I chose to start this blog with spaghetti, not in spite of its ubiquity, but because of it. Because it's important, I think, to remember that the existence of an exciting, unexplored frontier in no way asserts the banality of your front yard. After all, shouldn't the foods we eat the most of also be those we most frequently refine? There's nothing I eat more than spaghetti with tomato sauce, and thus, no recipe more fluid than this. The one below is simply the latest in a lifetime of revisions, one that I think, if I may say so myself, results in a damn fine plate of the stuff. A lot of the techniques and information here are transferrable to myriad other pasta dishes, and so I chose to stop and elaborate a bit on a few so that later we can more quickly traverse familiar ground.
Dried spaghetti is normally sold by the pound, which is too much for a whole can of tomatoes. This explains why I call for 12oz instead. You know that part in "Father of the Bride" where Steve Martin has a breakdown in the supermarket about the disperate quantities in packages of hot dog buns vs. hot dogs? That's how I feel about 16oz of pasta and 28oz of tomatoes. And as sick and tired as I am of dried pasta and canned tomato big-shots ripping off the American public, the only thing I can currently do about it is tell you to cook a bit less pasta. I'm sorry. The revolution has failed. Enjoy your spaghetti.
- 12oz dried spaghetti
- 28oz can whole peeled tomatoes
- 1/2 medium white or yellow onion
- 1/3 carrot
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/2 cup white wine
- dried chili flakes
- fresh basil
- high quality olive oil
- neutral oil, like grapeseed or safflower
Step 1: Hydrate the Pasta
Cover the pasta in an inch of cold water. Wait an hour and a half or until it's pliable. You can finish cooking in either boiling salted water or in the sauce itself, which is what I do in this recipe. If going with the latter, it's important to salt the soaking water. Dissolve a tablespoon of salt in a cup of hot water and mix that in with the cold soaking water. If not using immediately, hydrated pasta can be drained and stored in the fridge for a few days.
Step 1.1: Or Don't
You can simply cook them traditionally and not in the very least be worse for it. I do it all the time. But, I do think pre-soaking is an interesting and useful technique that can come in handy every so often. For example, when making a baked pasta dish like lasagne, you can layer the dish with uncooked, hydrated noodles which will then cook through in the oven. Same for baked mac and cheese. And in the summertime, when the last thing you want is another fire in an already hot kitchen, it's good to know that you don't have to boil a pot of water but simply cook pre-hydrated noodles directly in the sauce. Knowing how to pre-soak noodles is like knowing how to use the word alacrity. It's not an everyday sort of thing, you can go a whole lifetime without it, but it's still nice to know. You know?
Regardless of approach, one constant in pasta cooking is salt. Pasta is one of the few manufactured products you buy that comes unseasoned. And don't get all hippie about the like, purity or something dumb of an ingredient that doesn't have salt in it. Go mix up some flour and water. Taste it. Tastes like wet flour, right? Now mix some salt into flour, then stir water into it. Taste it. Yep, tastes like food. Assuming you want your pasta to taste like food, you're gonna need to get some salt in it via the cooking water. How much? About a tablespoon per liter. It should taste like the ocean tastes sans sand and animal piss. Cook your pasta until almost done, drain it, then dump it straight into your sauce without rinsing it. It'll finish cooking in the sauce. This does mean you have to have your sauce finished before the pasta is done. Or, even easier, you can simply hydrate the noodles, add them directly to the sauce, and time nothing. See what I did there?
Also, do people still put oil in their pasta water? Don't do that.
Step 2: Sweat.
Of the onion, carrot, and garlic in this recipe, you really only need the garlic. Scott Conant does a good job of pointing this out in his excellent marinara recipe that has been filmed at least four times. I like the onion, carrot, garlic combo because it adds a textured sweetness and depth to the sauce. You can even add celery here. That makes it mirepoix. Which is a good thing to know. But I skip the celery most of the time because A) seeing as how this is a simple tomato sauce, I don't want to overdo the aromatic complexity, and B) I normally don't have celery in my fridge. Often times I just go onion and garlic. Point being, missing an ingredient isn't a dealbreaker here.
As for the cooking of your ingredients, cut the onion and carrot into roughly same size pieces. The onion will cook a bit faster than the carrot so it's ok if those pieces are larger. Saute in a neutral oil over a medium low heat (because Thomas Keller says sautéing in olive oil is a waste and I believe him), making sure you don't brown the vegetables. Browning is caramelization, which in and of itself is entirely tasty, but it is a sort of complex tasty that we're not looking for here. We want the simple sweetness of sweated veggies. So sweat them. You know what helps that? Salt. It brings moisture out of pretty much everything. It does this because of science. Also because of science, water can't get hotter than 212F. So, if there's moisture, you're not browning. Add a healthy pinch of the white stuff and stir regularly.
Cook until softened, about ten minutes, and then scrape the contents of the pan into a little pile on the side. In the now clear portion, add the garlic and stir it around until it smells like garlic. That should take about 30 seconds. Then mix it in with the other veggies. Why do it like this? Because when I first started cooking I got in the bad habit of burning garlic. Recipes would call for adding it first, which is totally correct, but then I'd overcook it, add all my other ingredients, and everything would taste like burnt garlic. Which tastes bad. So I learned to dice the garlic really small and then add it towards the end of the sautéing process, ensuring that it doesn't burn and ruin the dish. The flavors in garlic are fat soluble, so it's not a bad idea to have some oil in the part of the pan you're sautéing it in.
Add a pinch of dried chili flakes and cook for about a minute. Pour in a half cup of white wine and raise the heat to bring it to a strong simmer. I generally buy a box of white wine that I wouldn't totally hate drinking (Bota Box, for example) and use that for cooking...and emergencies. It lasts a few months in the pantry so I can use it regularly without the expense of opening a whole bottle of wine every time a recipe calls for it.
