Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Don't Just Noodle Around: Quick and Easy Spaghetti with Tomato Basil Sauce

In an earlier post, I showed how a food mill can be used to make homemade applesauce almost effortlessly! Well, once again, with the food mill you can make an easy, delicious spaghetti sauce and cook your spaghetti in 20 minutes or less. And it's vegetarian (vegan if you don't add cheese)!

The food mill is CRITICAL to the success of this sauce. Why? Because it can separate the tomato seeds from the tomato pulp. Tomato seeds can add a bitter note to tomato sauces, and since you really want the fresh, bright tomato flavor to be the dominant element in the sauce, it is very important to remove them.

If this sauce were a soup, it would be a consomme. It is pure, elemental tomato augmented by garlic and basil. In fact, this spaghetti sauce is one of my favorite "six ingredients or less" recipes. Onion haters, take heart: ain't a speck of onion in here.

However, because it IS so simple, it's very important to use the highest-quality ingredients. It's really worth it to use imported San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. The brand most readily available in my area is Cento; all of them seem to sell for around $5 for a 32 oz. can. You MUST use fresh basil, also; you cannot substitute dried basil here.

If you can get your hands on some REAL parmigiano reggiano, it is positively ambrosial sprinkled on top of the pasta and sauce. You can tell if you've got the real thing because the rind of the cheese will look like this:
BoldIt has the words PARMIGIANO REGGIANO spelled out with these distinctive little dots. If you don't see the dots, it's not the real stuff imported from Italy, and it won't taste nearly as good. I have seen parmesan imported from Argentina, and it is definitely inferior to the real thing (in my opinion).

This dish is a little different than the way we normally eat spaghetti in the U.S. First of all, the sauce is thinner than typical spaghetti sauce. Also, instead of being poured on top of the pasta, the al-dente pasta is simmered in the sauce for a few minutes prior to serving. That's why the sauce needs to be a little thinner, so it can coat the pasta. Since the pasta is slightly underdone, it absorbs some of the sauce as it "cooks." Yum, yum!!

Spaghetti, not capellini (angel hair) or thin spaghetti (spaghettini), is the absolute best pasta to pair with this sauce. The sauce perfectly complements the thickness of real spaghetti. Seriously. use real spaghetti.

A note on the timing:
It takes about 12 minutes for the sauce to reduce down. It takes about 11 minutes to cook the spaghetti al dente. If you add the spaghetti to the cooking water just before you add the tomatoes to the sauce, they'll get done in about the same amount of time.

Spaghetti with Tomato-Basil Sauce

1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
4-6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 t. red pepper flakes/chili pepper flakes
1 32 oz. can whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes (imported)
1 14 oz. can diced Hunts tomatoes
1/3. c. chopped fresh basil
salt to taste

1 lb. spaghetti
6-8 qt. water
2 T kosher salt

For serving: 1-1 1/2 c. freshly grated parmigiano reggiano.

As you begin preparing the sauce, bring a large pot filled with 6-8 qt. of water to a boil for the pasta. Add 2 T. salt to the water (this is important: the spaghetti will be flat if you don't salt the water enough). Once it comes to a boil, if you are not ready to cook the pasta yet, reduce the heat and cover. When you are ready to go with the pasta, turn the heat back up to high and make sure the water is boiling before you add the spaghetti.

1. Fit a food mill with the finest disk and place it over a large container.

2. Force both cans of tomatoes through the food mill. The diced tomatoes will be a little harder to get through the mill, but don't give up, eventually you will prevail.

Here is one of my favorite little tricks for cutting up whole canned tomatoes.
After you open the can, take a pair of scissors, open up the blades, and insert them point down all the way into the can (being carefull not to let juice overflow!). Then, using both your hands, snip, snip, snip your way back and forth through the tomatoes until they are cut up. It makes it much easier to get them through the food mill!

3. Set the pureed tomatoes aside. There should not be any tomato seeds in the puree.

4. Heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the sliced garlic and the red pepper flakes.

5. Saute the garlic and pepper flakes, stirring often. Watch carefully to make sure the garlic does not burn. (If it does, you'll need to start over with fresh oil, garlic, and red pepper.)

6. As soon as the garlic begins to turn slightly golden, add the pureed tomatoes to the skillet. BE CAREFUL not to get burned: the oil will probably splatter a bit. Oven mitts are a good idea :)

7. Bring the sauce to a boil over medium-high heat.

8. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti. Add the pasta to the boilng water, being sure to stir it so that it does not lump together. When the water comes back to a boil, set the timer for 10 minutes. Test the pasta at 10 minutes to make sure it's not getting too soft. It should be cooked, but still firm to the tooth (al dente). It may need another minute. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and set it aside.

IMPORTANT: don't drain away all the water. Reserve about 2 cups.

9. Continue to boil the sauce over medium-high heat, stirring often, until it reduces down and thickens, but is still thinner than typical spaghetti sauce, about 11-12 minutes. As the sauce gets thicker, it may splatter.

10. Remove the sauce from the heat. Add the chopped basil to the sauce and stir well.

Here is a little trick to for chopping the basil.
Stack 5-6 leaves together, with the long side towards you. Roll the leaves up like a jelly roll and slice the leaves into thin pieces (this is called a chiffonade).

Check the consistency of the sauce: if it is too thick (like typical spaghetti sauce), add some of the reserved pasta water to thin it down.

. Add salt to the sauce to taste; it may need more than you think, so add small amounts at a time so you don't get it too salty.

Return the sauce to medium-low heat. Add the drained spaghetti to the pan with the sauce. Stir the pasta so that all of it gets coated with sauce, and allow to cook for 2-3 minutes.

Remove from the heat and serve with freshly grated parmigiano reggiano.

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