Every year at just about this time I renew my obsession with tomato sauce. It’s late August, after all, and just about anyone who has ever gardened or knows people who garden is drowning in tomatoes and I am here, with my virtual bucket, eager to help you out. Don’t be too fooled by my so-called benevolence, however, as it’s really a selfish endeavor; I find spaghetti with tomato sauce to be one of the universe’s perfect meals, so I’m hardly kicking and screaming my way to the kitchen the next time the whim for a new one strikes me.
But I always think that the new one will be the one that closes the book on tomato sauce, that it will be done, that I will be able to move on and find new codes to crack in the kitchen knowing that I’ve locked in my tomato sauce nirvana. Unfortunately, these moments of spaghetti calm are increasingly short-lived. This baked tomato sauce made me happy for a few years, before curiosity got the better of me and I fell for Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce with butter and onions. Even then, I couldn’t leave well enough alone, and but seven months later was taking pity on the cheap buckets of “ugly but tasty!” tomatoes at the market, creating a heartier sauce that could be made with any tomato, whether a prom queen or not.
But the reason I’m back here today is because of what happened the day I shared that tomato sauce for you. Before I had even gone to sleep that very night, I had fallen in love with a new “gravy,” at Scarpetta, where we’d gone for dinner to celebrate our anniversary. The post had barely been up for 6 hours when I came to question if I’d been doing it all wrong, all of it, everything — good food will do that to you. In a restaurant that boasts duck and foie gras ravioli, olive oil braised octopus and innumerable four star reviews, it should say something that the spaghetti with tomato and basil is the most famed dish on the menu. It should warn you that it is exquisite, the stuff of daydreams for people like me, who find a knot of spaghetti and just the right amount of tomato sauce pasta’s highest calling. The tomato flavor is so pure, so clear, so tart and sweet and roasted all at once, I was desperate to crack the code and it didn’t take long for Google to unearth for me the secret ingredient:
Nothing. Nothing! Not onions or carrots or celery. No tomato paste, no slow-roasted garlic, no tomato variety so rare, you’ll need a second mortgage to even be allowed to look at it. The recipe for the sauce is pretty much just tomatoes, cooked until saucy. Can you sense how radical this sounded to me, how it blew my mind? The magic comes in the finishing step. While you cook your tomatoes, you steep some basil and garlic in olive oil to infuse it and add this strained, infused oil to your sauce near the end, so it retains the freshest flavor. And that’s it, that’s the seasoning. Well, that and one other tiny unmentionable. Those sneaks in the kitchen found that if they tossed the whole thing together with a small lump of butter, well, people got ecstatic about it, ecstatic enough to write 500 word essays extolling it, not that we know anyone like that. I’ll tell you this: I’ve made it with the butter, I’ve made it without the butter and both versions are excellent. But the butter wins every time, because it adds a velvety richness to the sauce that defies any need for grated… Wait, what? I just realized I am actually sitting here, typing out an explanation of why butter makes a dish better, like it’s news to any of us. Silly me. I think you know what to do from here.
One year ago: Fresh Tomato Sauce
Two years ago: Tomato and Corn Pie and Nectarine Galette
Three years ago: Marinated Eggplant with Capers and Mint
Four years ago: Stuffed Rond de Nice Squash and Double Chocolate Torte
Five years ago: Penne a la Vodka and Belgian Brownies
Naked Tomato Sauce
Inspired by Scarpetta‘s Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil
If you Google for Scarpetta’s spaghetti and tomato sauce, you will find a) that you are one of a zillion people who do the same and b) several different recipes, none that agree with one another. I roughly, very roughly, followed the version on Serious Eats, as they’d hung out in the kitchen with Scott Conant as he showed them how he does it.
The recipe below will make a thin coating for the amount of pasta listed. If you prefer a heavier sauce-to-noodle ratio, you’ll want to adjust the recipe accordingly.
Makes 4 portions, on the small side
3 pound plum tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Small handful basil leaves, most left whole, a few slivered for garnish
1/4 cup olive oil
12 ounces (3/4 pound) dried spaghetti
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, or maybe two if nobody is looking
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cut a small X at the bottom of each tomato. Blanch the tomatoes in the boiling water for 10 to 30 seconds, then either rinse under cold water or shock in an ice water bath. Peeling the tomatoes should now be a cinch. Discard the skins. Keep the pot full of hot water — you can use it to cook your spaghetti in a bit.
Cut each of your tomatoes in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with your fingertips into a small strainer set over a bowl. Ditch the seeds, reserve the juices.
Add tomatoes and salt to a large saucepan (you’ll be adding the pasta to this later, so err on the big side) and turn the heat to medium-high. There are several ways to break the tomatoes down (with your hands, chopping, an immersion blender that I don’t think Italian Grandmothers would approve of but don’t worry, they’re not in the kitchen with you anyway) but I loved Conant’s suggestion of a potato masher, as it gives you the maximum control over how chunky, smooth you want your sauce.
Once the sauce has begun to boil, turn your heat down to medium-low and gently simmer your tomatoes for 35 to 45 minutes, mashing them more if needed. If they begin to look a little dry, add your strained and reserved tomato juices.
While the tomato sauce cooks, combine garlic, a few whole basil leaves, a pinch of red pepper flakes and 1/4 cup olive oil in a small saucepan. Heat them slowly, over the lowest heat so that they take a long time to come to a simmer. Once it does, immediately remove it from the heat and strain the oil into a small dish. You’ll need it shortly.
When the tomato sauce has been simmering for about 25 minutes, bring your tomato-blanching pot of water back to a boil with a healthy helping of salt. Once boiling rapidly, cook your spaghetti until it is al dente, i.e. it could use another minute of cooking time. Reserve a half-cup of pasta cooking water and drain the rest.
Once your sauce is cooked to the consistency you like, stir in the reserved olive oil and adjust seasonings to taste. Add drained spaghetti and half the reserved pasta water to the simmering tomato sauce and cook them together for another minute or two. Add remaining pasta water if needed to loosen the sauce. Stir in the butter, if using, and serve immediately with slivered basil for garnish. We found that sauce this good, this simple and rich, needs no grated cheese.