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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Back to Basics

Happy New Year! 

It's a relief, isn't it? As the festive food-and-drink-athon known as “The Holidays” winds down and we all stagger to the finish line that is New Year's Day, I find basic, homey foods are what I crave come January. Chicken soup...braised beef...the beautiful winter greens in the markets now...chard, kale, Brussels sprouts etc...and a simple, sunny tomato sauce to perk things up on a cold winter evening. 

The basics.
 For most basic recipes, I have my own personal favorites...tried and true. Tested over time, I rely and go back to the same recipes over and over again. In the case of something as simple as basic tomato sauce for pasta, I use an improvised recipe that involves sauteing some garlic, salt and red pepper flakes in olive oil and then dumping a can of crushed tomatoes and simmering for ten or fifteen minutes. If the sauce is going on pizza I add a pinch of dried Italian seasoning blend and that's it.

Every once in awhile, I take a new recipe for a spin and lo and behold, things change!

The local SF restaurant, Delfina, has long been a favorite of mine and their simple spaghetti pomodoro is the very essence of sunshine-y perfection. The tomatoes, even in the depths of winter, are bright and tasty and the texture is chunky, not liquidy. I order the dish every time I go there and have been in a state of perpetual wonder at how they achieve such perfection with what look, and taste, like the most elemental ingredients. When, oh, when was there going to be a cookbook from this fine establishment that would reveal the secret of this basic tomato sauce?!

Well, I have my answer! One of my Christmas gifts was The Bi-Rite Market cook book, Eat Good Food (delightful, by the'll be seeing more mentions of it here in the future) and wouldn't you know it, they are situated on the same street as Delfina. Chef-owner Craig Stoll kindly shares his recipe in the Bi-Rite book and as soon as I read it, I pretty much ran to the kitchen to try it. The resulting sauce tasted just as lovely as it does at the restaurant and the secret is all in the technique. Ohhh, there's no going back once you've tried Craig's method. This classic Italian technique has you cook the spaghetti half way, and then finish it in the sauce, so it cooks into the pasta. Genius!! 

There's a longer cooking time at the start, to reduce the sauce, but that extra 45 minutes is SO worth it. (I can't recall getting this wound up since I tried the Cook's Illustrated version of chicken soup.) You end up with a beautiful plate of homey, simple spaghetti with sauce that nourishes the soul...
and you can't get more basic than that.

Delfina's Spaghetti
adapted from Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food and Craig Stoll of Delfina
2-3 servings, as a main course

1 (28 ounce) can peeled whole plum tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
pinch of chile flakes
14 large basil leaves
8 oz. Dried spaghetti
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving
  1. No seeds! Working over the open can of tomatoes, break open each one and scrape the seeds with your fingers back into the can. (I never used to seed the tomatoes, so this was big for me.) Squeeze the seeded tomatoes in your hand to break them up slightly and drop into a separate bowl. Strain the juice from the can into the bowl with the tomatoes and discard the seeds.
  2. Chop the garlic coarsely, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and scrape the two into a mortar and pestle. (or use the knife side to smash and press the garlic into a paste. I've tried both ways and the knife method is challenging.) Put the garlic paste and the olive oil into a medium, heavy skillet, cover and put over medium-low heat. Cook the garlic very slowly until soft and feather-looking but still creamy in color – about 5 minutes. You don't want it to brown, so keep an eye on it and make sure the heat is medium-low for sure.
  3. Add the tomatoes and juice, along with the chile flakes, 1 ½ cups water, ½ teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper. Increase heat to medium-high and bring just to a boil. Lower the heat to a rapid simmer and cook, until the sauce is reduced, about 45-50 minutes. (I went almost a full hour.) Stir occasionally to prevent sticking or burning.
  4. Remove the sauce from the heat. If you have and immersion blender (oh, light of my life!) pulse the sauce to break up some of the larger chunks. Otherwise run about a third in a food processor and return to the pan.) Add the basil leaves to the sauce.
  5. Bring a large pot of lightly salted (about a tablespoon of salt) water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook for 6 minutes. This is important: Dip in and reserve about a cup and a half of the starchy pasta water and set aside before you drain the pasta.
  6. Put the sauce in the same pot you used for the pasta and add the half-cooked spaghetti plus ¾ cup of the cooking water and bring to a rapid simmer. Cook, stirring frequently until the pasta is cooked to al denteal dente.
  7. Taste and season with more salt as needed. Top each serving with Parmigiano and serve right away.
Buon appetito!

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