Alright bitches. Time to earn my keep. If there is one recipe I can convey to provide you pleasure, this is it.
First, a little backstory. When I was living in Rome in 1990 I had an apartment near Piazzale degli Eroi. During our afternoon break I would walk home from school, stopping at the outdoor market on Via Andrea Doria to pick up fixings. It was here where I received my first introduction to the farm-to-table lifestyle. Despite being in a massive city, the goods were artisanal, fresh and downright enviable. Maybe I am romantic, but my memory of the goods was epic – pasta, produce, meats, cheeses – I can still smell the place now.
Andrea Doria Market, Rome
The apartment complex had maid service. On occasion a grandmotherly maid would be cleaning when I returned with my market goodies and prepared my lunch (get your head of the gutter people, this isn’t going to end that way). One day I was making a tomato sauce in my usual fashion. Frankly, I was quite inconsistent back then. It was always too sweet or too garlicky, too bitter or too acidic. I didn’t have control. The maid had clearly been frustrated by how I tortured those poor tomatoes because she stepped in. She showed me that I needn’t chop any onions or garlic in the sauce. Rather, sauté them whole in olive oil to impart flavor and then take them out. She showed me how to finish the pasta in the sauce to absorb more flavor.
The next day she brought me a proper can of San Marzano tomatoes. She said she was impressed that I was cooking, as her son was lazy (and clearly still lived with her). Now, I’m not gonna get all “Tuesdays with Morrie” on you here. She did show me some other tricks during that time, and I felt a kinship with her, but the situation was far from any romantic notion of good storytelling. Basically she found me a curious oddity and shared some common sense that everyone in Italy is probably taught in preschool. And what I took home was a damn good start to my spaghetti.
This is NOT My Maid
The next stage of this recipe came courtesy of Craig Stoll at Delfina. Despite the fact that I was eating there from Day 1 (literally, i was there on the first public day) Craig wouldn’t know me from Adam, aside from an occasional nod. But I really loved his spaghetti. Clean, simple, true flavors. Imagine my surprise when I was handed a card at the farmer’s market with his recipe. I’ve always been impressed at how freely he shares them (the brandade is another of my favorites). What I discovered is that Craig was following most of the principles that my maid friend had taught me. I tried his, I tried mine, I compared details and ultimately came to a happy medium.
So here it is. I first wrote this down as part of a wedding present for my cousin and included all of the ingredients and some cooking equipment to make it. As with all of my recipes, it’s about touch and feel and concepts. You’ll have to play around with quantities and do a lot of tasting.
San Marzano Roma Tomatoes
First and foremost, you must use high-quality San Marzano Roma tomatoes, imported from Italy. Look for “D.O.P” on the lable. This means that they are certified. These are going to cost between $4-6 per can. Don’t be fooled by any other brand. Sure they MIGHT be similar, but why take a chance? I know this flies in the face of the locavore ideal, but there are exceptions to every rule. Italian tomatoes are just better.
In a deep-sided saucepan heat a substantial amount of EV olive oil. Not too hot. Add whole, smashed garlic (or two halves of a small onion, both will work and provide slightly different results). If you want heat and a little smokiness, you can also add some whole chilies. Cook low and slow, covered. Do not brown. You’re trying to get the flavor into the oil. This takes some time. At least 20 minutes, possibly longer.
Cooking Garlic and Chilies
In the case of garlic, you can remove it now. With the onion and the chilies, I’ll often leave them in the pan with the sauce until it’s ready to serve. Now add your tomatoes right into the oil. There are two ways I approach this. The maid taught me to pour them through my hand, grinding them up before adding them to the sauce. Craig uses a food mill after the tomatoes are cooked. I actually prefer Craig’s method here. The texture is a little smoother, which I like. Let the sauce cook until the oil is incorporated. Depending on how much time you’ve left yourself, you can get away with anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours. The longer the better.
Next you’ll want to remove any remaining items (onions or chilies) and salt to taste. You can also add basil here if you’re into it. I personally don’t like the shock of basil in a bite of pasta, so I’ll chiffonade it to distribute it more evenly, if I use it at all. If you’ve used the right tomatoes, the sauce should be flavorful enough to inspire gobbling. There really isn’t much to it, is there? But you’re not done yet. Cook your pasta in a big honking pot of water SALTED WELL. Don’t skimp on the salt in your pasta water, it imparts flavor. Cook the spaghetti until it is just starts to limp, but has a deep chew or crunch when you bite it. Not al-dente here, more like half done.
A note about spaghetti. For this dish, you’ll want to use dry. Fresh pasta will absorb too much sauce and go limp. You also need the bite of al-dente pasta to nail the texture. Start with a De Cecco quality spaghetti and work your way up from there. Don’t go with the generic supermarket brands. A quality pasta is worth the extra expense. I love Rustichella D’Abruzzo. There are also a lot of artisanal, designer brands out there. Live a little and try them.
Take another sauté pan and add some of your tomato sauce on medium high heat. Using tongs, remove the spaghetti from the water, directly into the pan. Don’t be afraid of getting water in the pan – you’ll want some. Add enough sauce and water to just cover your spaghetti (I use about 2/3 sauce to 1/3 water). Continue cooking until the sauce reduces down and the pasta is perfectly al-dente. Transfer the spaghetti to a warm plate and serve with parmigiano reggiano cheese (don’t you dare put anything but the finest aged parmigiano on this pasta or stop reading my blog now, you hear me?).
The End Result, Perfect Spaghetti
I’m expecting this post to garner me some traffic on this blog. Go ahead and share it. Comment if you try the recipe. I can assure you that you’ll love this sauce.