There are still beautiful vine-ripened tomatoes making their way to my farmers' market. In general, it was not a great year for tomatoes, but for the past few weeks the tomatoes have been amazing...tender-skinned, plump, heavy with juice and loaded with flavor.
I have been working them into my late summer/early autumn meals as much as I can—sandwiches, salads...and of course pasta. Probably mostly pasta.... In looking over old posts, I noticed that I have never posted my favorite Summer tomato sauce for spaghetti. Since the tomatoes have been so beautiful, now seems like a good time.
You might have noticed that I have specified "spaghetti"—rather than the generic "pasta"—for this particular tomato sauce. This is because when finished there is only enough sauce to coat the pasta in a light, velvety film. It is a much lower ratio of sauce to pasta than is typical and it would seem meager on a chunky or tubular noodle. Even the thicker strands of linguine seem to overpower this sauce a bit. I have never served it on angel hair or spaghettini, but I think either of these would work.
Because this sauce requires dead ripe, vine-ripened tomatoes, there is only a short span of time each year when I make it—typically from mid-July through September. It is truly a seasonal treat. Out-of-season or hot-house tomatoes will not produce the proper flavor and texture. There is such a small amount of sauce that the tomatoes used to make it must have intense, sun-ripened taste. They also must have juicy flesh and tender skin (which only comes in vine-ripened form) so that they will begin to dissolve into sauce the minute they hit the hot pan.
Probably the main reason that I have not posted this recipe before is that I don't really have a recipe. I have always just walked into the kitchen and made it...it is amazingly simple and can be made in the time it takes to boil the spaghetti.
For each person you will need a tablespoon or so of olive oil, a clove of garlic, a pinch (small or large) of hot pepper flakes, one medium-sized tomato (maybe 5 oz. or so), and 3 to 4 oz. of spaghetti. Put the water on to boil and while it comes to a boil, mince the garlic and core and chop the tomato(es) into a rough half inch dice...no need to peel and seed. Your cutting board will probably not be able to contain all of the juice from the tomatoes, so as soon as you are done cutting the tomato, scrape it (along with the juices) off of the board and into a bowl.
To cook the sauce, choose a wide sauté pan. It must be wide and preferably with sloped sides so that the tomatoes will reduce quickly to a pulpy sauce. For one person, a pan with a six to seven inch cooking surface should be sufficient. For two, you will need an eight to ten inch pan. For three or four, use a twelve inch pan.
When the water comes to a boil. Season it well with salt (about a teaspoon per quart). Place the oil, along with the garlic and pepper flakes in the sauté pan and place the pan over moderately high to high heat. Drop the spaghetti into the boiling water and give it a stir. When the garlic begins to sizzle enthusiastically and is just on the verge of taking on a bit of color, add the tomatoes (along with all of the juices) to the pan. The tomatoes should immediately begin to simmer rapidly. Allow the tomatoes to cook, shaking the pan back and forth occasionally, stirring at regular intervals and regulating the heat in order to maintain a brisk simmer, until the tomatoes have broken down and the sauce is thickened and emulsified—this will take less than five minutes. Taste for seasoning and remove from the heat.
When the spaghetti is al dente, drain, reserving some of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the pan of sauce and toss to combine. Adjust the consistency of the sauce with pasta water if you like, but to be honest, for this dish, I prefer to add a generous drizzle of olive oil instead. This adds flavor, smoothes out the sauce and adds a gorgeous sheen.
Since I always have a basil in my garden this time of year, I like to add a few basil leaves (cut into a fine chiffonade) along with the spaghetti. Transfer the finished pasta to individual plates and pass freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino.
I should warn you that this is not a particularly substantial dish. If you are in need of major sustenance, it probably isn't the right choice. But if you are looking for a light, flavorful meal...I think this fills the bill very well. Add a small green salad...a glass of wine....and perhaps some fruit to finish...and you have a simple and elegant late summer (or early fall) menu.