Who would’ve thought I’d be harvesting 2-3 cups of ripe, candy sweet cherry tomatoes every couple days in the middle of September? Why hello there Climate Change, are you here to stay or just visiting? But, hey, even smog can give you beautiful sunsets so, um, thanks for the yummy tomatoes? This simple sauce, with a mere 9 ingredients, (most of which are spices) is one of the hubby’s favorites. The first time I had this was actually as a side dish in a family Italian restaurant that has come and gone in the ruthless Darwinian extinction events of the LA restaurant scene. It was so delicious that I thought to myself, “Why isn’t this a main course?” Although the arrabbiata here refers to the “angry” red pepper that spices this dish, it’s really the background of the tangy tomatoes and zesty garlic the allows it to shine. Despite its simplicity, or more likely because of it, the separate flavors work together to wake up your taste buds and remind you why less can be more.
Since this summer’s heat wave has gifted us with literally pounds of succulent cherry tomatoes, I’ve used them for the sauce but this tastes just as delicious if less sweet with regular tomatoes. And while juicy ripe tomatoes may be few and far between in the winter, not to worry, you can still have these fresh flavors in the heart of February too. We all have succumbed to the siren song of canned tomatoes only to realize that while they are convenient and inexpensive, they also taste sadly flat. A lot of it is due to the fact that commercial fruits and veggies are harvested before they’re fully ripe so they can be firm enough to withstand industrial processing methods without turning inside-out first and then exploding. (And yes, if you recognize this movie paraphrase, you’re just as nerdy as I am, hehe.) So how to simulate freshness in a can? Just add a little cider vinegar which will give you a slightly sweet tang while the tomato paste provides a tomatoey depth creating something that tastes more like a ripe tomato.
A few tricks to make life easier:
1) While I like the texture and fiber added by keeping the tomato skins in the sauce, some people just can’t stand them and to each his own. An easy way to remove tomato skins is to make a shallow “X” on one end (I like to pick the side opposite from where the stem is) and then pop them in boiling water for 1 minute. The skin will peel up from the “X” mark allowing you to just slip the skin off with your fingers. If you’re using cherry tomatoes, you’ve got a lot of “X”s to make! Actually you could probably get around that too by using an immersion blender/blender/food processor to purée the sauce and give it a more uniform consistency.
2) The trick to cooking painless pasta that doesn’t stick together like a gummy mess is to have the sauce almost completely done before you start boiling the pasta water. Most sauces, unless they’re really delicate emulsions that can separate out will be happy to rest for the 15 minutes needed to boil and cook pasta. Do not boil pasta and then rinse it off in water so it can sit in the colander until you’re ready for it if you can at all avoid it. Why? Cuz rinsing the pasta also gets rid of all that sticky starch on the outside that lets your delicious sauce adhere to and flavor that lovely pasta. That’s also why it’s best not to add oil to pasta water because while it may keep the pasta from sticking together it will also coat the pasta and prevent the sauce from sticking to it as well resulting in a bland slightly greasy carb bomb.
3) Save a cup of pasta water before you pour everything into the colander. This will save you pain and hardship if your sauce is too thick or gummy without making it watery like water or broth would or making your veggies grey lifeless from having to cook down the additional broth. I find that dipping a ceramic mug into the water gives me sufficient pasta water and then I don’t have to worry about being able to aim a 10 lb hot pot as I’m draining it.
4) I like to undercook my pasta by 1-2 minutes, so chewy that it’s not even al dente (literally “to the tooth,” such that the texture is firm to the bite), allowing me to finish cooking it in the sauce so that the delicious flavors can stick to the starchy outside of the pasta giving you savory pasta with yummy sauce instead of bland pasta with a savory sauce.
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
3 tsp (3 cloves) crushed garlic
1/4-1/2 tsp crushed red pepper depending on how spicy you like it
1 1/2 + 1 tsp salt
3 c cherry tomatoes or 5-6 large ripe tomatoes or a 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes + 1 tsp cider vinegar + 1 tsp tomato paste
1 tbsp fresh (1 tsp dried) basil, finely chopped (optional)
1 lb rigatoni or other hollow pasta (ie penne)
1/4 c shredded parmesan (optional)
Heat olive oil in a 3 1/2 quart pot on med-hi heat till aromatic but not smoking. Sauté onion till soft and golden ~ 4 minutes. Add garlic and sauté till golden ~ 1-2 minutes. Add red pepper and salt and sauté for another 1-2 minutes. By heating the pepper this releases its oils which contain capsaicin, the spicy component of chili peppers.
Add tomatoes and basil (if using), cover pot and cook for 15-20 minutes till tomatoes are very soft. If the pasta is still boiling just turn off the heat and let the sauce sit till the pasta’s ready.
While the tomatoes are cooking, boil pasta water in a large, at least 5 quart pot, with remaining 1 tsp salt. Set timer for 2 minutes less than recommended cooking time. After timer goes off scoop out a cup of pasta water then drain pasta. Finish cooking pasta in the tomato sauce and add additional salt to taste. This is a very dry pasta sauce so I usually don’t need to add any pasta water but if you want yours on the saucy side (hehe) add a couple tbsp and adjust as needed to get the consistency you desire. Serve in pasta or shallow bowls and sprinkle with parmesan if using. Makes 4 servings.