(This story first appeared on Tastebook, where I'm doing an occasional cooking column. Check 'em out.)
There is an argument to be made that if it happens to be hot this time of year where you live, you are likely assembling rather than cooking.
You buy those good ingredients: the corn with bursting kernels, the shiny eggplant, the weighty tomatoes. Then you do little to them. A chop here, a blender whiz there. You want food. You want it fast. You want it without setting the kitchen ablaze.
There is perhaps no other dish as emblematic of this high-summer methodology as pasta with fresh tomato sauce. And by “fresh,” I mean to say a tomato sauce in which the tomatoes have not been cooked a lick.
There are hundreds of slight variations to the blueprint for a pasta such as this. Each can fundamentally alter the dish. Add a nudge of fish sauce or soy sauce and the dish bends toward Vietnam or Japan. Use a woodsy herb like marjoram or oregano instead of basil and the noodles turn ponderous. Add a few slivers of fresh jalapeño and the pasta rolls with green fire.
But we’ll begin with the basics. The keystone version. Chopped tomatoes; fresh garlic; loads of olive oil; salt; and basil. To me, the wily marrow of cooking this dish well is marinating the tomatoes.
It’s a simple foresight. After you put the water for cooking the pasta on to boil, you chop the tomatoes into bite-size chunks and toss them into a bowl with a substantive amount of good olive oil, along with a loose-handed addition of salt. Taste. The olive oil should tickle and the salt should make the tomatoes pop. If not, add more of either. Remember: This is your sauce. Make it taste like good sauce should.
I like garlic in there, too. Easiest of all if you have a decent grater or a Microplane is to grate a clove directly into the bowl. You could also chop the clove. What matters is that if you use garlic you marry it with the marinating tomatoes. It needs to mellow. A touch of dried chile flakes would be a handy complement. I always add some.
The sauce then makes itself as the pasta cooks. All that remains is to toss the finished pasta with the tomatoes and a touch of the pasta cooking water to bind. I think they call this “assembling.” And that, everyone, is the name of the summer cooking game.
Pasta with No-Cook Tomato Sauce
- 1 pound long pasta, like spaghetti or linguine
- About 1½ pounds good tomatoes, like heirlooms
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Garlic clove (optional)
- Dried chile flakes (optional)
- Fresh basil or other leafy herb (optional, but highly recommended)
- Flaky salt (optional)
- Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)
Bring a large pot filled with water to a boil.
While the water gets hot and hotter, core the tomatoes then chop them into smallish pieces. Add them to a very large bowl and add a very substantial glugs of olive oil and a huge pinch of salt. Taste. The flavors should be big: A little oil, a little salty. If the sauce taste tame, add more oil or more salt—or both. Now is also the time to add the garlic (grated or chopped) and a hint of chile, if you’d like. Toss well and let the lot get to know each other.
When the water begins boiling, season with salt. Taste. Should be fairly salty but not excessively so. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain into a colander set over a small measuring cup to catch some of the pasta cooking water.
Add the drained pasta along with a large splash of pasta cooking water to the marinating tomatoes and toss well. If the sauce isn’t quite clinging to the pasta, add a touch more cooking water. Tear quite a few of the basil leaves over the bowl and drop onto the pasta. Toss. Plate and drizzle with each serving with a bit more olive oil. Maybe some flaky salt. Maybe some Parmigiano-Reggiano. That’s all up to you.