This post just goes to show that inspiration for anything can come from anywhere. That includes being inspired to create an Italian pasta dish while dining on vacation in the mountains just outside of Bogotà, Colombia.
Before I embarked on this journey, I was told to take advantage of the fresh fruits and vegetables that are available year ‘round while in Colombia. Once we made our way through the hills from the airport to our apartment for the next week, I realized I was in for a heavenly treat; the climate seems perfect to grow just about anything. Plants that need a little extra heat (tomatoes, basil, cucumbers) might require a greenhouse, but the lush greenness of everything around Bogota seems to invite every seed in the world to settle down there and plant some roots. When it came time for our first meal, I didn’t automatically think, “I want something Italian,” but I was a guest in the country and my basic rule is that, if someone I know and love wants me eat something somewhere (in this case, La Contadina), then I am up for it.
I was grateful to be reading some Italian, actually, as I reviewed the menu. My Spanish is really only good enough to order food and even then I sometimes struggle, especially when it comes to regional fare (try translating ajiaco or calentado into English). Everyone had suggestions (mostly gravitating to the baked macaroni), but I had vegetables on my mind. There were lots of pasta options, which are usually not my go-to, but one kinda stood out to me. Linguine, shrimp, assorted vegetables, no cream. Perfect.
I was so happy when it arrived. There was this plate heaping with perfectly cooked pasta, studded and layered with asparagus, fresh peas, tomatoes, garlic, basil and the most beautiful shrimp. There was considerable plate envy from my dinner mates.
I don’t make pasta very often, but when I do, I usually try to do something new with it. This time, I consulted some recipes on Epicurious and in the Joy of Cooking, but I also tried to remember what made the dish at La Contadina so special. A couple of simple rules: use the nicest vegetables you can fine and the freshest basil known to the kitchen (from your own herb garden). Cheese is optional (I know how finicky some are about fish and cheese together), but I like the way that the parmesan adds salty richness to the dish.
Here’s the basic method:
Get a big pot of salted water going on the stove. Once you have it at a boil, drop in a generous bunch of asparagus (trimmed and cut into roughly one-inch pieces), as well as a few handfuls of sugar snap peas in the pod (cleaned and left whole). The point of this cooking is to blanch them – cook them just enough to enhance their green color and take the raw edge off. It should take no more than a minute. After that minute is up, pull the vegetables out of the boiling water with a slotted spoon or strainer with a handle (some call it a spider) and drop them into a bowl of ice water (more ice than water) to stop them from cooking and becoming mushy.
Next, start the sauce. Drop 3 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil (or whatever combination you like) in a reasonably large pot that will hold a pound of cooked pasta with room for the vegetables and sauce. Add a ton of chopped garlic (5-7 cloves) to the butter and oil when it is hot and bubbling; stir until fragrant. Add a rough pound precooked shrimp to the butter and oil and reduce heat to low (you just want the shrimp to warm up and lend flavor to the fat).
In the meantime, drop a pound of dry pasta (I used linguine because I prefer long pastas to things like penne or fusilli) into the boiling water. While the pasta cooks, halve a good couple of handfuls of grape tomatoes. Drain the asparagus and peas and add tomatoes to the mix. Once the pasta is cooked to al dente, drain immediately; do NOT rinse.
Add all vegetables to the butter/oil/shrimp mixture, along with 3/4 of a cup of chicken, fish, or vegetable stock, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring the mix just to a boil and immediately add the pasta – this is the stage that makes the dish; the starch of the pasta will mix with the vegetables and sauce to create a silky, rich, delicious concoction that will have you asking why you would ever need to add cream.
Just before serving, add some chopped or julienned fresh basil and serve with (optional) grated or shredded parmesan cheese.