The tomatoes I planted last Spring were late bloomers this year; we’re still enjoying the fruits of the harvest. It’s been a sort of part time job figuring out what to do with them all. I’ve given some away, I’ll can others, and have been churning out tomato-centric dishes for weeks: eggplant and tomato gratin, tomato and cucumber salads, BLTs rolled up in whole wheat tortillas for school lunches, and my favorite, sliced with a just a sprinkle of coarse salt.
Because of all the time, care, and patience that went into acquiring these beauties, they can’t just go into any ‘ole recipe. I’m like an odd, proud parent, and need my tomatoes to end up somewhere worthy.
This Spaghetti with Tomato Basil Sauce is certainly that. It hails from a restaurant in New York City called Scarpetta. If you’ve heard of the place, it’s likely thanks to this pasta. When Scarpetta opened its doors several years ago, folks went nuts for this dish. I tried it during a visit to see my sister Annie, who lives there, and was so smitten, I insisted on a repeat visit a year later. Never mind the dozens (hundreds?) of new places to explore, it had to be Scarpetta.
My sister, who is an excellent cook in her own right, has been riffing on the famous Scarpetta Spaghetti ever since uncovering recipes for it on the internet. I was skeptical, thinking it couldn’t possibly match the real deal. But with my small storehouse of tomatoes, I figured the time was ripe. And though my dining room lacks the buzz of a New York City restaurant, (never mind the Italian wine list), the pasta is (very, nearly, almost) “that good.”
It’s a strangely simple recipe that’s become my new “go to” for company, particularly when potentially picky children are involved. It presents as little more than spaghetti with tomato sauce (a dish few kids will refuse), yet meets the flavor demands of more sophisticated palates. Plus, all of the work can be done up front, freeing you up to mingle with your company instead of sweating at the stove.
The recipe is made up of two parts: 1) tomatoes that have been peeled, seeded, and then mashed as they bubble gently on the stove 2) garlic- and basil-infused olive oil, which sounds fancier than it is, that gets drizzled on just before serving.
When friends and their kids came for dinner last week, this was on the menu. I served it with a simple green salad and sauteed chard topped with dried currants and toasted almonds. A bowl of fresh strawberries and these crazy delicious chewy chocolate meringue cookies completed the meal.
SCARPETTA SPAGHETTI WITH TOMATO BASIL SAUCE
Try this now, while good tomatoes are still available. If making it off season, Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen has had success substituting one 12-ounce can of San Marzano or organic whole tomatoes plus four fresh plum tomatoes (peeled and seeded) in place of the 25 fresh ones. Using canned also cuts out some of the labor.
• 25 ripe plum tomatoes
• ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
• 2 pinches crushed red pepper, divided
• Salt to taste
• Freshly ground black pepper to taste
• 1 large sprig fresh basil, plus 8 fresh basil leaves, chopped
• 6 large cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 ounce)
• 1 pound spaghetti
Peel the tomatoes by blanching them in boiling water for about 10 to 15 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to lift the tomatoes from the boiling water and plunge them into a bowl of ice water. Slip the skins off the tomatoes with the aid of a paring knife, if needed. Cut the litte bit of core out and cut the tomatoes in half. Use your fingers to remove the seeds. Reserve the tomatoes in a bowl as you work to catch all the juices.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in your biggest sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add tomatoes and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook the tomatoes for a couple of minutes, and then break them up using a potato masher. Do this periodically as they cook until the tomatoes are tender, and the liquid reduced, about 20 to 25 minutes. This should yield about 2 1/2 cups of sauce, and can be made up to 2 days ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.
While the tomatoes are cooking, make the flavored oil. In a small pot or pan, combine the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil, 6 whole cloves of garlic, sprig of basil, and a generous pinch of crushed red pepper. Cook over low heat for about 15 minutes to infuse the oil with flavor. Remove from heat and allow it steep until just before serving. Then, drain the oil through a sieve into a small bowl.
To finish the dish, bring a large pot of water seasoned with plenty of salt to a boil. Cook the spaghetti al dente. When the pasta is done, scoop out a bit of the pasta water and set aside. Drain the pasta.
Add the pasta to the big pan of tomatoes, along with the chopped basil, butter, and Parmesan cheese. Gently toss together until the pasta is evenly coated with the sauce. If the pasta looks like it could use a little moisture, add pasta water, a tablespoon or 2 at time. Taste, and add more salt and/or pepper if needed.
To serve, portion the pasta into serving bowls and drizzle a couple of teaspoons of oil over each bowl. Pass more Parmesan with a grater at the table.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.