Fresh tomatoes, straight from the garden and still warm from the sun, have to be one of my favourite things about summer. They bring back childhood memories of summers spent in Italy, popping tomatoes like candy and sitting down to late-night suppers of crusty bread, salty cheese and luscious tomato salad.
For lunch we often made pasta with fresh tomatoes - even in the most extreme heat Italians are hard-pressed to give up their pasta so quick-cooking or no-cook sauces are a must and spaghetti al pomodoro is an absolute favourite.
It's not quite tomato season here yet but when I saw these gorgeous ripe cocktail tomatoes I immediately rushed home and announced we were having fresh tomato sauce for dinner.
Normally, I like to eat local and seasonal as much as possible but it's been so miserable lately - cool and wet - and we have been starved for signs of spring so you will understand why I found it hard to resist a bowl of sunshine. Since the tomatoes are local, albeit of the hothouse variety, I didn't feel too guilty about it and once I had my first bite any vestiges of guilt went right out the window.
The key to this sauce, as to much of Italian cooking, is the quality of the ingredients. The tomatoes must be ripe - preferably vine-ripened - and traditionally plum tomatoes are used in this sauce. If you really want to be traditional, the San Marzano variety is the way to go but they can be very difficult to find fresh and you do not want to substitute canned tomatoes in this recipe - you will still get a lovely sauce but it will not have the fresh bite which defines this sauce.
If you are lucky enough to have ripe plum tomatoes go for it but you will probably want to peel them first - it's not an absolute must but the skins will definitely be noticeable in the sauce and some may find them difficult to digest. To peel the tomatoes, with a paring knife simply cut a shallow X into the skin at the bottom end of the fruit and plunge into boiling water very briefly, just until the cut edges start to lift. This should only take seconds. Remove immediately from the boiling water and the skins will slip off easily using a paring knife.
However, those of us in colder climes may need to improvise since vine-ripened plum tomatoes, of whatever variety, are only available a few months out of the year. Cocktail or cherry tomatoes are perfectly acceptable substitutes - they are incredibly sweet and the skins are so delicate they will virtually melt into the sauce so there isn't even any need to peel them.
You will want to avoid using globe or beefsteak tomatoes as they are too watery for this application and will not make a very good sauce.
The recipe is at the bottom of the post but really this couldn't be simpler. Gently heat olive oil in a large fry pan and add garlic, roughly chopped. You want to cook this very gently for a few moments only - the garlic should not have any colour - then add the tomatoes, which should be cut in half (if using cocktail or cherry tomatoes) or in quarters (if using plum tomatoes).
Add a pinch of salt and simmer tomato sauce while pasta is cooking, then drain spaghetti and add to the tomato sauce. Toss with generous amounts of torn basil leaves and serve immediately.
Spaghetti al pomodoro is my submission to Presto Pasta Night, hosted this week by PPN's founder, Ruth of Once Upon a Feast. The roundup will be posted on Ruth's site on Friday and is always worth a peek.
Spaghetti al pomodoro
320 g (11 oz) spaghetti or other pasta
500 g (17oz) ripe cocktail or cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped or sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
pinch of salt
10 fresh basil leaves, torn
Cook pasta according to package directions.
While pasta is cooking, heat large fry pan over medium-low heat with olive oil and garlic. Allow garlic to cook gently for a few moments, just until fragrant, but garlic should not acquire any colour.
Cut tomatoes in half and add to fry pan, turn heat up to medium, add a pinch of salt to taste, and allow sauce to simmer until pasta is cooked. The tomatoes will exude a lot of juice and this sauce will be loose but if you want a slightly thicker sauce just turn up the heat to allow the sauce to reduce.
When the pasta is cooked, drain it and add to the sauce. Toss with the tomatoes and fresh basil and serve immediately and make sure that you have some crusty bread on hand to mop up any extra sauce.