Friday, September 24, 2010

Quick Tomato Sauce With Lemon—Who Knew?

Boy oh boy, I have something fun to share with you today. How would you feel about a bright kicky tomato sauce that dances on your palate, tastes like sunshine when combined with a tangle of noodles, and only takes about five minutes to make? Yes, I just knew you’d like to know more about it.

This is the time of year when I regularly crave simple bowls of pasta adorned with tomato sauce and fresh basil leaves. I find that a good bowl of pasta pomodoro is a natural way to transition from ripe tomato season to heartier cooler weather fare. I’m not ready to give up the classic summery tomato-and-basil combo just yet, but I don’t mind turning on the stove now the way I did a few weeks ago.

 My long-time favorite pomodoro sauce is based on a recipe from Mario Batali.  It starts with a base of chopped onion and garlic cooked down in olive oil along with shredded carrot and thyme leaves, and it’s a sauce that benefits from a long lazy simmer once the tomatoes are added. I love the concentrated tomato sweetness of this sauce, especially when you use real Italian San Marzano tomatoes, and it’s certainly going to remain a staple in my repertoire for a long time.

But I just tried a fabulous quick-cooking tomato sauce from Heidi Swanson’s delightful blog, 101 Cookbooks. I may have a new favorite, or at least a serious crush that will distract me for a while. Heidi’s sauce starts with chopped garlic and hot chili flakes cooked in olive oil just long enough to take the edge off the garlic. Once you add the canned crushed tomatoes, the sauce only needs to simmer for about five minutes. It was pretty straightforward until I added the magic ingredient—freshly grated lemon zest—and I immediately began to giggle the moment it hit my taste buds. Genius.

I don’t know why I never thought to add lemon to tomato sauce, since I frequently add grated lemon zest to practically everything else when I think it needs a little lift. Fruit or vegetable, savory or sweet, there’s a good chance that I’ll reach for my trusty Microplane rasp to shave a lemon’s peel into a pile of fluffy zest to add to the dish. It never occurred to me that a tomato sauce could also benefit from a bright citrus kick, and the lively combination of the hot chili flakes and the zesty lemon makes for a sassy pomodoro sauce with attitude. It definitely winks at you as it's giving you a bit of lip.

This quick-cooking sauce is totally my speed right now, for I am getting ready for another big solo recital next week. My energy is focused on practicing Bach and I feel like an athlete in training, spending a lot of time at the gym as well as in the practice room.  One needs major stamina to get through this 80-minute program of challenging solo violin works, so I’ve cut back on my wine intake and am making a concerted effort to get eight hours of sleep each night.  But I’m also using this opportunity to cook healthy food for myself, trying out new recipes that are fast and easy to prepare so that my practice time doesn’t suffer. And with a recipe like this quick lemony tomato sauce, I definitely hit the jackpot. I’m sure you’ll feel that way too once you taste it.

One Year Ago: Dutch Baby Pancakes

Adapted, barely, from a recipe by Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks
Heidi’s recipe calls for a full 1-½ teaspoons of hot chili flakes. Believe me, that amount adds a serious punch. I’ve reduced the amount to 1 teaspoon, but please feel free to add that additional ½ teaspoon of chili flakes if you’re inclined towards spicy food. Look for crushed tomatoes, for it won’t have the same effect if you use diced or whole tomatoes. I’m always partial to the Italian San Marzano tomatoes, though I also like the taste of the Muir Glen organic tomatoes. And please don’t skimp on the lemon zest, for it is an essential part of the sauce. Serve this sauce tossed with your favorite pasta and a bit of grated cheese and fresh basil leaves.

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon crushed hot chili flakes
¾ teaspoon sea salt
3 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 – 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes (see note above)
the finely grated zest of one large lemon

Combine the olive oil, hot chili flakes, sea salt and chopped garlic in a medium saucepan. Turn the heat to medium and stir constantly as the saucepan heats up. Cook for about a minute until the garlic becomes fragrant, but be careful not to let it burn. Add the crushed tomatoes and simmer for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the sauce from the heat and taste for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper as needed. Stir in most of the lemon zest, reserving some for sprinkling on top. Makes approximately 1 quart of sauce.

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