Feature

The simple tomato trick to making the perfect summer pasta

This might completely change your August dinner routine

Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, basil, and garlic sounds like plenty of summer pastas you've had before. In fact, it sounds a lot like a summer pasta I wrote about three weeks ago.

But with a little smart maneuvering — and no greater investment of effort or time — you'll end up with a dinner that's entirely different. This pasta has a brighter tomato flavor than any you've had before, and is in a position to completely change your August dinner routines. You should let it, and fast, because the good tomatoes won't be here nearly long enough.

Michael Ruhlman first read the bones of this recipe — a simple pasta with chopped tomatoes, basil, and lots of garlic — in a long-since-forgotten paperback cookbook in 1984. "I had never heard of fresh basil," he told me. "So I used dry and it was still pretty good."

It's been a weeknight staple in his family ever since, and over the past thirty years, he's refined the technique — through practice and repetition, and through his tireless self-education as a cook and writer.

Now, dinner starts as your water is coming up to a boil: by chopping up ripe tomatoes, salting them, then stirring in some fresh basil (apparently 1984 Ruhlman can attest that dried basil works too, but, as he says, "When I moved to Manhattan in 1985, I saw fresh basil in a bodega and thought, ah, that would make more sense.")

The salt immediately pulls moisture from the tomatoes, splitting the fruit in two: a collection of pale pink, intensely flavored tomato water, plus a heap of well-seasoned and relaxed (and less watery) tomatoes.

"I used to toss all the ingredients together but never really liked the way the tomato water would pool at the bottom of the bowl," Ruhlman wrote on his website in 2010. So, he decided to briefly simmer the tomato water (dumped straight into the pan as he strains the tomatoes) with softened garlic, then swirl in some butter to mount the sauce, much like making a beurre blanc. The sauce emulsifies and thickens enough to cling to the pasta, taking up all the garlic and tomato with it.

In addition to pasta, you can apply this technique in all kinds of other places — Ruhlman is working on a variation with sautéed chicken, but I think it would also go well with delicate fish or scallops, stripped corn, seared zucchini, or lobster hash.

To finish, you'll drag your cooked pasta through its tomato-garlic-butter sauce, pile it on plates, and spoon the drained, seasoned tomatoes on top with a last hit of basil. It will be nothing like your average summer spaghetti, a culmination of 30 years of ever-smarter cooking — where will you take it next?

Adapted slightly from ruhlman.com

Serves 2 to 4

4 ripe tomatoes, large dice
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
12 ounces spaghetti or any pasta you like
10 cloves of garlic
1 cup basil, cut into ribbons
3 ounces butter, cut into three chunks
Olive oil, as needed

See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here.

Photos by Linda Pugliese

This story was originally published on Food52.com: Michael Ruhlman's pasta with tomato water, basil, and garlic

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