Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A $24 Plate of Spaghetti...

My try at making the famous $24 Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil from Scarpetta in NYC.
Most people first knew Chef Scott Conant as the "judge who hates raw onions" on the food network's hit competitive cooking show "Chopped" - where he gained attention after scolding a chef-contestant for repeatedly serving him raw onions despite being told that it was a bad idea. A few other Food Network appearances made it clear that Chef Conant was much more than an onion-hating ogre- apparently his restaurant in New York City, served a simple dish of Spaghetti with tomato and basil with a $24 price tag- a price that people pay happily and come back for more.

Chef Conant is not secretive about his simple, but wonderful recipe, and there are enough videos and descriptions out on the internet to reconstruct it. So, armed with the first batch of tomatoes from my garden, and a few nearly overgrown basil plants in need of a trim, I set out to try my hand at it...

The key to this recipe is it's sheer simplicity, but do not make the mistake of assuming that "simple" means "easy" - when you assemble a dish out of very few components, there is little to no room for error, and to pull it off you need the highest quality ingredients you can get your hands on. My attempt was not perfect, but I think I was pretty close to the mark, even if the flaws would probably keep it from leaving the kitchen in a four-star restaurant. You'll note that I refer to this recipe as a tomato sauce rather than as a "gravy" - if you see my post about Italian "gravy" (also known to Neapolitans as a Ragu), you'll quickly see that "gravy" is slow cooked with meat, where this "sauce" is cooked much more quickly, with no meat at all.

To start off, you will need fresh, ripe tomatoes. The original recipe calls for "the best, freshest, ripe plum tomatoes you can get your hands on." The tomatoes from my garden are not plum tomatoes- they are the "Early Girl" variety which are basically your normal, standard, round tomato. Being the first batch of tomatoes of the year, and just coming off two weeks of brutally hot and dry weather, they probably are nowhere near as good as the ones that I'll have in the second or third round of tomatoes, but since they're right from the garden to the stovetop, you would be hard pressed to find fresher tomatoes. As far as tomatoes go, the ones growing in your backyard are always better than anything you can buy, even if they aren't exactly the right variety for sauce-making.

For a pound of pasta, you'll need about 12-15 tomatoes, depending on their size. My first haul of tomatoes are a little on the small size, and I only have about 10, so I augmented them with a few tomatoes from the local farm stand (the second best tomatoes are fresh from the farm, the third from a good produce store, and the last are canned). If you insist on making this tomato sauce when tomatoes are not in season, get the best tomatoes you can find at the market, and augment them with a few good canned san marzano tomatoes- they actually hold up well when canned, while this is not optimal, it will work in a pinch. Luckily, I've got a pretty good selection to work with.

The first challenge is the most time consuming and messy part of the process. You'll need to remove the skins, and the seeds, so you are left with just the meaty fleshy part of the tomatoes. There is a fairly simple trick to this process that makes it relatively easy (but still messy). Take a sharp knife and score an X shaped mark on the blossom end of each tomato, and start up a medium sized pot of boiling water. Put the tomatoes in the boiling water for about 30-45 seconds, and carefully lift them out. You'll know you've timed it right when the skin starts to split along the X marks and is visibly loose around the edges of the tear(s). Set the tomatoes aside, and let them cool off enough to handle before trying to peel them.

If you've done it right, the skin should peel off easily with minimal handling. If the skin appears stuck in spots, you can either peel up the stubborn bits of skin with a paring knife, or dip them back in the boiling water for a few more seconds. It should feel almost too easy to slide the skin off. Once you're done skinning your tomatoes, be prepared to get messy because we'll be splitting them open and cleaning out the seeds next. How you clean them depends on how messy you like to get. You should have a bowl handy so you can save all the pulp, seeds, and tomato water that's going to come out- we will actually use this later on.

Start by splitting the tomatoes into quarters (you can do halves for smaller tomatoes), then hold each section over your bowl and clean out the seeds and the pulp so you are left with the meaty part. You will get messy, learn to enjoy it! If you want to at least attempt to stay clean, use a small spoon to help get in there and scrap them out (I found that my kid's toddler spoons were just right for this). If you're not wearing anything fancy and want to be a little quciker about it, you can always just crush the tomato sections in your hands and use your fingers to rub off the seeds. (after getting about halfway through using my daughter's "Disney Princess" spoon I just went for it and did it the fun way).

Once your tomatoes are clean, set them aside. The sauce only needs about 30 to 45 minutes total to cook, so it's probably a good time to get everything else started. You'll need a pound of spaghetti - believe it or not, many restaurants, even highly regarded ones such as Scarpetta, don't have a problem using dried pasta- it holds up to sauces well, and is easier to cook "al dente" where it has a little firmness to the center. You'll need a large pot of water with a good amount of salt added (the water should taste briny, like seawater). Set this pot on high heat- it will take a while to boil- enough time to cook and reduce our sauce.

