: Toss (or stir) the tomato/olive oil combo a couple of times. Cut the mozzarella into slices measuring half an inch or so (or tear it into pieces of ½ inch to an inch); set aside. Wash the basil and mince it (the easiest way is to roll bundles of basil into cigar shapes, then chop them with a knife).
- When the pasta is cooked, pour it into a colander to drain. Then add the drained pasta to the mixing bowl and toss it together with the tomatoes. Add the basil, and toss again.
- Plate the Pasta Caprese, portioning out the mozzarella pieces among the serving plates. Garnish (if desired) with reserved cherry tomatoes and/or basil.
- This recipe requires you to juggle several things at once (see Step 6, in particular). If you don’t want to feel rushed, do your prep work (cutting the mozzarella and mincing the basil) before you add the pasta to the boiling water in Step 5.
- You can substitute fresh pasta for dried in this dish (and the flavor will be a bit better). Just remember to adjust the cooking time—fresh pasta cooks much quicker than dried.
- If you don't want to use cherry tomatoes for this recipe, substitute regular tomatoes and cut them into bite-sized chunks.
- Use fresh mozzarella in this dish (it’s typically sold in a tub, covered in water). Don’t use the kind that you grate or slice and serve on pizza.
- If you can find mozzarella di bufala (made from water-buffalo milk), we recommend using it in this dish. The flavor is wonderful! But it’s not always easy to find, and it is always more expensive.
- You can use more basil than indicated in the recipe—we often use more simply because we like it so much (and we have vast quantities growing in our garden). But the recipe as written yields a nicely balanced dish.
- Be sure to add the basil right at the end. That way you preserve its fragrance and flavor. Also, mince it as close to serving time as you can—otherwise it may discolor.
- BTW, basil wilts very quickly after you pick it. If we pick ours more than a few minutes ahead of time, we usually place the stems in a cup of water (like a bouquet of flowers) until we're ready to use it.
- Garlic really is optional in this recipe. You will taste raw garlic. So if that doesn’t appeal, leave it out.
- Alternatively, you can sauté the garlic, which mellows the flavor. If you do this, you might want to make a version of Pasta Caprese with a cooked sauce (see next bullet).
- For a cooked sauce Pasta Caprese: While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the minced garlic and cook for about 2 minutes. Then add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and cook. You can smash the tomatoes with the back of a spoon to break them down if you wish (I prefer not to, but it does give you a bit of tomato sauce). When the pasta is finished cooking, reserve ½ cup or so of the pasta water. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet (or if the skillet won’t hold it all, add it to a bowl along with the contents of the skillet). Toss together, and add as much of the pasta water as necessary to make a sauce. Add the minced basil and the mozzarella pieces, and serve.
- If you want to serve cold Pasta Caprese, just make our recipe as directed. Then chill the dish in an airtight container for a couple of hours before serving. Some people like to add a bit of lemon zest to the cold version of this dish (add it when you add the basil).
“Um, love these luscious ripe tomatoes,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, forking her Pasta Caprese.
“They’re the taste of summer,” I agreed. “Along with basil.”
“Too bad we had to buy these particular tomatoes,” said Mrs K R. “Since the squirrels got most of our crop.”
“Don’t remind me!” I groaned. “I thought we had the perfect defense against squirrels this year. Remember, we discussed it in our post on White Bean, Tuna, and Swiss Chard Salad.”
“Yeah,” said Mrs K R. “Those protective cages with heavy-gage plastic mesh. What happened?”
“Little varmints are chewing right through the mesh,” I said.
“Ah, yes,” said Mrs K R. “I should have known. So I guess this means we have a really healthy, sustainable cycle going.”
“How do you figure that?” I asked.
“Well, we get to enjoy the sunshine and the great outdoors while tending our tomato garden,” said Mrs K R.
“Then the squirrels eat the tomatoes . . . ,” I said.
“Providing them with high-quality, organic nutrition,” added Mrs K R.
“Right,” I said.
“Then we get aerobic exercise when we walk to the local farmers’ market to buy tomatoes for ourselves,” said Mrs K R.
Win win. Or something like that.
You may also enjoy reading about:
White Bean, Tuna, and Swiss Chard Salad
Pasta alla Norma
Summer Pasta Salad
Pasta, Bean, and Tuna Salad
Quick and Easy Gazpacho
Chilled Cucumber Soup with Yogurt and Dill
Or check out the index for more recipes