Described as “Italy’s national dish” by Christopher Boswell, executive chef of Rome’s Sustainable Food Project and enjoyed, according to restaurateur Lucio Galletto, “from the small islands south of Sicily to the mountain villages high in the Alpes”, pasta al pomodoro has a lot going for it. It’s cheap to buy, easy to prepare and absolutely delicious to eat – and, being Italian, it comes in more varieties than HJ Heinz could dream of, meaning there’s a pasta al pomodoro to suit everyone from the pouty-faced little boy tomato to voracious runner. But, as with many simple dishes, the devil is in the details. So what is the secret to success?
As the tomato season is sadly over for another year, at least in the UK, I have chosen to concentrate on recipes that use only canned fruit, rather than fresh (if you live somewhere where decent fresh tomatoes are still easy to pass up). , I beg you to order me a salad).
Most of these recipes call for whole San Marzano tomatoes, a plum variety grown in Campania, southern Italy, whose sweet flavor and meaty flesh has been honored with EU PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, giving means that all tomatoes sold here under the name must come from the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino region. The San Marzanos are the Rolls-Royces of the gastronomic world: they are the best, and everyone knows it.
However, they are also quite expensive. If you can’t get these and have to settle for the private label tomatoes from your local supermarket, or the more widely available Cirio variety, don’t worry too much. The difference is marginal once cooked into a sauce and nothing a judicious use of seasoning can’t make up for.
Only one recipe calls for diced tomatoes, instead of whole tomatoes. J Kenji Lopez-Alt, on the Serious Eats website, finds that diced tomatoes don’t break down properly during cooking, and I find them runny, so I don’t usually use them, though again, you can if that’s what you’re after. want. have on hand. On the subject of hands, Serious Eats also suggests using them to mash tomatoes to create a coarser texture than would be possible with mechanical means, while Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi deploy a potato masher. But for this particular purpose, I prefer a smoother sauce (it sticks to the pasta better) and a hand mixer is ideal for the job. Whipping the finished sauce, rather than just the tomatoes, as renowned Italian food writer Anna Del Conte recommends for Emilian’s recipe in her book Pasta, ensures a perfectly even result, with no small clumps of vegetables to interrupt the perfect harmony of the sauce. sauce and spaghetti.
Del Conte adds a tablespoon of tomato puree for good measure, but my testers find his recipe a bit rich. Turns out, you can have too much of a good thing, as Serious Eats’ sauce also confirms, simmering low and slow in the oven for five to six hours, until it’s jammy and thick in Italian-American “red sauce.” style. Both are absolutely delicious, but they are too much in such a simple dish: they cry out to be balanced with meat and/or vegetables instead of just pasta.
On the cooking process, which should take about 40 minutes depending on the tomatoes, Rachel Roddy’s mother-in-law, Carmela, has some great advice at Roddy’s Two Kitchens: “The sauce should be cooked on a low heat that makes you look under the pan. “. to see if the flame has gone out, until a red burp on the surface reassures you that all is well.
The recipes I try fall into two camps: those seasoned with garlic and chili, which feels like a more southern style (although I’m willing to be corrected on that), and those that start with the traditional base of stir-fry onion, celery and carrot. sautéed until soft, as in Del Conte sauce and the Roman version of Caldesis, or tossed right in with everything else (and then, in the case of Lopez-Alt, removed before serving). Certainly, as Boswell and Sarah Grueneberg’s sauces show, you can make a perfectly delicious sugo di pomodoro with nothing more than tomatoes, oil, and garlic, but testers find them a little tart when tried alongside the rest—nothing you can’t. it’s resolved with a dash of sugar, of course (and if it’s good enough for Del Conte, it’s good enough for me). But if you’re willing to spend an extra 10 minutes on the stove, it’s better to take advantage of the sweetness of the carrots and onions (preferably red, as Galletto recommends in The Art of Pasta). After all, you can never have too many vegetables.
