I am warning you: this is a bit of a long-winded post. If it’s the recipe you are after, scroll down immediately to where the cooking photos start.
Sunday is a funny kind of day. And yesterday had a pronounced end-of-summer feel to it, with the skies darkening and deciding it was a good idea to donate some rain.
I didn’t use to like Sundays when at school, usually because there was always some piece of homework that I hadn’t scrambled over to finish, and Monday was inescapably there to be dreaded. With time, however, and after having left school, the potential of a Sunday thankfully expanded to incorporate a good dose of lolling about and relaxing, and the former melancholia got pushed to the far end of the day, to the Sunday evening. Nowadays? … Sunday seems to be just another day, sigh. Shops are open on Sundays the way they never used to be when I was growing up, and most people I know work and/or are frightfully busy even though they might not physically go to a place of work. So, although I have removed all traces of melancholy or dread-of-Monday out of the Sunday equation, I can’t say that I have learned the lesson that purported to be specific to a Sunday: a day of rest and recuperation, a day for contemplation and the spirit.
Such were the thoughts flooding through me yesterday as I awoke — and the more I tried to shake ’em off, the more irritated I became over my own incapacity to ‘get a grip’ and lighten up. There ensued a heated internal debate that showed no sign of abating even after two cups of jolly good coffee and so I knew something drastic had to be done. I resolved to count my blessings as I drank my third cup of coffee and that seemed to help. Then I took a good look at what food there was in and out of the fridge and decided that today was a very appropriate day for making an “arrabbiata” tomato sauce for our pasta at lunch.
By the time the idea of an arrabbiata had taken root to my satisfaction, I remembered that my family’s tastes are unremittingly divided into two fields of tastes: those who appreciate a bit of chilli and heat, and those who do not.
Hmmmm. If metaphor could encompass both cooking and music, I would put it thus: I had to come up with a duet for two pasta sauces. In other words, I had to concoct a mother sauce that could then be converted both into a plain tomato sauce (no chilli, no heat) as well as into an “arrabbiata” — meaning “angry”. The wrath in question, it must be explained, has nothing to do with a hot temper as such … it refers, instead, to the thrilling heat of chilli flakes that abound in an arrabbiata tomato sauce.
Both tomato sauces are made with fresh tomatoes when possible — and this is still the time of year when it IS possible. And the differences are only few, albethey important.
What I would like to underscore is that … well … sometimes … contrary to what some recipe books tell us … well … it takes time and care to come up with a well-executed dish. It is not a case of “assembling” and dashing something off in 10 minutes flat. Sorry, no. It requires a attention and concentration and time and a lot of other ‘ands’.
The second thing I would like to point out is that an Italian tomato sauce for pasta is THE sauce by which an Italian chef will get to be measured. Any promising cook can put together a tasty pasta sauce that has a list of ingredients as long as your arm but can he or she cook a decent sugo di pomodoro? aha! It seems so easy … and yet … and yet. The reasons are not rocket science when you think about it. A good Italian salsa di pomodoro has to be sweet enough and compelling enough to stand out among the strands of pasta without stealing the thunder from the pasta dish as a whole! Soooo subtle, in other words.
This is not the first time I have written about a sugo, or salsa di pomodoro. (See Classic Tomato Sauce, parts 1,2 and 3.) This is, however, the first time, I took the trouble to ponder how it might taste if it were to be made abroad … where the fresh tomatoes are not the same, i.e. where they simply do not taste the same.
So here are some very self-evident hints: buy the best tomatoes you can find, use the best extra virgin olive oil you can afford, and source the very best fresh garlic you can get your hands on. I happened to be in London just over a week ago, and I saw that some excellent garlic from France was on sale in the Selfridges’s food store at 1.25 pounds/kilo. Even in Italy there is a lot of second-class garlic on sale, some of it from Spain and the rest from China. I go out of my way to find good, ‘proper’ garlic that comes from the Abruzzo … which is thankfully to be found at the Monday Market in Grottaferrata. Call me a garlic snob, but there you are … there is a huge difference!
And now … now that I have probably made a hundred culinary enemies because I rattle on about the importance of proper olive oil (EVOO) and garlic … let me get on with the recipe(s).
I. MAKING THE MOTHER SAUCE
Here are the tomatoes and the chillis … Please note that these are not the San Marzano tomatoes that are usually the definitive ingredient in an Italian tomato sauce. Do please also notice how red they are, and they never saw the inside of a fridge. I had bought them at the market and they were kept at home at room temperature.Remove the white, ‘pithy’ bits from the tomates … I used a shark’s tooth implement to do this but if you don’t have one … well, just use a teaspoon or a sharp knife.
