Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pomodoro Perfection

I feel like I’ve gone back to school, now that the new concert season has officially started. It began with a great bang with two concert performances of “Kristina”, the musical written by Benny&Bjorn from ABBA. “Kristina” had been a huge hit in Sweden and was having its North American/English language premiere here at Carnegie Hall last week with a cast of incredible singers, and I was thrilled that so many of my friends were in this fantastic orchestra. But the rehearsal periods were intense, especially after a leisurely summer of only playing “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center several nights a week. In the same way that I struggled as a kid to sit through hours of September classes after a summer of living in the swimming pool, I must confess that the eight-hour rehearsal days last week were a bit of a shock to my system after three months of having days free to write about my experiments in the kitchen. But one thing that eased that transition was pasta pomodoro, the ultimate in comfort food.

In between “Kristina” rehearsals, I would run with Julie and Cenovia over to Trattoria Dell’Arte. We love this restaurant across the street from Carnegie Hall, a place we affectionately refer to as The Nose Bar because of the hilarious mural of famous Italian noses in profile, such as Luciano Pavarotti, Giuseppe Verdi, Joe DiMaggio, and Anna Magnani. If I were hard-pressed to choose just one thing from their tantalizing menu, it would have to be their divine pomodoro pasta.

I raised an eyebrow the first time Cenovia ordered this when we were at The Nose Bar together a few years ago, thinking that “spaghetti pomodoro” was an awfully plain selection compared to some of the other more complex dishes on the menu. But when she offered me a bite, I was instantly smitten. The sauce was the very essence of tomato, bursting with sweetness and Mediterranean sunshine itself. The pasta was cooked to perfection, each al dente strand coated with a judicious amount of sauce. When topped with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and tender fresh basil leaves, this dish as a whole was truly greater than the sum of its parts. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve ordered it for myself since that first magical bite.

Perhaps I should have eaten gravalax and washed it down with aquavit before the “Kristina” performances to put myself in a more authentic frame of mind to play this musical about the Swedish immigrant experience. But I can say for certain that the spaghetti pomodoro worked its charms and I was a very happy girl by the time I took my place on stage each night. The whole experience was a blast and I don’t know who was having more fun, the audience or the musicians on stage. I must say that I’ve never seen Carnegie Hall filled with so many blonde people all sporting really cool funky eyewear, but then again I’ve never played a concert where Meryl Streep rushed to the front of the stage and was gleefully taking photos as the composers took their bow before a wildly enthusiastic audience! It was a memorable start to the season, making me glad that the summer has given way to experiences like this.

Inspired by last week’s incredible pomodoro sauce at The Nose Bar, I’m making my own version of it at home. I realize that I hardly turned the stove on this summer, subsisting on simple summery salads and vats of gazpacho, and I think I used my stove primarily to make custard bases to freeze in my new ice cream maker! But it felt very therapeutic to dice onions and garlic which I sautéed in shimmering olive oil. I settled into a happy rhythm as I shredded a carrot and stripped thyme branches of their fragrant leaves, adding additional layers of sweetness and depth to the sauce. My favorite Italian San Marzano tomatoes worked their usual magic, creating a sauce of incredible body and concentrated taste, and it felt good to have a pot of tomatoey goodness bubbling away on the stove as I enjoyed a rare night at home.


The weather is brisk enough that I don’t leave the house without my leather jacket now and I’ve finally started wearing socks for the first time in five months, but I’m not emotionally ready for roasted root vegetables just yet. So until I’m ready to go in that direction, I will keep making myself pasta pomodoro. Not only is it a cozy and soul-satisfying dish, it is an excellent bridge between the seasons. It provides those wonderful summery tomato and basil flavors, but in a way that serves as a prelude to the hearty stews of the fall.

The sauce is adapted slightly from a recipe in Simple Italian Food by Mario Batali.

This is something that I happily enjoy year-round, especially since great canned tomatoes are always available. The ones from the San Marzano region in Italy are my pick, as they are indescribably sweeter and more flavorful than your average canned tomato. If you cannot find San Marzano tomatoes, look for the Muir Glen brand or any other organic kind. Mario’s recipe omits the wine and can be ready after 30 minutes of simmering. But if you have time, I would encourage you to let this slowly simmer away on your stove for longer, as the flavors in the sauce will develop in the most marvelous way the longer it cooks.

For the pomodoro sauce:
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, shredded
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 cup dry white wine
1 – 28 ounce can whole tomatoes, crushed by hand, juices saved
1 – 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
Salt and pepper

To finish the dish:
1 lb. linguine or spaghetti
A handful of fresh basil leaves, torn into slivers
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 8 to 10 minutes until it begins to soften and turn light golden, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more. Stir in the shredded carrot and thyme leaves, cooking for another 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and bring to a boil. Cook till the liquid is reduced, another 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and their juices and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to low and let the sauce simmer, uncovered, for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Makes about 5 to 6 cups of pomodoro sauce, depending on how long you cook it and let it reduce.

When your pomodoro sauce is done to your liking, prepare the pasta.

Cook the pasta in heavily salted boiling water according to package directions until al dente. Measure out a ½ cup of the pasta cooking water and set aside.

Drain and return the hot cooked pasta to the pan. Add the tomato sauce and a handful of slivered basil leaves, stirring well so that all the pasta is well coated with the sauce. Simmer over low heat for a minute or two, so that the pasta and sauce can marry together, adding some of the reserved pasta water to loosen the sauce if necessary. Serve immediately with a generous scattering of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Makes 4 generous main course servings, or 6 smaller appetizer portions.

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