Here’s what to cook when you don’t know what to cook. It’s easy and relatively versatile. You can make roasted tomato sauce in the winter months from canned tomatoes, and once summer comes you can lighten it with this simple fresh tomato sauce that takes all of 40 minutes to make.
People ask me all the time: What’s your favorite thing to cook? I invariably say anything with vegetables. But I fell in love with pasta al pomodoro when I was cooking in Rome, and I doubt I will ever tire of it. There is something so heartbreakingly beautiful about a dish like this, humble yet unapologetic in its bareness. Tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil and parmigiano. It goes without saying that these five ingredients should be the best that you can afford. It makes all the difference.
When you don’t know what to cook, cook something simply and without fuss. One of my favorite chefs says: The dish is complete when there’s nothing left to take away. Each ingredient must bring something to the table, and don’t tire your diners by tossing in needless add-ons. Simplicity always shines when done with care.
Pasta al pomodoro with fresh tomato sauce
Serves 1 hungry cook (with extra sauce to freeze or use elsewhere)
- 2 pounds tomatoes, halved (use scraps from slicing tomatoes if you have them)
- 5 garlic cloves, sliced
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 250 grams spaghetti (Rustichella di Abruzzo is one of my favorite brands, and they carry it at Mariano’s!)
- Fresh basil
- 2 heaping handfuls of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Heat an 8-quart pot of water to boil for pasta.
In a medium saucepan, heat the garlic in the olive oil over moderate heat. Let it cook gently – a little color is fine but you don’t want the garlic to brown. As you see it begin to turn translucent and soften, turn the heat up to medium-high. Once the garlic begins to dance in the oil, add the tomatoes. You should immediately hear a sizzling sound as the tomatoes fry in the oil. Let them cook undisturbed for 30 seconds before stirring.
Turn the heat to medium and let the tomatoes cook down and begin to thicken. Stir intermittently to prevent the sauce from scorching. It usually cooks for 40-50 minutes. Once the tomatoes have fully disassembled and amalgamated with the olive oil, it’s finished. Take it off the heat and blend it using a food mill (to maintain some structure and body in the sauce). Alternatively, if you don’t have a food mill, you could use a blender, but the sauce will turn an orange-ish color.
Once the pasta water is boiling, salt it generously and drop the pasta in. Undercook it by 2 minutes so it can finish cooking in the tomato sauce.
Drain the pasta, saving some of the cooking liquid. Heat ½ cup of the tomato sauce in a sauté pan. Transfer the pasta to the sauté pan and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring and adding a little pasta water to achieve a slightly loose, saucy consistency (the pasta will continue absorbing some of the sauce as it finishes cooking).
Once the pasta is cooked to al dente, toss the pasta vigorously as you shower in grated Parmesan and a handful of basil leaves. If it starts to clump together, add a little more tomato sauce and pasta water.
Serve with extra Parmesan sprinkled on top.
This recipe will make an ample amount of sauce, but it freezes beautifully. I also like to eat this sauce with polenta and a softly fried egg or make an Italian-style shakshuka.
The trouble with abundance is it often feels unearned, and getting something you’ve longed for can feel oddly anticlimactic.
The height of summer is the time I long for all year. While I’m shoveling snow struggling to stay warm, I remember with sweet fondness the utter salvation of an ice cream cone or the relief of passing through doorways into an air-conditioned living room. In the depths of winter when I can’t bear the idea of eating another parsnip, I dream about farmer’s market stands covered with produce of every color.
The shift happens so fast. Suddenly the kitchen counter is covered with tomatoes. Last week I got so much zucchini in my CSA box I panicked. What will I do with all of this? In those moments of dreams realized, abundance can feel more like a cross to bear rather than a wish granted.
Such is the nature of longing. Despite the suffering it creates, living life in anticipation of what’s to come can, paradoxically, feel quite good. I’m reminded the profound and tremendous longing I’ve felt for romantic partnership during extended periods of aloneness. In those times, I have been all but certain that there could be nothing sweeter and more satisfying than finding someone with whom to be. Then it happens. A few weeks pass before I’m reminded, inevitably, that relationships are hard and actually it was quite nice having Friday evenings to myself and my pajamas.
Real life can never measure up to our deepest longings because longing itself is a mental manifestation that can morph and change. It isn’t beholden to the truths of reality. Things are further complicated because there is always something else to long for. Like a game of whack-a-mole, longing can never be fully satiated.
What’s the antidote? I usually start by taking a deep the breath. I make mental notes of my surroundings, like the way the morning light slices across the stove in my kitchen illuminating a sliver of the tea kettle in such a way that can only be described as breath-taking. I take notes about what I see, even if it’s just the banality of my everyday routine. David Whyte wrote: Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The natural world, fantastic and awesome in its innate capacity to produce, can also be a disorienting and disquieting. Things move at their own speed. There can be no willing things to grow before their time simply because you’re craving eggplant parm. Cooking in tandem with the natural world builds the mental muscles of dexterity and agility. You necessarily must embrace change and move with it in order to get to achieve your desired outcome., which should always include a delicious meal. Such skills are in short supply and will serve you well in just about every other area of you life. Truthfully, if you want to learn how to be a better lover, friend, partner, sister, advisor, mentor, human being, starting cooking seasonally.
Here’s one zucchini recipe I return to again and again, and it’s a technique that lends itself well to other vegetables such a romanesco or broccoli. Stra in Italian means “very”, so stracotto means “very cooked”. Successful execution hinges on a generous amount of olive oil to start and just the right amount of additional liquid (water) to inhibit any scorching but not too much as to steam the vegetable. The result is an incredibly luxurious mass of cooked down vegetable that shines on toast, in pasta or as the base for a piece of seared fish or grilled chicken. Last night I tossed this with some malfatti, pecorino and breadcrumbs.