Step 3: A tale of two textures.
When the wine is finished reducing you're going to add tomatoes, so now is a good time to nail down what kind of texture you want. Rustic? Crush the tomatoes with your hands. Smooth? Dump the can in the pot and blend with a stick blender until you get the consistency you want. I especially like this second approach if you plan on later augmenting the sauce with olives or roasted red bell peppers or, whatever.
But here's the thing, I like the texture of crushed tomatoes in my pasta, but I hate little bits of carrot and onion. My solution: puree and crush.
Place a medium mesh strainer over your pan containing your nearly entirely reduced white wine aromatics and dump out your can of whole tomatoes over that, pushing all the sauce though. Blend this sauce/aromatic mixture with a blender until perfectly smooth. In a bowl, crush the whole tomatoes with your hand until they're where you want them, then dump that into the puree. Now you have all the flavors of onion, carrot, and garlic, but only the texture of tomato.
All that's left is to cook this at a gentle simmer until the chunks of tomato have softened and the flavors of the sauce have melded together. About ten to twenty minutes.
Step 4: Salt but not always pepper.
Prior to adding the pasta, it's a good idea to think about seasoning and balance. Depending on what brand of tomatoes you used, the amount of salt you'll need to add to finish the sauce will depend on the amount of salt the tomatoes were packed with. Season to taste. If you don't cook a lot, this means adding more salt than you think you should add.
Aside from salt, it's also important to consider the acidity of the dish. I finish my pasta sauce with a delicious combination of butter, cheese, and olive oil. But for fat to be its most delicious, it often needs an acidic counterpoint. Tomatoes are already pretty acidic, as is the wine we reduced earlier, but it doesn't hurt here to add a splash, literally a teaspoon or two, of vinegar (I like sherry). The point isn't to be able to taste the vinegar, but to fortify your sauce with acid before adding starches and fat.
Note that I don't use black pepper at all here. Black pepper is often used like salt when I think it should be used like cumin. It's a flavor, a great one, but it doesn't belong everywhere. I personally don't like it in my marinara. A good thing to keep in mind is that pepper and acid have similar effects on flavor. So think about adding acid next time you reach for your pepper mill.
The last thing I do before adding the pasta is to flavor with basil. Basil is a soft herb that doesn't hold up to heat well, so it should always be added at the end of the cooking process. I don't love chunks of wilted basil but I want its flavor to permeate the sauce, so I toss in whole leaves and stems and stir them up for a minute, and then throw them away. Reserve a few leaves for garnish. The garnish isn't just about being fancy. Because the cooked basil flavor is going to be subtle, it's nice to garnish with a few fresh leaves so that the flavor stands out in various bites.
Step 6: Not so nudels.
Great news, it's not time to add your pasta, be it pre-soaked or the traditional stuff that you cooked until it wasn't quite finished. Either way, dump and stir. If using the hydrated stuff, it's good to keep in mind that it will absorb a good amount of liquid, so add some water to the sauce. A lot of people advocate adding some reserved pasta cooking water to the sauce because that water is full of thickening starch, but after doing that for a few years I've realized that the pasta water, being pretty salty, upsets the seasoning of the dish more than the starches it contains helps. I wasn't all that confident about my whole, "maybe the pasta water is too salty" theory, but then I read Marc Ladner give the same advice in the lastest Lucky Peach. So I'm good now.
Stir this up for a few minutes until the pasta is the texture you want (note: if you want anything other than al dente, you're wanting wrong). If you're not going to plate it immediately, keep in mind that the heat from the pan will continue to cook this, so undercook it just a bit. Like scrambled eggs.
When I was a kid we always kept the pasta and sauce separate until their holy union on our individual plates. But once we sat down to eat, the first thing we'd do was stir it up to get sauce on all the drying pasta. After all, the point of adding sauce to the pasta is to flavor it, right? So then, why wait? Why not just stir it together to begin with? You know, let the pasta and sauce take a test drive together before committing one mouth for the rest of its existence. Makes sense. This is, after all, how those philandering Italians do it.
Combining the sauce and pasta is best done on the stove because when the pasta comes out of the cooking water it is covered in very sticky, gelatinized starch. Let the pasta sit in a colander for a minute and it will glue itself together into the pasta blocks I knew so well as a kid. But if you immediately dump the pasta from the boiling water to colander to the sauce, instead of gluing the noodles together, the starch glues the sauce to the noodles. And, since you're finishing the cooking in the sauce, the pasta doesn't just hold onto the sauce, it literally absorbs it. All of these small factors make the difference between a decent plate of spaghetti and a great one.
Step 7: Withdrawing occupying forces.
Prior to plating, take the pot off the heat and stir in a few tablespoon of butter. Then stir in fresh-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana-Padano (pre-grated stuff generally tastes bad, as does the cheap stuff, stay clear of both). Lastly, add a good drizzle of high quality olive oil Remember how I said to saute with neutral stuff earlier? I said that because the flavor of olive oil breaks down when heated, and besides, since you should never saute with good olive oil anyway, the flavor you were losing to heat wasn't all that great to begin with. All you miss by instead sautéing in cheap, neutral oil is the ruined flavor of mediocre olive oil. I say, skip olive oil entirely at the outset, then finish with something really tasty. This ensures that the only olive oil flavor your pasta has is the best flavor. But for this to work you really do need to spend a bit of money. I dropped $25 for a 12oz bottle that I got at a slight discount through the restaurant I work at. It was worth every penny. I immediately regretted waiting as long as I did to invest in good oil.
Buy a bottle. Never cook with it. Hide it from your roommates. Thank me later.
Finish the plated pasta with some red pepper flakes, chiffonade basil, a sprinkling of cheese, and just a bit more olive oil.
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