Ugly Food Rescue: Turning Bruised Tomatoes into Delicious Pasta

From by Bill Daley
Try these quick dinners made with pantry staples

Matthias Merges set out for the Green City Market in Lincoln Park wondering what would pair with two tidy mounds of homemade pasta, one a fettuccine made with basil from his garden and the other a hand-torn smoked red chile pappardelle, sitting under a dishtowel in the kitchen of his home in Old Irving Park. What he found were some banged up peaches, blemished tomatoes and ears of corn too stripped of their husks for most shoppers. All for $4.

Merges, of course, had a dazzling array of vegetables and fruits at the peak of freshness, flavor and beauty to choose from at Chicago's most famous farmers market. But Food & Dining had asked the acclaimed chef behind A10, Billy Sunday, Lucky Dorr and Old Irving Brewery, to take part in an ongoing video series aimed at reducing food waste, called "Ugly Food Rescue." His challenge: Shop a farmers market and buy vegetables and fruit people would pass by either because they were too "ugly" or too ripe or too bruised or too little known. These products are often referred to as seconds or, as one market vendor exclaimed, "farmer's choice."

"We're looking for seconds and things that people don't really want to use but I'm telling you, some of the things you find here that are seconds or blemished are awesome to use at home,'' he said enthusiastically.

Indeed. I watched as Merges stood with Steve Freeman of Nichols Farm and Orchard, one of the more well-known vendors at farmers markets in the city, admiring the Mirai sweet corn. One ear was marred by a blackened spot no bigger than a kernel or two. Another had an end that looked a bit torn up, while a third had too much husk stripped away. All were seconds that would be easily dealt with in the kitchen. The ripe yellow tomatoes splotched with black spots looked more problematic to me, but Merges didn't seem at all bothered. He'd peel them back in his kitchen and see what he ended up with. Problems solved.

Merges said he likes to shop a farmers market for perishable items knowing he has staple items back home. In this case, the two pastas, some grana padano cheese, garlic, shallots and lots of mint and basil in his backyard garden.

His approach to the two pastas was similar in technique although the flavors and textures were different. With the summery basil fettuccine he chose to highlight the bright crunch of just-cooked corn kernels, the umami richness of tomatoes, and the powerful perfume of basil leaves and basil seeds plucked from his garden. With the smoky chile pappardelle he chose a sweet-hot interplay by cooking the farmers market peaches in bacon fat and spiking them with slivered Thai chiles before garnishing with mint from his garden.

Both pastas could make quick, weekday meals -- and Merges had no problem presenting both pastas at once.

"It's deliciousness and more deliciousness as far as I'm concerned,'' he said.

Twitter: @billdaley


Smoked chile pappardelle

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 2 servings

Each recipe feeds two. Make both at the same time and you'll feed four. A pro tip from Merges: Get all your ingredients ready, put the water on to boil for the pastas. Cook up each recipe and set aside. Don't worry about the vegetables and fruits getting cold; the hot pasta will warm them right back up again. Don't have any homemade fresh pasta? Don't worry! Look for something similar, fresh or dried, at your favorite market.

1 tablespoon bacon fat

1 shallot, minced

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Pinch salt

8 ounces, peaches, trimmed of any soft spots or bruises, pitted, sliced

2 Thai red chiles, destemmed, seeded, cut into very thin slices.

7 ounces smoked chile pappardelle

20 whole fresh mint leaves

1. Heat a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat.

2. Meanwhile, melt bacon fat in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat; add shallot and cook until soft. Season with pepper and a pinch of salt. Add peaches and red chiles and heat the peaches through, about 3 minutes; you want some juice to exude but don't let the fruit fall apart. Set aside.

3. Cook the pappardelle in the boiling water until done, about 3 minutes; drain. Lightly toss pasta with the peaches and chiles. Adjust seasonings. Garnish with fresh mint leaves.



Basil fettuccine with corn, tomatoes, fresh basil

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 2 servings


2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, sliced

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

Pinch salt

1 ear corn, husked, trimmed, kernels cut from the cob (about 1 cup corn kernels)

1 red tomato, cored, diced

1/2 large yellow tomato, trimmed of blemishes and bruises, cut into eighths, peeled

7 ounces fresh basil fettuccine

12 fresh basil leaves

1 tablespoon basil seeds

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon butter

Grana padano cheese


1. Heat a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat.

2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, about 30 seconds. Season with pepper and a pinch of salt. Add corn kernels; saute until just heated through, about 1 minute. Stir in chopped red tomato. Cook briefly until heated through and the tomato juices begin to create a pan sauce. Add the yellow tomatoes. Set aside.

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3. Drop fettuccine into boiling water. Cook until done, about 3 minutes. Drain; toss with corn and tomatoes. Garnish with basil leaves, basil seeds and rosemary. Stir in butter for richness. Season to taste. With a vegetable peeler, thinly slice grana padano on top of the pasta. Serve.