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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Spaghetti With Tomato & Basil

Our last big tomato haul has been resting on the window sill for a few days.  Every morning I glance at the haul and wonder what I should do with the gorgeous heirlooms.  Salad?  Simply sliced with salt and pepper?  BLT's?

I haven't watched the FoodNetwork much lately since discovering The Food Channel with its gritty and real  cooking format.  The other night, in a mindless stupor, I found myself staring at the television.  The FoodNetwork was airing Alton Brown's new series, America's Best: Comfort Foods.  I thought I'd just stare and deal with some comfort food teasings.  The best mashed potatoes.  Check.  The best mac & cheese. Check.  The best no-nonsense pizza. Check.  It fed my mindless vanquished mind.

Until...The Best Fresh Spaghetti.  Scott Conant's Spaghetti and Basil jarred me to attention.  It is the simple pasta signature dish at Scarpetta, his restaurant in the FountainBleu Hotel in Miami Florida.  It is widely considered to be one of the most delicious simple pasta dishes on the planet.

I had to have it.  I had to taste it. I watched it over and over and over again.  I googled the recipe and found it everywhere.  A written recipe can be found at, Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations Techniques episode.

It took very few very good ingredients;  fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic, pasta, parmesan reggiano, olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Period.  That was it.
I bought dried spaghetti. I took one last look at our beautiful heirloom tomatoes bursting with ripeness and tossed the store bought spaghetti.  They deserved better.  The last haul of a long growing season deserved the honor of freshly made pasta.

I can make pasta in my sleep, but wanted  to raise the bar for myself and used Thomas Keller's egg yolk-based pasta recipe from The French Laundry.  I wanted the best for Michael, me, and our lovely heirlooms. I hand-mixed 6 egg yolks, 1 whole egg, 1 3/4 cups flour, 1 tablespoon milk, and kneaded it gently on a floured surface.  After letting it rest for an hour, I rolled it out, let it dry, and cut it into angel hair pasta strands. It was a good start.  The pasta was a thing of beauty.

I briefly blanched the tomatoes in boiling water to release their skins, cut them into quarters, and sauteed them in olive oil. I followed Scott Conant's masterful method and mashed the tomatoes with a potato masher as they simmered in the olive oil. They cooked briefly for 45 minutes to retain their freshness.

While the tomatoes gently simmered on the stove top, I infused olive oil with fresh basil and garlic. 

Mise en place.

It went really fast.  Once the sauce had simmered into a soft  puddle of fresh  tomato goodness, I ladled it into a saute pan to bubble and dropped the pasta into heavily salted boiling water to cook for 3 minutes.

When the angel hair was al dente, I tossed it into the sauce with the basil oil, jullienned strips of fresh basil, and a large handful of grated parmesan reggiano.  The kicker and final touch?  2 tablespoons of unsalted butter.  Perfect.  Once the butter swirled throughout the sauce, I plated  the lightly dressed angel hair pasta into large bowls.  I made my father's old fashioned buttered oven toast to sop.

It was the best pasta either of us had ever eaten. Buttery and light as air. The angelic ribbons absorbed the soft fresh tomato sauce just enough to coat it lightly and still taste like pasta.  The knobbed butter finish gave it a velvet mouthfeel and richness while the melted parmesan painted it with salty nuttiness.  Hints of anise flavor and aroma poked through from the tiny specks of basil.

It was simple, fresh, delicious, and utterly beautiful.

An Italian expression that means "little shoe"- or the shape bread takes when used
to soak up a dish- scarpetta represents the pure pleasure of savoring a meal down
to its very last taste.

Point made.  Point taken.

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