Yields: About 1 ½ cups
- 1 pound zucchini, cut in large dice (it doesn’t need to be perfect because this will cook down)
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Couple large pinches of salt
- 4 garlic cloves, smashed
- 2 t chili flake
Warm the olive oil and garlic cloves over medium-low heat in a wide pot that’s large enough to accommodate the diced zucchini. Once the garlic has begun to color slightly, 4-5 mins, add the chili flake and let cook 30 seconds. Turn up the heat and add the zucchini. It should sizzle when it lands in the pan. Add a couple tablespoons of water and let cook for 5 minutes before sprinkling a generous amount of salt over the zucchini. Stir well. Cover the pot partially and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.
Uncover the pot and stir, taking care to scrap any lingering bits off the bottom of the pan. Continue cooking uncovered and stirring occasionally as the zucchini releases its liquid and begin to collapse on itself, about 20 minutes. If the contents of the pan start sticking to the bottom, add a couple tablespoons of water. Continue cooking until the mass begins to come together. It should look … very cooked.
Toss with pasta, spread on toast, or eat over grilled polenta. This also happens to be a truly spectacular sandwich spread with a few thick slices of mozzarella and fresh tomato if you have them on hand.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped off the bus in Seville was the color. The blood red writing on the advertisement for an upcoming bull fight. The walls of bars and cafes painted canary yellow housing myriad bottles of sherry. A cloudless cerulean sky in January.
Seville is a city of color. It’s bright and loud, the people warm and effusive. I lived there during a semester in college and was immediately swept away in the city’s vibrancy and verve.
I was fortunate enough to live with a Spanish family. My host mother, Nani, and her three grown kids took me under their wing and helped me become fluent in Spanish. They educated me on the intricacies of dialect, patiently explained the history of the Spanish civil war and the ensuing decades-long dictatorship, and taught me how to eat like a Spaniard.
That brief stretch of time marked my first extended foray into a culture that wasn’t my own, and I relished being able to go undercover and discover a whole new set of mores and customs that weren’t my own. I happily adopted caffe con leche into my morning routine and ate huge lunches followed by long, lazy siestas. I stayed out absurdly late at flamenco shows and discotecas, sweaty, buzzed and alive.
Unsurprisingly, the food was my favorite aspect of Spanish culture. Gazpacho and tortilla espanola was my favorite lunch during the late spring and summer months. The ice-cold tomato-based soup punctuated with the sharp zing of raw garlic and sherry vinegar was the perfect antidote to the inescapable heat.
Spanish tortilla is a confusing name for a very thick omelette, usually with onion and potato. Gazpacho has many different iterations, but Nani’s remains my favorite. Her’s was a stripped down version, basically just ripe tomatoes pureed with a few other vegetables, a healthy dose of sherry vinegar, and an abundance of olive oil. Served with tortilla espanola and crusty bread, gazpacho has an almost Proustian power over me; it sends me right back to scorching late spring evenings circa 2006.
The Best Gazpacho
Adapted from The New York Times
- 3 pounds ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 1 mild pepper, such as cubanelle or Anaheim peppers, cut into chunks
- 1 cucumber, cut into chunks
- 1 small mild onion, roughly chopped
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 T sherry vinegar
- 1/2 – 3/4 cup extra virgin oil olive
Puree the vegetables with the vinegar and couple large pinches of salt. Stream the oil in as the motor runs to emulsify the oil into the mixture. Add the oil until you start to see the soup change color and it coats the roof of your mouth pleasantly when you taste it. You may need to add more salt and vinegar; taste and judge accordingly. Serve with another drizzle of good olive oil and lot’s of crusty bread.
Note that as this sits in the fridge, it will start to separate. Stir well or blitz it with an immersion blender to re-emulsify before serving. A VitaMix works well for this recipe to attain that velvety smooth consistency, but an immersion blender or regular blender will work in a pinch.
It feels a bit early for tomatoes. In the Midwest we normally start seeing vine-ripened tomatoes in late August, sun-kissed, cherubic and plump. But well-tended greenhouses make access to delicious tomatoes a reality much earlier in the summer. I happened upon a few really good ones last week and jumped at the chance to eat them sliced raw with some coarse sea salt and olive oil just like we used to do in Rome.
They were so flavorful it took my breath away: Sweet, acidic, firm yet easily yielding to the side of a fork. It left me with an oddly unsettling nostalgia for my childhood. My mother is a skilled cook and has always understood the art of restraint in the kitchen. During the summer, she adorned our kitchen table with heirloom tomatoes lined up like soldiers on a thin wooden plank. Dinner during the hottest parts of the year usually involved tomatoes in some unadulterated form. Two of her favorites are BLTs and tomatoes vinaigrette, a strikingly simple amalgamation of raw chopped garlic and balsamic vinegar poured over warm pasta and tossed with chopped tomatoes and their juices. I remember that pasta tasting like summer.
- 3 very ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped (save the juices)
- 3 large garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tablespoons good balsamic vinegar
- 1 1/2 pounds rotini (any pasta shape with ridges or curls will do just fine)
- Good olive oil to drizzle
- Shaved Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese
- A handful of basil leaves
Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water.
While the pasta is cooking, roughly chop the tomatoes. Be sure to save the juices.
Using a sharp paring knife, mince the garlic by hand then soak it in the balsamic vinegar for a few minutes.
Drain the pasta. Transfer to a bowl and add the tomatoes with their juices. Drizzle the balsamic and garlic over the pasta as well as some good olive oil. Don’t be stingy with the oil. Toss by hand or use a large spoon to stir up the mixture to emulsify the tomato juices with the oil and the vinegar.
Garnish with some Parmesan shavings and torn basil leaves.