The traditional onion, celery and carrot stir-fry base adds an extra sweetness that many testers prefer. Photograph: Dan Mathews/The Guardian. Food design/Iona Blackshaw.
The aforementioned chili is an optional extra – most recipes with more vegetables, with the exception of Lopez-Alt, don’t include it, but I prefer a bit of heat in such a simple dish.
Herbs are, in my opinion, a non-negotiable anyway: spicy parsley proves marginally more popular with simple garlic and chili sauces, while sweeter basil is a clear winner with the others. López-Alt’s dried oregano is, as he puts it, “an indispensable element of a good Italian-American red sauce,” but it’s a bit jarring in this simpler version.
The same goes for Del Conte’s red wine, and the pork fat and beef broth in Caldesis’s finto (or faux) meat sauce. Both would make great bases for other dishes, but are too rich for a simple pasta al pomodoro.
Fat, whether shortening, butter, or oil, is an important ingredient in itself: Del Conte’s recipe calls for two tablespoons of butter and four of oil for three to four servings, in The Geometry of Pasta, Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy say that their rich tomato sauce is ready when “the [five tablespoons of] the oil has gone all the way up.” Testers go for the slightly lighter versions, but a certain amount of oil (my preference here) is needed to give the sauce body.
Herbs are not tradeable; basil or parsley are the best options. Photograph: Dan Mathews/The Guardian. Food design/Iona Blackshaw.
Last but not least, for a smooth sauce like this, experts recommend spaghetti, though richer, thicker sauces like Del Conte’s can take shorter forms like macaroni or penne. I recommend taking a tip from Boswell and Grueneberg and finishing the pasta in the sauce itself, allowing it to soak up some of the tomato flavor and thickening the sauce in the process. (This doesn’t mean you can’t make the sauce ahead of time, of course; it helps to have it in the fridge. Just reheat it and add the parboiled pasta as shown below.)
Serve with extra basil and a generous layer of grated Parmesan, grana padano, or pecorino cheese, depending on your taste and budget, or sliced straight from the pan as-is. It’s really that good.
Perfect pasta al pomodoro
Homework 5 minutes
Cook 50 minutes
It serves 4
1 medium carrotwashed
1 stick celery
1 red onionbare
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oilplus a little extra for serving
2 garlic clovespeeled and shredded
1 teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
2 cans of 400g whole plum tomatoespreferably San Marzano
2 sprigs of fresh basilplus extra to serve
320g-400g spaghettidepending on whether it is a first or second course
Chop the carrot, celery and onion into very small cubes (a food processor is the easiest way to do this, but be careful not to reduce it to a mush; to avoid this, start with the carrot, then add the celery and once the onion is coarsely chopped).
Heat the oil in a wide, deep, heavy-based skillet (which should also be large enough to hold the pasta) over medium heat, then sauté the vegetables until soft, but not brown. Add the garlic and chili, if using, and cook for another minute or so.
Mash, chop, or mash the tomatoes in the pan along with their juices and basil, and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat until just an odd bubble rises to the surface, and cook for about 40 minutes, until thickened. Turn off the heat, remove the basil and discard, then mix with a hand mixer until smooth, keeping in mind that it will be hot. Season to taste and bring back to a simmer.
Cook the pasta in a large saucepan of boiling salted water for about six minutes, until doubled but still chalky in the middle. Drain well, reserving a cup of the cooking water, and transfer to the pureed sauce. Stir and cook for another six to eight minutes, or until to your liking, stirring regularly to ensure it doesn’t stick and adding a splash of the reserved cooking water if the sauce becomes too thick.
Divide between bowls and serve with a drizzle of extra oil, a few scattered basil leaves, and some grated cheese.
Pasta al pomodoro: is there a simpler and more delicious dish in the Italian repertoire, or do you prefer it with meat or extra vegetables? Are you a garlic and chili or stir fry and red wine person, and what else should I do with my happy surplus of sugo di pomodoro?