Summertime is fast approaching, the temperature is climbing, and my culinary imagination is starting to turn to dishes that quick but tasty and require minimal cooking. Here’s one of the ‘go to’ summer pasta dishes in our house: Spaghetti with Fresh Tomatoes.
- 500g (1 lb) spaghetti
- 500-750g (1 to 1-1/2 lbs) ripe, best quality tomatoes (see Notes)
- 4-5 cloves of garlic
- 1 bunch of fresh basil, stems removed and leaves torn into bite-sized pieces
- Olive oil, q.b.
- Salt and pepper
- Red pepper flakes (optional)
The sauce should be made at least an hour ahead: take they tomatoes, cut them in half and scoop out the seeds, then chop them up into small chunks. Throw the tomato chunks into a large bowl, add a few cloves of finely chopped garlic (this is one of the few cases where a garlic press actually comes in handy), a handful of fresh basil, chopped as well, freshly ground pepper, the red pepper flakes (if using) and enough olive oil to moisten all the ingredients very well—it should almost cover them.
Let this mixture rest for at least an hour and up to three or four hours. This lets the flavors develop and meld. Leave it too long, however, like overnight, and the garlic flavor—which intensifies over time—may become overwhelming.
You need to salt this ‘sauce’ generously. Most recipes call for you to add the salt together with other ingredients. But if you are planning to leave the sauce to rest for more than an hour and/or if your tomatoes are watery, then hold off salting until about 30-60 minutes before you are ready to eat.
Once the sauce has rested, boil your spaghetti (or other pasta—see Notes below) al dente and add it, well drained, to the sauce and serve immediately. No grated cheese is needed or wanted for this dish.
Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes being a simple dish based on raw ingredients, the freshness and quality of those ingredients is crucial to the success of the dish. Most importantly, the tomatoes must not be overly watery and should actually taste like something. This dish is at its best when local tomatoes start arriving in the markets. But I have found that very small tomatoes, like cherry or grape tomatoes, or the greenhouse-grown ‘Campari’ tomatoes have excellent flavor and are not overly watery. If all you can find are those pinkish supermarket tomatoes, you may want to try another dish.
If your fresh tomatoes are young and flavorful, they can be cut up as they are and added to your mixing bowl. But if you have any doubts about them, you can also improve the flavor and texture of your tomatoes by sprinkling the chunks in salt and draining them in a colander for 30 minutes or so before mixing them with the other ingredients. This should purge them of their excess water and concentrate their flavor. If you are dealing with larger tomatoes, you may want to peel their skin, which can be tough. Peeling a raw tomato is almost impossible to do, so you may want to either blanch them very briefly in boiling water or char them over a gas flame, which makes peeling much easier.
Of course, besides the tomatoes, the basil and garlic should be as fresh as it can be and the olive oil as green and fruity as you can find it.
Variations of this basic sauce of fresh tomatoes abound: my favorite is to add some red pepper flakes, to taste, to the raw sauce. (NB: Like garlic, the flavor will intensify the longer it rests, so beware.) You can also add other typical summer ingredients like capers, olives, mozzarella, tunafish, anchovies. In addition to or instead of the garlic, some chopped white or red onion is very nice. (Avoid yellow onion, which has too strong a flavor to use raw, but if you have no other choice, soaking it in several changes of cold water will mellow it out.) A nice variation in technique is to place the raw sauce in the fridge, taking it out only just before adding the hot pasta; the combination of hot and cold produces some sort of reaction that gives the dish a very special taste.
In Roman cookery, this dish, made with slightly underripe tomatoes, olives, capers and fennel seeds, and often mozzarella and/or caciotta cheese, goes by the rather impolite name of pasta alla checca. (The word ‘checca‘ being a pejorative Roman slang word for a gay guy, perhaps a reference to the fennel seeds, since the Italian word for fennel, finocchio, is another slang word meaning the same thing.)
Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes is a classic combination, but you can also use other types of pasta with fresh tomatoes. Linguine, of course, but also those stubby, concave pastas like conchiglie work very well with this sauce—perhaps even better than long pasta, as their nooks and crannies catch bits of tomato or other ingredients.