We do not eat as much pasta as we used to as kids. At the time, every meal had a first and second course and pasta always managed to find its rightful spot. Now, we probably have pasta twice a week, nevertheless, when someone asks us: “What is a plate you never get tired of?” Pasta al pomodoro will always come to mind. It is a plate you can never refuse or resist. It is a plate with a million variations and whose perfection relies on a few but essential details.
After reaching Naples around the 16th century, tomatoes, slowly but surely creeped into the local cuisine becoming one of its most treasured ingredients. The first official recipe of “vermicelli co le pommadore” Neapolitan dialect for spaghetti with tomatoes dates back to 1837, when Ippolito Cavalcanti published “Cucina Teorico Pratica” a practical and theoretical manual on cooking containing many of his original recipes. To his own surprise the first edition had great success all over the Italian peninsula, leading him to print over 9 editions. Among the many recipes published was also the recipe for pasta al pomodoro.
This is how he describes it, in the Neapolitan dialect of the time:
“Vermicielli co le pommadore. Quann’è lo tiempo, pigliarraje tre rotola de pommadore, le farraje cocere, e le passaraje; po piglia no terzo de nzogna, o doje mesurelle d’uoglio, lo faraje zoffriere co na capo d’aglio, e lo miette dint’a chella sauza. Doppo scauda doje rotola di vermicielli, e vierdi vierdi li levarraje, e nce li buote pe dinto: falle chini di pepe, miettence lo sale, e poi vide che magne”
“Spaghetti with tomatoes. When it’s the season, take 2,7kg (6 pounds) of tomatoes, you will cook them and then pureè the tomatoes; then you will take 100gr of lard or 200ml of oil, and you will pan fry the fat with a garlic bulb and add it to the tomato sauce. Boil 1,8kg (4 pounds) of spaghetti, take them out of the water when still a bit undercooked; fill them with pepper, add salt and you will see what you will be eating.”
In a few sentences he shares the original spaghetti al pomodoro recipe that in its simplicity hides a few essential details. As described by Ippolito himself all his recipes are portioned for twelve people! Can you blame him?! How could you better appreciate a nice pot of spaghetti al pomodoro if not by sharing it with a big family or group of friends? Every time we read this recipe in original dialect we discover a new treasure, for example the way he describes pulling the spaghetti out of the water when still undercooked or as commonly still used in today’s Italian “al dente”, he says “e vierdi vierdi li levarraje” which means “and still green take them out” making an analogy between pasta and unripe fruit.
One crucial decision that must be made when making pasta al pomodoro is which tomatoes to use. Choices differ depending on where you live. In the warmer parts of South America, for example, it is always tomato season, on the other hand, in Italy and other countries with four seasons, tomatoes are at their best in the summer. Between May and September, it is the perfect time to go tomato hunting!
Tomatoes should be ripe, feel full and crunchy, and you should be able to smell a tasty tomato. Tomatoes that are commonly used for sauce should be completely red when ripe. Another sign of perfect ripeness is what we call the “freshness crunch”, even when duly ripe and red, tomatoes should feel relatively hard and full, never soft or squishy which is an indication of over ripeness or that they have been hit during transport! Again smell, yes smell.. you should be able to smell a tasty tomato! Our go-to varieties of tomatoes that can easily be found, all year round and yield great results are cherry tomatoes (pachino), piccadilly tomatoes, or date tomatoes (datterini).
While we were trying to write we couldn’t help ourselves & we started cooking, and quite frankly so should you! Forgive the red stains and the smell of aglio.
Following is our recipe for pasta al pomodoro. We hope it will give you all the joy it gives us every time we set to make this simple but eternally satisfying dish.
PASTA AL POMODORO
Cooking time 1 hour
Preparation time 30 minutes
Eating time whatever it takes!
- (for 4 people)
- 500 gr (17oz) of Pasta
- 3 garlic cloves
- 750gr (27 oz) of tomatoes
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Cold pressed)
- Basil (Optional)
- Parmesan (Optional)
This recipe can work with almost any kind of pasta our personal favorites are spaghetti and penne, two undeniable classics.
If you want to peel your tomatoes, follow the next step otherwise skip it. We usually leave the peel on, however, some people might have trouble digesting it or might simply dislike the texture and might prefer to remove it.
The best and fastest way to peel tomatoes is simply throwing them in a pot of boiling water for just 1 -2 minutes, not longer. You will notice after just 30 seconds that the tomatoes will bloat, and the peel will start ripping open. Pull them out of the water and let them cool for a few seconds, then you will be able to easily peel them with your hands.
- Take the 3 garlic cloves, cut off the tip & lightly crush the clove under your palm. This simple action will make the cloves easier to peel. Also crushing the garlic clove will better release its flavor when cooking. You can then drizzle some olive oil in a pot and let the garlic heat up and flavor the oil for 2-3 minutes.
- Cut the tomatoes in 4 pieces and throw them in the pot and add a generous sprinkle of salt. Stir on medium fire for 2 minutes so that everything is mixed, put the fire on low and close the lid. Let the tomatoes cook for 40 minutes on light fire pulling up the lid every 15 minutes to stir and make sure the sauce is not drying up too much. After the first 20 minutes, we suggest fishing the garlic cloves out, maybe, leaving only one so as to avoid too strong of a taste.
- While the sauce is cooking you can start heating the water for the pasta. When boiling add one spoon of salt and throw in the pasta. We usually cooked no longer than 2/3 of the time it says on the box. However, get used to tasting it so you can find what is good for you.
- Take the pasta still very al dente out of the water and put it in the pan or pot where you cooked the sauce which should still be very juicy. Also remember to stir the water where the pasta boiled and save one mug full before throwing it out. You can use this water to finish cooking the pasta if the sauce gets to dry and the pasta is still too undercooked.
- Cook the pasta with the sauce on medium flame for 3-4 minutes adding a little of the water from the pot that you saved if needed. In this phase keep turning the pasta so that it absorbs all the sauce as it cooks. When the sauce reached a nice creamy consistency, you can turn off the fire and plate!
- Usually pans are used to cook the tomatoes, we prefer using a small pot or a pan which isn’t too wide and has higher sides. The reason is that you will need to cook the tomatoes for a long time and you don’t want them to dry up. If you do things right after 40 minutes of cooking the tomatoes should have smashed completely and the sauce should be still very liquid, without having had the necessity to add any water.
- Step 5 is especially important because it is what makes the sauce creamy and al dente to the right point. It also allows the pasta to absorb the sauce. This is also the point at which you can add some of your favorite add-ons: some freshly cut basil, some parmesan cheese, red pepper flakes, or nothing is also a good choice. Note that you can also make the sauce and store it in a glass jar. Closing the jar when the sauce is still very hot will help create a sous-vide sterilised environment & if you do it right, once the jar cools down the cap will be sucked in and you can store the sauce in the fridge or freezer for many weeks/months.