Friday, June 27, 2014

Fresh Tomato Pasta Sauce with Anchovy Butter

So let me tell you a little story.  It's a story about pasta sauce and my evolution as a cook...

...15 years ago I was a 23 year old newlywed who had just moved from New Jersey to Florida with my equally young and fresh-from-the-Garden-State husband.  The whole of my life before this had been spent within a few hours of my family.  I literally grew up in kitchens- watching and learning in my grandmother's home kitchen and her bakery, cooking alongside my mother in hers, teaching my college roommates the basics so that they could go beyond a box of mac and cheese.  As most young people do, I thought I knew everything.  And if not that much surely enough to impress my new husband.

Things went swimmingly along until the first time I decided to make pasta for us.  I'm Italian and as most people know,  pasta is practically a religion for those of us who hail from Italy.  It should be in my blood, right?  Here's the thing though- I had never made pasta sauce on my own before.  It was always Mom or Nana who whipped up the "gravy" (as we called it) and I suppose it was such a commonplace meal on our table that I never really paid attention.  On my own and too prideful to ask for guidance or advice, I decided to throw everything I had at it.  Literally.

What ended up on our table was a thick, sort of recognizable tomato sauce that I knew just wasn't right.  OK, so maybe (to borrow words from my sweet but always honest about his food husband) it resembled, and tasted, more like salsa more than a pasta sauce.  He was kind and understanding, but I cringed as I watched him choke it down just for my benefit.  He has always said he will eat what I cook without complaint because he's grateful that I take the time to make a meal.  But that doesn't stop him from a gentle critique every now and then.  This night was just the first of many since then. 

I don't take offense to his feedback.  I take it as a learning experience.  It's never harsh or cruel, simply a thoughtful "I think maybe this might work well with a little less onion next time" or "This might be cooked a smidge more than you probably wanted it to be, but it still has good flavor". Anyone else who has been at our table during those moments always thinks he nuts for saying anything at all or that it might hurt my feelings.  But honestly, without a gentle critique every now and again how else are we supposed to grow and get better?  At anything in life, not just cooking.

I'm happy to report that my pasta sauce methods have improved dramatically over the years.  I've gone from a  more is better mentality to a decidedly less-is more way of going about it.  Chopped and sauteed onion or garlic (depending on what I grab first), the best canned tomatoes I can get my hands on and a handful of basil if it I have it fresh.  That's it.  And its perfect.  Sometimes I want something a little different so I throw a splash of cream and a glug of vodka to make a quick penne vodka.  Or take a little more time and make my Nana's meatballs (which I did pay enough attention to replicate pretty accurately!).  When I've got some prefect summer tomatoes on hand a sauce like this one will probably find its way onto our table.  Simple, fresh and about as far from that first "salsa" sauce as I can get.  Which is just fine by all of us.

Fresh Tomato Pasta Sauce with Anchovy Butter
Serves 4.  From the June 2014 edition of Bon Appetit magazine.
For the printable recipe, click here.

I usually take recipes in my own direction once I read them.  This one is so simple and perfect I couldn't imagine doing anything different.  So I've left it alone changing only the shape of the pasta.  I prefer a pasta that is going to hold onto a chunky sauce like this one.  Something like this cavatelli shape is good or perhaps one with a more twisty or tubular shape.  Any fresh summer-ripe tomato will do.  I used a mix of colors and shapes for this one, though I'd save those super special heirloom tomatoes for a raw salad and not this cooked sauce.

1/2 pound of pasta, such as cavatelli, campanelle, or orichietti
4 tbs butter
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 anchovies packed in oil, drained or 1 1/2 tsp anchovy paste
2 pounds tomatoes, quartered or halved depending on size
handful of fresh herbs (I used a mix of basil, flat leaf parsley and chives), coarsely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil.  When it reaches a boil, cook the pasta according to package directions.  When the pasta is ready, reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid and drain the rest.

While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Stir in the garlic and anchovies and cook until the anchovies have melted into the butter and the garlic has softened (about 4 minutes).  Stir in the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally until the tomatoes have softened and begin  to fall apart.  That will take about 8 minutes.

Toss in the cooked pasta and the reserved cooking liquid and cook the sauce with the pasta for another minute more.  Stir in the chopped herbs and remove from the heat.  Serve immediately sprinkled with grated pecorino or parmesean cheese.

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