Tomatoes do double duty in the summer’s best pasta

Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, basil, and garlic sounds like plenty of summer pastas you’ve had before. In fact, it sounds a lot like a summer pasta I wrote about recently.

But with a little smart maneuvering — and no greater investment of effort or time — you’ll end up with a dinner that’s entirely different. This pasta has a brighter tomato flavor than any you’ve had before, and is in a position to completely change your August dinner routines. You should let it, and fast, because the good tomatoes won’t be here nearly long enough.

Chef and author Michael Ruhlman first read the bones of this recipe — a simple pasta with chopped tomatoes, basil and lots of garlic — in a long-since-forgotten paperback cookbook in 1984. “I had never heard of fresh basil,” he told me. “So I used dry, and it was still pretty good.”

It’s been a weeknight staple in his family ever since, and over the past thirty years, he’s refined the technique — through practice and repetition, and through his tireless self-education.

Now, dinner starts as your water is coming up to a boil: by chopping up ripe tomatoes, salting them, then stirring in some fresh basil (apparently 1984 Ruhlman can attest that dried basil works too, but, as he says, “When I moved to Manhattan in 1985, I saw fresh basil in a bodega and thought, ah, that would make more sense.”)

The salt immediately pulls moisture from the tomatoes, splitting the fruit in two: a collection of pale pink, intensely flavored tomato water, plus a heap of well-seasoned and relaxed (and less watery) tomatoes.

“I used to toss all the ingredients together but never really liked the way the tomato water would pool at the bottom of the bowl,” Ruhlman wrote on his website in 2010. So, he decided to briefly simmer the tomato water (dumped straight into the pan as he strains the tomatoes) with softened garlic, then swirl in some butter to mount the sauce, much like making a beurre blanc. The sauce emulsifies and thickens enough to cling to the pasta, taking up all the garlic and tomato with it.

In addition to pasta, you can apply this technique in all kinds of other places — Ruhlman is working on a variation with sautéed chicken, but I think it would also go well with delicate fish or scallops, stripped corn, seared zucchini, or lobster hash.

To finish, you’ll drag your cooked pasta through its tomato-garlic-butter sauce, pile it on plates, and spoon the drained, seasoned tomatoes on top with a last hit of basil. It will be nothing like your average summer spaghetti, a culmination of 30 years of ever-smarter cooking — where will you take it next?

MICHAEL RUHLMAN’S PASTA WITH TOMATO WATER, BASIL AND GARLIC

Adapted slightly from ruhlman.com

Serves: 2 to 4

4 ripe tomatoes, large dice

1 1/2 to 2 tsp. coarse kosher salt

12 oz. spaghetti or any pasta you like

10 cloves of garlic

1 cup basil, cut into ribbons

3 oz. butter, cut into three chunks

Olive oil, as needed

Season the tomatoes with the salt and toss them well.

Put a big pot of water on to boil.

Smash the garlic with the flat side of a knife, give it all a few rough chops with the knife and set them a side in a small bowl.

Cut the basil into ribbons or roughly chop it. Take a pinch of this basil, chop it finely, and add it to the tomatoes to season the water.

Cook your pasta, drain it, put it back in the pot, and oil the pasta to keep it from sticking to itself. (Meanwhile, even if your water isn’t boiling yet, you should still get your garlic cooking in the next step).

Heat a teaspoon or two of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat, add the garlic and cook it till it is just beginning to brown around the edges and soften, a couple minutes. Give it a pinch of salt if you wish.

Pour the tomatoes into a strainer or colander over the garlic so that the tomato water will stream into the pan below. Set the strainer with the tomatoes into the bowl so they don’t drip on the counter, and swirl the sauce to bring it to a simmer. Add the butter while continuing to swirl or stir the sauce. Keep the sauce moving until all the butter is melted. Add the pasta and toss to coat the pasta evenly. Divide the pasta among four bowls and top with the tomatoes and basil.

This article originally appeared on Food52.com: http://food52.com/blog/11127-michael-ruhlman-s-pasta-with-tomato-water-basil-and-garlic

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