Plop the tomatoes into the boiling water and let them simmer there until their skin starts to hang loose … this can take as little as 1 minute, depending on the amount of tomatoes, to up to 4-5 minutes. But please don’t get your knickers into a twist over this! The tomatoes are going to cook in any case, so it’s not as if you run the risk of over-cooking them…
Measure, also, the amount of olive oil you will require. I worked out that it would take roughly about 25ml of EVOO per 100g per person. I had decided to cook 600g of pasta … so it was the case of 6 of these little shots of glasses, filled with EVOO (extra virgin olive oil).
I threw these tomato skins away but you could keep them and leave them to dry and then fry them quickly in olive oil to use as an embellishment.Place the tomatoes in a colander over a bowl or pan, and cut them in half or quarters. Do by all means use a pair of scissors if you prefer. The idea is to use only the pulp of the tomato …
See? I raised the colander to show you how much liquid comes out of the cut-up tomatoes … This is a tomato juice drip fest. You can use this liquor, by the way … you don’t have to discard it. Freeze it and add it to your stew next Winter.
While the tomatoes were dripping, I set to cook the garlic in the olive oil. I tilted the pan to allow it cook more easily. The heat has to be low to medium and keep a watchful eye and make sure it does NOT brown.
Please excuse the quality of this photo but the point I want to make is important. While the olive oil has to reach the right temperature in order to cook the garlic, we are not exactly ‘frying’ the garlic. If it looks like the temperature is too high, do remove the pan from the heat … you will notice, as in this photo, that the olive oil continues to bubble away merrily. You can put it back onto the heat as soon as the olive oil shows signs of slacking.When the garlic turned a golden colour, I switched the heat off, and removed the garlic with a small slotted spoon,. To be honest, I have no problem leaving my garlic IN the tomato sauce … but those who know better than me culinarily speaking all remove the garlic — so I feel I have to follow suit.
I turned the heat on again and tipped the tomatoes (most of it pulp by now) into the garlic-scented oil.
The heat is high at this stage. We are not simmering the tomatoes, we are cooking them through and through. I plunged the potato masher into the pan to break up the pulps and render them more sauce-like.
PLAIN TOMATO SAUCE
The ‘plain’ tomato sauce requires some fresh basil. Put the sauce onto simmer and add a few leaves of hand-torn basil leaves and cook for about five minutes. Add a good pinch of salt and stir. Taste, taste, taste … and if it is too acidic … add 1 teaspoon or more even of sugar. Add more salt too, if necessary. By the way, I read somewhere that a pinch of bicarbonate will remove the acidity even better than sugar. Will have to try that some day.
The final touch is a knob of butter, which quickly melts obviously. Turn the heat off and stir. If you think I am making it up about the butter … (an addition that I picked up from my Nonna Giuseppina as I was growing up) … check out what I wrote in https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2011/08/20/part-3-of-classic-tomato-sauces-my-favourite-garlic-based-sugo/ .
ARRABBIATA TOMATO SAUCE
I added the spaghetti to the sauce when they were still undercooked but well on their way to being al dente (my rule of thumb for you is to remove the pasta 3 minutes before the stated cooking time on the packet’s instructions).
And there you have a ”proper’ spaghetti all’arrabbiata … piping hot and ready to be eaten and enjoyed; the benefits of pasta, cooked tomato, garlic and chilli ready to seep deeply into one’s body, raising endorphins aplenty and consequently one’s overall health.
NOTA BENE … or N.B. for short. Do NOT add any kind of cheese to an arrabbiata. I don’t know where and when that idea started trickling into the Italian culinary zeitgeist. I am surprised that some websites suggest a dusting of pecorino cheese (as opposed to parmesan) on the grounds that this is a predominantly Roman dish. I have only a predominantly Roman query to that, and that is the guttural expression “Boh” (pronounced “bow” and lasting at least 3 seconds with your chin jutting out). This pasta dish is supposed to be robust and hot (as in spicy hot) so the cheese doesn’t make any sense (the cheese takes the edge off) … and the thought of anyone wanting to add cheese makes me very arrabbiata.
One the other hand: Here is what befell the other half of the spaghetti where the cheese, instead, is definitely supposed to be added with a clean conscience.