Thursday, September 30, 2010

A fine job


Our tomatoes had a rough season this year. Summer wasn’t nearly as warm as it usually is at home, and it’s the sun – strong and in extended doses – which tomatoes need to ripen. But these little ones, the cherries, were a hardy bunch – shiny round beauties varying in shades of red and orange. They persevered through a testy summer and came out ripe and plump, ready to sliced in half and dusted with crunchy salt. When arranged with fresh mozzarella they make for a rather dreamy caprese, or, for one of my favorites, piled high on bruschetta...and, well, I could go on and on.
 
Even better, the red ones, slow-roasted in oven for a few hours, are something divine. The heat concentrates their flavor and they get this winey, jamy sweetness that melts in your mouth, similar to sun-dried tomatoes but with their own unique flavor pop. I’ve been discovering the various ways these tomatoes from our garden are put to good use with pasta, of which I want to tell you about today.

Come September we had enough for several evenings spent over plates of spaghettini with fresh tomato sauce, a meal that’s become a staple in our house in the temperate days that come within the change of seasons. For dinner one night, I pureed a bunch of the roasted ones with a large heirloom from the store, then cooked the mixture in shallots, olive oil with a bit of fat rendered from some bacon. Then, with a kick from some red pepper flakes and a few leaves of basil, it was almost like an earthier rendition of salsa all’Amatriciana, my way. 
Another time, I started with the raw tomatoes. Before, I thought you couldn’t get the right texture or flavor of the sauce without using canned ones, but I now know this is not true. To start, you chop some up and then sauté them with garlic until they relax into a sauce, just to the point where they begin to ‘melt’ and their skin soften. Once they release their juices and thicken a bit, you turn off the heat and toss the mixture with the pasta and a healthy glug of fruity olive oil, plus a few tablespoons of the cooking water to help the sauce coat each strand. So fast! So good! In fact, the trickiest part of the whole affair is getting the spaghetti perfectly al dente (I’m always afraid is undercooking but usually end up slightly overdoing it…in the end, though, no great harm is done. It’s pretty delicious no matter what).
For both, the tomato remained the star of the show, and I find more often than not it does a fine job of playing the part. Even tomatoes with lackluster sweetness will make an acceptable dish. Mario Batali says that one of the secrets to successful pasta is a light hand when it comes to saucing. Too much and the pasta becomes too heavy. This is really the key, I think. I tend to agree with Mr. Batali (who would argue with him?), but I would add that a good rule of thumb is that the more liquidy the sauce, the less you need on your pasta. It’s hard to get it just right, but when you do, you’ll know. 
We just got back from a week-long vacation to the Russian River area in Sonoma county, about 2 ½ hours South of Mendocino. It was a pleasant change of scenery, quiet like our house here but more open. The kitchen, minus the electric stove, was quite spacious as well, and we cooked dinner there almost every night, often eating outside on the deck. Also, to my delight, we had some local ducks that liked to hang on and around this log down by the dock right below our house. I only wish you could’ve seen them quacking away this morning, preening and fighting for a spot on the log. It was quite the sight.

Anyway, the day before we left I picked a whole bowlful of the red cherry ones with a plan to have a pasta night, so that’s what we did. What could be better than tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil, tossed delicately into thin spaghetti? Try it – you’ll know what I mean. It’s simple and unfussy food, but still bursting with the tastes of summer and of Italy, just how I like to eat in September. 
Note (Full Disclosure): These photos were actually from the variation I made with roasted tomatoes, but the end result looks very similar. Plus, those roasted tomatoes are so beautiful, I couldn't resist showing you a glimpse. 

Spaghettini with Fresh Tomato Sauce
Adapted, once again, from Mark Bittman

-       4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (one reserved for finishing)
-       One pound cherry tomatoes, halved (or 1 pound medium, such as roma, cored and chopped)
-       3 cloves garlic, chopped
-       10 leaves basil, shredded
-       1 pound Spaghettini or thin spaghetti
-       Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
-       Grated parmagiano reggiano, for serving (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Heat olive oil in a medium-large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for one minute, stirring often. Add the tomatoes and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes. Fish out the tomato skins once they separate from the pulp, if desired (I don’t). Add most of basil, leaving some for garnish.

Meanwhile, salt the boiling water and cook spaghetti according to the package directions (al dente, of course). Season the sauce with salt and pepper and thin with a bit of the pasta cooking water. Drain pasta and toss with the sauce and basil. Finish with a final drizzle of olive oil, and serve with grated parmesan cheese at the table, if you like.  

Serves 6.