Your Best Pasta All Year May Be This Raw and Cooked Tomato Combo
The farmers market is still full of excellent summery produce and will be for a little while longer. This is good news because, starting in midsummer, many of our favorite meals rely on sweet, tart, savory ripe tomatoes. Slice a really good tomato, add some salt and wait for whoever tastes (or smells) it to ask, “Did you put MSG in here, or an anchovy? No? Really? Maybe sugar?”
When eating them in a pasta dish (one of their great purposes in life), we’re often torn between using them raw (as described years ago in a Washington Post story) and cooking them briefly enough to retain their freshness.
A while ago I ran into a recipe by an Italian chef — don’t remember who, or where I saw it — that treated five or so different kinds of tomatoes in five or so different ways raw and cooked, ending up with what sounded like a delicious plate of spaghetti. As vague as I am about the details, the basic notion of combining raw and cooked tomatoes stuck with me, and I finally did something about it the other day.
For this, you’ll need only two kinds of tomato: Big juicy “regular” ones, either classic red Beefsteaks or one of the many heirloom varieties; and little juicy cherry tomatoes. They must all be delicious, because they’re not going to get much help from other ingredients.
Start, as always, by putting a pot of salted water on to boil for cooking the pasta.
For two portions of long pasta (I used thick spaghetti), take two full-sized tomatoes and slice them about ⅛ inch thick. Lay four or five of the perfect central slices into each person’s pasta plate/bowl and sprinkle lightly with salt; chop up the rest and set aside in a bowl with a little salt.
Cut 15 to 20 cherry tomatoes in half crosswise; place them cut side down into a 10-inch (25-cm) nonstick frying pan with a tablespoon or so of extra virgin olive oil and set over medium-low heat. Cook undisturbed until the cut surfaces of the tomatoes (or at least the juices they’ve released into the pan) have begun to caramelize but have not blackened or burned. This could take five minutes or it could take 10, depending on the tomatoes’ juiciness and the heat of the pan.
Add the reserved chopped tomatoes to the pan and stir and scrape using a rubber spatula to deglaze the browned juices of the cherry tomatoes. Cook for a minute or so, then turn off the heat.
Put the pasta in to cook. When it is a couple of minutes from being done, bring the tomato mixture back to the boil, then use tongs or a pasta-grabber to transfer the pasta to the tomatoes, saving the pasta-cooking water in case some of it is needed to loosen the sauce. Toss and stir until all is combined and the pasta is done (“done” being a matter of preference, up to a point). Check for salt, and add a little water if needed.
Using tongs, add a portion of pasta to each raw-tomato-lined plate, using a spoon to top each portion with any tomatoes and sauce that remains behind in the skillet.
At the table, no herbs, no cheese: just a generous drizzle of your best olive oil to complement the three late-summer tomato flavors — raw, briefly cooked, and concentrated, caramelized.