Uncanny Tomato Sauce

Summer tomatoes and recipe for summer tomato sauce.

It's summer in Italy. Farmers in the open-air market of Florence's Piazza Santo Spirito are selling their tomatoes, just-picked, stems still scented with the nose-prickling aroma of the plant. Some varieties are named for the areas where they originated: Pachino (a small town on the southeast tip of Sicily), San Marzano (a village outside Naples), riccio fiorentino (Florentine Curled), costoluto genovese (Genoese Ridged). Others are called by their shape - pear, plum, ox-heart, lightbulb or cherry (which are always still attached to the stem). They appear at the market in every shade of maturity, from unripe green through greenish with a rosy blush to bright red.

Tomatoes just beginning to ripen (green on the verge of pink, firm and acid, with a delicate, barely tomato flavor) are the Italian choice for salads, or to slice, flour and fry. Ripe ones (any but plum or cherry tomatoes) often join mozzarella and basil to make insalata caprese, a world-class dish of simplicity and ease. Plum tomatoes will be split, scooped out and baked with a filling of garlic, basil or parsley and good olive oil. But probably the most popular use of big, summer-ripened tomatoes is in quick sauces, paired with pasta. In Florence, everyone makes the switch from canned to fresh tomatoes for pasta right around the middle of July.

There are dozens of variations on two basic themes: raw or cooked tomato sauces. The former are usually made from peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomatoes, marinated with garlic, herbs, extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Local names for raw tomato sauce can differ from region to region, but look for pasta alla checca near Rome and al pomodoro crudo elsewhere.

Fresh tomato sauces are often cooked for less time than most pasta - wonderful, since no one wants to spend a lot of time by the stove in the Mediterranean heat. In these lightly cooked sauces the only constants are tomatoes and extra-virgin olive oil. Variables include garlic or onion, basil or oregano, capers, olives or peperoncini (hot peppers). And, in summer, fresh tomatoes are substituted for canned in all the standard cooked-tomato recipes like puttanesca or amatriciana.

Garlic and fresh herbs are the flavorings in a simple tomato sauce that I routinely make in less than ten minutes. Below is the recipe, which appears in my latest cookbook, Red, White & Greens. Then try it with your own backyard beauties this summer!

July 29, 1996



Almost all tomato-sauce recipes call for at least 30 minutes of cooking, but you can make this tomato sauce in less than 10 minutes by using a large skillet instead of the conventional saucepan. The tomatoes cook faster on the larger surface of the skillet and taste fresher than sauces subjected to 45 minutes of heat. Pasta is added to the sauce in the skillet to finish cooking both pasta and sauce together. This basic tomato sauce can easily be prepared while waiting for the pasta water to come to a boil. Ripe seasonal tomatoes, preferably plum or sauce tomatoes, which have a lower water content, should be used when available, but first-rate canned tomato pulp is a fine choice for the rest of the year. Those who wish to peel fresh tomatoes should, though it's not necessary.

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes or 2 cups tomato pulp
1 to 2 garlic cloves, minced
3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt plus 2 to 3 tablespoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
5 to 6 quarts water
14 to 16 ounces spaghetti
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or any combination of fresh herbs, chopped
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for topping pasta (optional)

Peel the tomatoes, if desired, with a vegetable peeler or by blanching the tomatoes in boiling water. Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze the juice and seeds into a strainer over a bowl. Chop or process the tomatoes and add to the reserved juice. Or measure 2 cups of canned tomato pulp or drained plum tomatoes.

Put the garlic in a large nonstick skillet and drizzle with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil. Place over moderate heat and cook until the garlic barely begins to color.

Add the tomatoes to the skillet and cook over moderately high heat for 5 minutes or until the tomatoes look cooked and most but not all the liquid has evaporated. Add fine sea salt and pepper to taste.

For a smooth sauce, blend the cooked tomatoes in a food processor with the remaining extra-virgin olive oil and return the sauce to the skillet. For a chunky sauce, add the remaining oil before serving.

Bring 5 to 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons salt and the spaghetti; cook until it still offers considerable resistance to the tooth, around three quarters of the cooking time.

Drain the pasta, reserving 2 cups of the cooking water. Add the drained al dente pasta, 1/2 cup pasta-cooking water, and the basil to the skillet with the tomato sauce. Cook over high heat, stirring to mix sauce and pasta, until the pasta is cooked. Add more pasta water if the sauce becomes too dry. Serve immediately, topped with Parmigiano if desired. 

Serves 4 to 6 as a first course. 

-Red, White & Greens by Faith Willinger


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