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pennoni dressed with cold-pressed olive oil, parmigiano reggiano, and traditional gremolata

pennoni dressed with cold-pressed olive oil, parmigiano reggiano, and traditional gremolata

Boiling yourself some pasta on a weeknight is hardly a new idea, and certainly not some gourmet shit. However, its also one of those go-to meal ideas that can easily be brought up from depressing to delicious with a few simple steps. Good pasta, with a few adornments, doesn’t always need sauce (delicious though some tomato sauces may be).
 

WORTH IT:

  • Cold-pressed olive oil, which preserves the fruity and grassy flavors of the olives. Used for dipping, dressings, and finishing, never for frying chicken breasts.
  • Real parmigiano reggiano, not the shit in a green can, and not the cheap store-brand imitation. Look for the dimpled, capitalized lettering on the rind that spells out “parmigiano reggiano.” The flavor is nutty, creamy, salty, and slightly sharp. Eat it on your pasta. Eat it on some bread. Eat it with cured meats. Eat it with a fork.
  • Imported dried pasta or freshly-made noodles may seem unreasonably expensive compared to a box of Barilla, but when your goal is to appreciate the subtle nuances of wholesome, traditional ingredients, the same goes for your pasta as well.

But remember: sometimes there’s just no replacing Annie’s mac and cheese. Or Kraft, I guess, if you’re a total sucker.

~~~~~

Gremolata is designed specifically to be added to a dish right before eating, often times to liven the flavor of long-cooking roasts of meat. However, the bright, pungent, acidic hit is fantastic over pasta. The traditional recipe goes as follows:

  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • Handful of parsley (flat-leaf, if possible), minced
  • Zest of one lemon
  • Squeeze of juice from lemon, just to bring the mixture together

Simply mix and sprinkle over whatever needs a punch of flavor. In addition to pasta, try it over bread with some of that wonderful cheese and cured meat, or on some roasted vegetables after they’ve come out of the oven. The basic formula of aromatic (garlic, or even onion) + herb (parsley) + citrus  (lemon, zest and juice) is incredibly flexible. Here’s my short list (which I’ve tried and love):

  • garlic + thyme + lemon + orange on roasted chicken (especially good with some dark meat and a piece of crispy skin)
  • garlic + red onion + cilantro + lime on avocado slices with toasted bread
  • garlic + onion + parsley + lemon on ripe tomato slices = deconstructed bruschetta (also good on bread)

I’m bound to get all weird with this concept, so I’m sure I’ll have more ideas sometime soon. Something Asian, perhaps? That sounds like it could be promising…

– Max.

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Delicious as a roasted sauce is, sometimes it’s just not feasible to spend 3 to 4 hours preparing and cooking a gang of tomatoes. I’ll just have to wait to be somebody’s grandfather to spend all day in the kitchen / on the couch napping. However, pulling together a quick and flavorful sauce is easy and, let’s be honest, sometimes quick and easy is all we really want.  The following is my standard procedure and parts lists for when I use crushed or diced canned tomatoes, but this still being the season for fresh, I substituted the standard 28-ounce can of the red stuff for roughly a pound and a half of fat, ripe orange tomatoes.

The only slightly technical part of making this sauce involved blanching. This process is used to remove the skin from any soft-fleshed fruit or vegetable (tomatoes, peaches, etc.) and is much less daunting to execute than it seems. For ease of use, I’ll explain everything simply and also use pictures to demonstrate. I know you really just want to look at the pictures anyway.

Blanching Your Tomatoes

  1. Put a pot of water on to boil. There must be enough water to submerge the tomatoes, but since we’ll be boiling pasta later (using the same water), use whatever pot you would use for boiling pasta.
  2. Fill a large bowl with cold water and a few cups of ice (also called an “ice bath”).
  3. Cut a shallow “X” in the bottom of each tomato. This will allow the water get underneath the tomato skins.

    Don't cut deep. Be all gentle-like.

    Tomatoes before blanching. Yellow = mo betta.

  4. Place tomatoes in boiling water (this is the actual blanch) and allow to cook for no more than 90 seconds (we’re not cooking the tomatoes yet!). Remove the tomatoes when you see the skin splitting from the “X” up the sides.
  5. Place tomatoes in ice bath for about a minute. Notice how the skins will shrivel and shrink around the meat of the tomatoes.

    Wrinkled like your grandfather's...face.

    The shrinking is kind of like Botox. Except in reverse. Or something.

  6. Remove peel with you hands, being careful not to smush the softer inner meat of the tomatoes.  

    STOP STARING. THEY'RE NAKED.

    Post-blanch, revealing the soft inner flesh.

That’s honestly the hardest part of the whole process. Blanching, as mentioned before, is also good for things like peaches, various nuts with skins like peanuts, almonds, and pistachios, and also small onions. It’s one of those small steps that is worth the little amount of effort required, as it makes a big difference in a finished dish. To finish, carefully slice and dice the newly-naked tomatoes and set aside.

