Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Fresh Tomato Sauce a la Scarpetta and Smitten Kitchen

I have been richly blessed this summer to get an abundance of lovely fresh produce, both from people's garden and from various farmer's markets.  This has necessitated new and different ways to utilize the goodies!  The other day, Smitten Kitchen posted a fresh tomato sauce inspired by Scarpetta's Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil, a much-beloved dish.  It sounded heavenly!  I set out to make the stuff...

SK's recipe calls for plum tomatoes, as does Scott Conant's (Scarpetta is his baby).  I decided that I have seen such exquisite tomatoes around that I would use what I could get fresh here in my town.  This ended up being about half heirloom tomatoes and half plum tomatoes, both of which looked perfect!  I can tell you from the outcome that this dish is a keeper.  I melded SK's version with the Scott Conant versions I found online, tweaking to my liking.

You can do much of this ahead of time, refrigerating the unfinished sauce until you're ready.  It seems to me that you could get it two-thirds of the way finished and then freeze, but I haven't tried that yet.  In any case, the recipe quantities say that this makes 4 smallish portions.  If you're serving it for company, I'd recommend either using this as a true pasta course, or supplementing with a lovely salad.

Fresh Tomato Sauce a la Scarpetta and Smitten Kitchen:

  • 3 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes (if using plum tomatoes, Conant says you'll have about 20)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (This is lighter than the recipes I saw, but Conant recommends going lights as the salt will concentrate as the tomatoes cook.)
  • 1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced, or a couple of smaller ones, thinly sliced
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flake
  • Small handful fresh basil leaves, with a couple of extras for garnish
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup or so grated good quality parmigiano (Reggiano if you've got it, but I used an artisanal one that was nice, and it was shredded.  It was a little different in texture than the grated would have been, but still quite good.)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (or 2, if you're feeling like a richer sauce)
  • freshly cracked black pepper to finish
  • enough pasta for 4 servings (I used whole wheat spaghetti-- Ronzoni Healthy Harvest)
Bring a large pot of water to boil.  While waiting on this, take each tomato and cut a small "x" in the bottom.  When the water has come to a boil, immerse each tomato for 10-30 seconds (you should see the skin begin to crack), then either immerse it in a bowl of ice water or run it under very cold tap.  Peel the tomatoes, discarding the skins.  If you're cooking the sauce and pasta all in one fell swoop, Smitten Kitchen recommends keeping your pot of water to use for cooking the pasta later, which is an excellent way to save water.

Cut each tomato in half lengthwise, then get the seeds out.  I use a combination of squeezing gently, then scooping.  Do this over a strainer set in a small bowl so that you'll have the juices for the sauce.

Put your tomatoes and salt into a good-sized saucepan (non-reactive, of course).  You can either add the pasta to this later, which means you'll need a larger one, or later use a large skillet.  In any case, put the heat on medium-high and start breaking the tomatoes down.  Conant does this with a potato masher, but you can use an immersion blender or whatever tool you like, getting it as chunky or smooth as you like.

Bring the sauce to a boil, then turn the heat to medium-low, simmering for about 35-45 minutes.  If they need to be broken down more, now is the time.  Add some of your reserved tomato juices if the sauce starts to look too thick.  [If you're making the sauce ahead of time, I'd stop here after about 35 minutes of cooking.  Place your sauce into a container, then refrigerate until you're ready to finish.]

Add your garlic, most of the basil leaves,  and the red pepper flake (crushed in the palm of your hand to release more heat, and use more than a pinch if you want more heat) to the 1/4 cup of olive oil in a small saucepan.  Have your burner on the lowest possible setting so that the flavors slowly infuse into the olive oil as it comes to a simmer.  You should begin to smell everything a bit before it simmers.  Remove it from the heat as soon as it does.  Strain the oil into a vessel to use shortly.

[If you've prepared the sauce ahead of time, pull it out of the fridge now.] Boil water for your pasta, adding salt for flavor.  Once the water is boiling and the pasta has been added to the pot, I put the tomato sauce into a skillet on low heat, stirring occasionally.  Cook the pasta until it is al dente (or "very firm" as my package said), then drain it, reserving a half cup of cooking water.

When the sauce is your preferred thickness, add your flavored olive oil a bit at a time, checking for seasonings as you go.  Use as much or little of the olive oil as you prefer.  Add your pasta and 1/4 cup of the cooking water, tossing them together with tongs and cooking for 1-2 minutes.  Toss in the butter (if using), letting it completely incorporate into the sauce, then the cheese (if using).  Plate each portion, topping with some basil and some freshly cracked black pepper.


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