Friday, October 7, 2011

Naked Tomato Sauce

Looking for the perfect tomato sauce recipe is like the quest for the Holy Grail. It takes time, extraordinary effort, lots of missteps, and in the end, you're not even totally sure it really exists. Well, that's what the search has been like for me, at least. There are lots of great basic recipes out there. Marcella Hazan's (deservedly) famous Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, Gwyneth Paltrow's simple tomato sauce that she always makes and keeps in her freezer, Mario Batali's basic tomato sauce, the list goes on. And although I've made many of these renditions, I've yet to find one that truly spoke to me--spoke to me and said "I am perfect. Your search can come to an end." And then, this beauty of a recipe waltzed into my life.

Having been sick this week, all I wanted was simple, homey food that I could make in a pinch, so I opted for the easy homemade chicken soup from Wednesday's post and this Naked Tomato Sauce I stumbled upon over on Smitten Kitchen. It's based on a recipe from Scarpetta, an excellent Italian restaurant in Chelsea, here in NYC. Although the restaurant's menu is filled with delicious dishes like braised short ribs over farro and duck and foie gras ravioli (must try that immediately), the most famed item on it is the spaghetti with tomato and basil. In fact, the web is filled with people trying to imitate the recipe, and apparently they've come pretty close (a how-to video with the chef at Scarpetta, Scott Conant, from the Serious Eats team helped). The secret ingredient? Butter. A tablespoon (or more!) of it added in at the very end. No wonder it's the best tomato sauce I've ever had. So good, in fact, that I honestly probably won't try another recipe again. Seriously. Make this for dinner tonight. xo

Naked Tomato Sauce
3 pounds plum tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Small handful basil leaves, most left whole, a few slivered for garnish
1/4 cup olive oil
12 ounces (3/4 pound) dried spaghetti
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, or maybe two if nobody is looking

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cut a small X at the bottom of each tomato. Blanch the tomatoes in the boiling water for 10 to 30 seconds, then either rinse under cold water or shock in an ice water bath. Peeling the tomatoes should now be a cinch. Discard the skins. Keep the pot full of hot water — you can use it to cook your spaghetti in a bit.

Cut each of your tomatoes in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with your fingertips into a small strainer set over a bowl. Ditch the seeds, reserve the juices.

Add tomatoes and salt to a large saucepan (you’ll be adding the pasta to this later, so err on the big side) and turn the heat to medium-high. There are several ways to break the tomatoes down (with your hands, chopping, with a fork) but I loved Conant’s suggestion of a potato masher, as it gives you the maximum control over how chunky, smooth you want your sauce.

Once the sauce has begun to boil, turn your heat down to medium-low and gently simmer your tomatoes for 35 to 45 minutes, mashing them more if needed. If they begin to look a little dry, add your strained and reserved tomato juices.

While the tomato sauce cooks, combine garlic, a few whole basil leaves, a pinch of red pepper flakes and 1/4 cup olive oil in a small saucepan. Heat them slowly, over the lowest heat so that they take a long time to come to a simmer. Once it does, immediately remove it from the heat and strain the oil into a small dish. You’ll need it shortly.

When the tomato sauce has been simmering for about 25 minutes, bring your tomato-blanching pot of water back to a boil with a healthy helping of salt. Once boiling rapidly, cook your spaghetti until it is al dente, i.e. it could use another minute of cooking time. Reserve a half-cup of pasta cooking water and drain the rest.

Once your sauce is cooked to the consistency you like, stir in the reserved olive oil and adjust seasonings to taste. Add drained spaghetti and half the reserved pasta water to the simmering tomato sauce and cook them together for another minute or two. Add remaining pasta water if needed to loosen the sauce. Stir in the butter, if using, and serve immediately with slivered basil for garnish. We found that sauce this good, this simple and rich, needs no grated cheese.


  1. Love this recipe! seems very italian like me!

  2. I saw this on Smitten Kitchen, too. Glad to know it's a winner, she never disappoints! Hope you are feeling better.

  3. Thanks Gwen! I am feeling better now, thanks to loads of chicken soup and spaghetti. :)