The red Ikea cutting board makes the color even more INTENSE.

Blanched, sliced, and diced.

Now on to the sauce! In a wide pot or sauté pan (flat bottom, straight sides), add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and some sliced, not minced, garlic. The larger pieces will have less bite and fire than minced garlic, and will get sweeter as a sauce cooks. Set the pot / pan over medium low heat and allow the garlic to take on just a bit of color over the next 5-7 minutes.

Olive oil and garic = Everything important in life.

Toasted, golden, and just barely brown around the edges.

After the garlic is golden (but not dark!), add onion and pepper. I happened to have what is called a “long hot,” or essentially the red version of the green poblano pepper, which gave the sauce a gentle heat and removed my usual addition of crushed red pepper flakes. Allow this to cook for at least 5 minutes as well, and enjoy as your kitchen is perfumed with the wonderful aromatics.

Aromatics getting sexy.

Breathe deep, and smell the old country.

Once the aromatics are soft and fragrant, you can go ahead and add the tomato (fresh or, if not summer, canned). However, if you have another 10 minutes to spare, you can allow the aromatics to keep cooking, developing deeper flavors and bringing out their natural sugars. Either way, once the tomatoes go in, allow everything to cook for about 10 minutes, during which time the tomatoes will break down, some of the water will cook out, and the flavors will get to know each other a little bit.

Yeah, definitely would be red.

Note: canned tomatoes will probably be red.

To finish, give the sauce a taste. Add some kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, and some crushed red pepper flakes if you want some heat.  If you’re using canned tomatoes, I recommend at least a teaspoon of sugar to cut the acidity. For herbs, I just tore some fresh leaves of basil and stirred them in after I turned the heat off of the sauce, but oregano and parsley would be great too.

Shakespeare was a big fan of tomatoes. I think.

5 minutes later, and thou havest sauce.

Ingredients 

  • One standard 28-ounce can of diced (or crushed) low-sodium tomatoes OR about 1.5 pounds of fresh tomatoes, blanched and diced (see directions above)
  • 4 – 6 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 medium bell pepper, diced
  • Fresh basil, parsley, and/or oregano (but definitely fresh basil. dried oregano is okay, too.)
  • Crushed red pepper flake (optional)
  • 1 – 2 teaspoons sugar (optional)
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Olive oil

Procedure

  1. Slice the garlic into thin rounds and add to a cold pan with 1 – 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Gently cook the garlic over medium-low heat until just barely toasted / golden, about 4 – 5 minutes.
  2. Add the onion and pepper, boost the heat to medium, and season with a big pinch of kosher salt. Cook for at least 5 minutes stirring often. If a sweeter and deeper flavor is desired, continue cooking for up to 12 – 15 minutes. JUST DON’T BURN YOUR SHIT.
  3.  Stir in the tomatoes and allow to cook, still over medium heat, for another 5 minutes, or until tomatoes soften and a sauce begins to form.
  4. Finish sauce with fresh herbs and . Add seasoning to taste. Add sugar, in small increments, to cut the acidity. Add crushed red pepper flake if desired.

    That Ikea table is getting a lot of camera time.

    Paired with tortellini LIKE A BOSS.

– Max.

A few weeks ago, I waxed romantic about my love for fresh summer tomatoes. Now that August is in full swing, however, those juicy fruits are everywhere. This post is the first in an ongoing series in which I will do my very best to take advantage of the 2011 tomato crop through my favorite application: sauce. Now, I’m not here to offend anyone of Mediterranean descent or take on your grandmother in a cook-off showdown, but I love me some sauce and after cooking pot after pot after pot, I’m not afraid to put my best efforts out there.

For my first attempt, I used my favorite cooking method: roasting. A slow roast both deepens / concentrates the flavor and enhances the natural sweetness of the tomatoes and the accompanying aromatics (onion, bell pepper, and garlic). Admittedly, human error (i.e. going out to shop instead of staying at home to watch the tomatoes) allowed the roasting to continue for a bit longer than I would have normally liked, but the end result gave a sauce that had an extra-deep caramelized flavor and just a touch of dark smokiness (and indeed, a dark color) thanks to a few pieces of charred onion.

I like pictures with lots of tomatoes. It's a thing.

All of the candidates for roasting, looking pretty on my kitchen table.

At home in Connecticut, I still spent my Saturday morning at the farmer’s market. Lucky for me, there was a man selling second-quality (i.e. cracked / ugly or slightly under-ripe) tomatoes at the rock-bottom price of $10 for a 25 pound box. And not only was he thrilled to sell me those fruits at 40 cents per pound, he even threw in a few purple and one green bell pepper, which also went into the sauce. Supporting local business + fresh local produce + cheap as fuck = all I do is win.

