Nothing is more well established in the collective memory of Italian food than the iconic image of a bowl of the classic Spaghetti al Pomodoro. Pasta cooked down in a bit of olive oil with tomatoes, garlic, onion and basil. Simple, light and full of flavor when the ingredients are at their peak. But when are tomatoes--the star of this dish--truly at their peak? Tomatoes are best at the beginning of Fall. End of story. Seems to defy logic, but it is true. Trust me.
As a professional chef this is something I have been privy too since the early days of my career. I was elated to find a bounty of tomatoes when I returned from a recent family trip to Boston. There were too many to count, hanging low on the vine, plump and heavy with sweetness. I set my luggage up on the back porch, and headed over to the garden. The end of my shirt served as a basket to gather the tomatoes in. I picked a few fresh sprigs of basil from a nearby herb bed, and made my way back inside to begin the transformation.
I grew up surrounded by a large Italian family, eating elaborate coursed meals each and every weekend around an overcrowded table at my great grandparent's home in Lynn, Massachusetts. A pot of fresh tomato sauce was always present. The flavor varied depending upon what my aunts Josefina, Maria and Concetta had on hand to cook in the sauce, but it was never absent from the table.
When we weren't out and about visiting the extended family, we were at home, which we shared with my grandparents. Nonno was from Naples and Nonna was from the island of Sicily--so this recipe is nothing shy of soul food to me. A beautiful blend of local food and distant memories . . .
2 oz (56g) extra virgin olive oil
1 ea (200g) yellow onion, medium dice
6 ea (30g) garlic cloves, sliced
2.5 lb (1000g) fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
6 ea fresh basil sprigs (plus a few leaves to garnish)
4 qt water (to cook the pasta)
kosher salt (to season the pasta water)
4 oz (224g) dried spaghetti
Prepare the sauce by heating the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until tender, but without taking on any color.
Once the garlic and onion are tender add the tomatoes, bring to a boil rapidly and then reduce to a simmer and continue to cook for apporximately 45 minutes. Add the basil approximately ten minutes before the end of the cooking time. Adjust the seasoning as needed with salt.
Use a blender or a stick blender to puree the sauce. I prefer a smooth sauce, but you can adjust the amount that you process the sauce to achieve a chunkier texture if that is what you prefer. Place the sauce in a deep enough pan to be able to hold the pasta once cooked and set it over low heat.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add the pasta, and follow the manufacturer's instructions to cook the pasta half way (i.e. if the box says to cook the pasta for 10 minutes, only cook the pasta for 5 minutes).
Add the halfway cooked pasta to the sauce and bring to a rapid simmer. Finishing cooking the pasta in the sauce helps thicken the sauce (by releasing starch from the pasta into the sauce) while infusing the pasta with the flavor of the sauce. Cook the pasta until al dente. Add a little extra virgin at the end to give the pasta an attractive sheen.
Portion the pasta and sauce into serving bowls and garnish with freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese and some freshly torn basil leaves.