by Neelini Sarkar
Today I discovered that you don’t need to add a hundred ingredients to a recipe to make it taste good. A few simple flavours in the right combination can fulfil you.
This is the simplest of all pastas though not always easy to get right. It’s important that you have the right pomodoro, Italian for tomato, and these are usually tastiest when in season, in summer. However, I managed to find some ripe mid-size tomatoes still on the vine and I thought they were quite delicious. Of course, I have to wait until summer to compare.
I blanched the tomatoes in boiling water to get the skin loose, and then peeled them off. I crushed them with my fingers till they were nice and pulpy while I heated some olive oil in a pan. Extra virgin is the way to go, I believe. I sautéed some garlic slivers and chilli flakes in the pan – I used way more garlic than I would add to any other cuisine, and I think it’s important not to fry the garlic too much. It shouldn’t change colour because then you start getting this delicious burnt flavour that’s more suited to Chinese than Italian food.
I added my pulpy tomatoes to this and a bit of vegetable stock to give it more flavour (you can also add plain water or perhaps some white wine). And now I had to let it simmer, simmer for the longest time until the sauce dried up. Meanwhile I had set a large pot full of salted water to boil – again, I used a lot more water and a lot more salt than I normally do when cooking pasta in India. When the water started bubbling, I added the penne (ridged penne rather than the smooth kind, because it absorbs the sauce better; you can also use spaghetti, fusilli or any other pasta). The pasta took 11 minutes to cook (at least that’s what the packet said!). You know it’s done when it’s al dente – in India we tend to overcook pasta and make it extra-soft. I was used to that but I find this method even yummier. As soon as the pasta has cooked, drain it out. Don’t let it sit in the water.
The tomato sauce was done by now – I added a little more water/stock till it reached a consistency that I liked. I added fresh basil leaves at the end, salt and some pepper (not too much pepper since I had added a generous sprinkling of chilli flakes earlier).
I mixed the penne with the tomato sauce carefully, arranged it on a plate, sprinkled freshly grated parmesan on top (Note: always sprinkle with your hand high in the air, as it spreads out better), and voila.
What I like most about this recipe is the freshness of the tomato and basil, and that it’s not overcrowded with flavours. Of course, you can add anything else you like – capers, anchovies, olives, chilli peppers, etc. – but I found its simplicity remarkable. And more than the cooking method, which is really quite basic, it’s the ingredients that make this dish what it is. Tomatoes may not be in season in winter, but this is the perfect meal when it’s minus one degree outside.
(Neelini Sarkar nurtured books and authors 24/7 at HarperCollins India for five years before her sabbatical. She has promised us many Milanese adventures in the coming weeks, particularly, though not only, in the realm of food.)