For the actual roasting, prep is easy. Halve the tomatoes, remove the stem (and any undesired parts, such as mold or under-ripe spots) and scoop out the seedy innards with your hand. Do not use a spoon. Spoons are for the weak and the unattractive. Dice the bell peppers and the onion, also removing the seeds from the peppers, and smash / mince some garlic. Load everything into a baking pan, layering the tomatoes on the bottom and the aromatics on top, and slide it all into a 275 degree oven. After a short time, enjoy the wonderful smells permeating your home.

They didn't believe me when I said "I'LL CUT YOU."

A kaleidoscope of ripeness.

The actual time for the roast depends on how much time you have and what you want out of the sauce. At the very least, let the tomatoes cook for 1.5 hours, which will allow the moisture to cook away and the all of the lovely flavors to concentrate. After that point, though, it’s up to you. I recommend letting everything darken, shrivel slightly, and caramelize / brown around the edges, which should be done within the next hour. Or, if you’re like me, and you get out of the house and leave your mother in charge, things will turn out a bit more well-done than you thought. However, a delicious sauce was still had with little effort.

I could've eaten it all right then. With just my face.

Post-roast, pre-blend. Look at all of that lovely color.

After everything is out of the oven, put the whole mess into a big pot and over low heat. Again, now you have choices. After already cooking for a few hours, all of the produce should give under the pressure of a wooden spoon and some stiff stirring and will yield a rustic and chunky sauce. This time, however, I wanted something smoother, so i added about a half-cup of water and mixed everything with my stick blender until it was more homogenous, but still had much texture. 

Your sauce is now a canvas for finishing. If you let everything roast for a long while, you’ll notice how the natural sugars were brought out and round out the acidity of the tomatoes without any need for added sweeteners. Wanting to bring out some of the alocohol-soluble flavors, I added about a quarter cup of vodka (eyeballed the pour, as I always do with hard liquor, nothing precise) and let the sauce stew for a few minutes. Then, in a stroke of inspiration, I threw in a bit of half and half, wanting to mimic the creaminess and rich flavor of traditional vodka sauces. This also served to brighten the rather dark sauce as well — remember, we eat with our eyes first. Some crushed red pepper and a fresh basil, oregano, and flat-leaf parsley (torn instead of chopped to prevent over-processing the herbs), and I am in a wonderful place. Wait, WHERE IS THE BREAD? Someone get me a loaf of crusty bread!

Your grandmother would be proud.

Blended and soused with booze and milk. Actually more delicious than it sounds.

Ingredients

  • 5 – 6 pounds of fresh tomatoes
  • 1 large onion
  • 1-2 bell peppers
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic (or more, if you like)
  • 1 tablespoon (or more) fresh basil, torn into small pieces
  • 2 teaspoons each fresh oregano and flat-leaf parsley, also torn into small pieces
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flake (at least)
  • 1/4 cup vodka
  • 1/2 cup half and half (substituting light or heavy cream is fine)
  • olive oil
  • kosher salt
  • fresh black pepper
  • water as needed to thin sauce if using stick blender to achieve smooth texture

Procedure

  1. Wash and dry tomatoes and peppers.
  2. Halve tomatoes vertically (through the stem). Remove any blemishes, mold, etc.
  3. Cut out the stem and scoop out the seeds / tomato goo. Don’t worry if the inner membrane comes out too, it’s not as flavorful as the rest of the tomato. Plus, we’ve got a lot of them to get through.
  4. Dice onion and peppers and mince garlic cloves.
  5. Arrange tomatoes in baking pan, cut side up, and layer the aromatics on top.
  6. Drizzle liberally with olive oil and kosher salt.
  7. Roast in a 250 degree oven for at least 1.5 hours and up to 3 hours, making sure to keep an eye on the progress every 30 minutes or so (15 – 20 minutes closer to the end).
  8. Place tomatoes and aromatics in a large pot over low heat after the roast. Either stir vigorously to achieve a rustic and chunky texture or use a stick blender for a smoother texture. You can also do this in batches in a standard blender or food processor, but it’s a bit of a hassle working in batches.
  9. Add vodka and allow to cook for 5 minutes.
  10. Stir in dairy, season with salt and black pepper if desired.
  11. Finish with herbs and crushed red pepper.

    Yes, even at work, there is shaved pecorino.

    Toss with rigatoni and pecorino romano to make your co-workers jealous.

There will be more sauce to come. Summer is fleeting and the tomatoes, ephemeral jewels that they are, will be ere be gone before I have had my fill.

– Max.

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