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Pasta pairs cherry tomatoes, 'cherry-size' cheese

In a garden that’s been more miss than hit this summer, cherry tomatoes are the saving grace.

The fruits are so reliable and produce so well that it’s hard not to conscience growing these in a pot on the patio absent a garden. Add a second pot, and there’s enough not just for garnishing green salads but for an entire dish.

Pasta is an obvious way to showcase cherry tomatoes, particularly paired with bite-sized mozzarella balls known as “ciliegine.” It’s no coincidence that the term means “cherry size” in Italian.

And while it sounds strange to garnish pasta with breadcrumbs, the method creates a crunchy contrast in a dish of otherwise soft components. The following recipe from Tribune News Service calls for using leftover Italian bread, but any crusty bread could be substituted, or even panko in a pinch.

The key to pasta dishes using cherry tomatoes and mozzarella, I’ve found, is to cook the tomatoes just long enough for their skins to loosen or split. You don’t want the skins separating and falling off into the sauce. Incorporating the mozzarella off the heat keeps the cheese from getting stringy and clumping together in a melted mass.

Cherry Tomato Pasta

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 cup torn rustic Italian or ciabatta bread

Pinch each: dried basil, dried oregano

Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste

1 pound spaghetti, fettuccine or other long-cut pasta

4 cups red and/or yellow cherry tomatoes, some sliced in half and others whole

2 large cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

1 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/4 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 large handful fresh basil, thinly sliced

1 cup mini mozzarella balls

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.

While water is heating up, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When it shimmers, add the bread and pinches of dried basil, dried oregano and red pepper flakes.

Cook until breadcrumbs are toasted and golden brown, stirring occasionally, for about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer breadcrumbs to a plate.

Cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente. Set aside 1 cup pasta cooking water, then drain.

While pasta is cooking, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in same skillet.

Add the tomatoes, garlic, thyme and oregano and give it a good stir. Season to taste with the salt and pepper and add a pinch or 2 of red pepper flakes, depending on preferred spiciness. Cook until tomatoes begin to soften and pop, for about 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and cook for 1 minute.

Add drained pasta to skillet, along with a splash of pasta cooking water. Toss gently to combine, then stir in the Parmesan cheese and shredded basil. If needed, thin sauce with a little more pasta water.

Remove from heat and add the mozzarella balls and breadcrumbs. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Tribune News Service photo