This is also a good time to start the secret trick to this sauce. Rather than season the sauce directly, Chef Conant infuses some olive oil with a few simple flavors, then mixes it in later on- the idea here is that the last thing in the sauce is the first thing you taste. Take a small pot, and add in some basil, some chopped garlic- two or three cloves should be enough, and a few pinches of crushed red pepper flakes. Add in just enough olive oil to float your seasonings, then set it on low heat, and let it cook while you work on your tomatoes. After about 20 minutes or so, you can shut off the heat and just let it sit- the oil will extract the flavors from your basil, garlic, and red pepper, and will add a nice touch later on. I cheated a little here- using pre-minced galic from a jar instead of fresh. I also deviated slightly with my basil- I like a lot of basil flavor so I used more basil than most people would. The basil is fresh from the garden so even the stems are aromatic- so I dropped an entire stem, leaves and all- and even included the portion of the stalks that develop flowers to get at that sweet smelling basil pollen as well. You don't necessarily need to go to this extreme, the leaves will be enough - the point is that for an application like this, you can use almost any part of the basil plant.

With the other items ready to go, we can start working on our tomatoes. You'll need either a medium sized pot, or a large saucepan to work in. Set your saucepan over a medium-high heat with about a tablespoon of fresh olive oil (not the oil from our basil infusion, that comes later!). You'll want to get the oil hot, but not quite smoking. This is the place where I probably made my most serious error- I actually started with a little too much oil which left my finished pasta a little oily - remember that we'll be adding some of our basil oil later, so be a little conservative here. When the oil is hot, add your cleaned tomatoes and what Chef Conant describes as "a lot of salt" - I don't know exactly how much he intended, so I just took a guess and threw in a small handful- somewhere between a teaspoon and a tablespoon, maybe a little more, which seemed to be enough. The tomatoes should immediately start to break down from the heat and the salt and begin to cook.

Here's where you'll need a little more elbow grease. The tomatoes will start to break down and release their liquids on their own, but the fleshy parts will never completely turn into a sauce without a little help. The best tool for this job is your basic household potato masher. If you don't have a potato masher, you can use the back of a slotted spoon instead (but the potato masher is easier to use, so if you plan on making this sauce on a regular basis, go buy one, even if you never use it for mashed potatoes!). After mashing away for several minutes, your tomatoes should look more like a sauce, and begin bubbling away. A few chunks of tomato flesh are not a problem, and are actually welcome, so you don't need to go completely crazy- you just need most of the tomato mashed into a pulp, and any solid remains broken into bite sized chunks. If you insist on a smooth sauce, then you can use an immersion blender, but there's really no need- and a few chunks add a little charm in my book.

You'll want to keep your tomatoes on medium heat, stirring from time to time, and let them bubble away and reduce down. At some point, the tomatoes may appear to have lost too much water and become too thick. This is exactly why we saved the pulpy, seedy, tomato water when we cleaned out tomatoes. rather than add plain old water to keep our sauce from over-reducing, grab your tomato pulp and run it through a strainer, then add this tomato water into the sauce to keep it at the thickness you prefer. When you mix it in, and allow it to start reducing again, you'll notice that your sauce will gain a little more body to it- so much that it's probably a good idea to add back a little of this tomato water even if you don't think you need it just for the extra body and flavor. Your pasta water is probably boiling, or close to it, so this is a good time to taste your tomatoes and see if you need to add a little more salt - you probably won't.

Once your water is boiling, drop in your spaghetti. You want to cook it enough so it is just short of being al dente, so it should be a little too firm when you take it out. Most normal dried spaghetti will take around 8 minutes to get there, thinner spaghetti will take less time. While the pasta cooks, you'll want to finish your sauce. Take your basil-infused oil, and strain a little into your tomato sauce, and stir. Just mix in a little bit at a time, and taste. Add a little more until you like the amount of basil/garlic/chili flavor- you'll probably have leftover oil, so you may want to pour the excess in a jar and save to use as a salad dressing the next day.

You'll also want to do something that seems completely foreign to someone, like me, who has Southern Italian roots. You're going to add a little butter to your tomato sauce. In the southern parts of Italy, especially Sicily, olive oil is the only cooking fat used. As you travel north, you'll find butter used more frequently, even mixed with olive oil- especially as you get close to the Swiss and Austrian borders. This is also a common technique for sauce making in French cuisine- called "mounting a sauce" - right at the end of cooking, just add in a small amount of better, a teaspoon, maybe a tablespoon, to add a little richness, and give the sauce a slightly glossy finish. This is alien to me- I've never used butter in a tomato sauce, ever, but I'm going to trust Scott on this one and give it a try.

Just before the spaghetti is done, grab a spoonful of the pasta water- it will look cloudy from all the released starch and add it to your tomato sauce. This will help thicken up the sauce slightly, and help it cling to the spaghetti better. Drain your pasta, then put it right in your large saucepan with the tomato sauce, along with a handful of grated parmesan cheese, and a handful of roughly chopped basil leaves. Toss the pasta in the sauce until it is nicely coated. The pasta should pick up a little of an orange tint from the sauce, and should actually appear to absorb most of the free liquid. Perfectly sauced pasta is completely coated, but never swimming in sauce. If you started with the right amount of tomatoes, you should have just enough sauce to do the job.  Let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce- which should only take another minute or two. The pasta should appear creamy, and have a nice sheen of tomato sauce, and have all the now wilted basil leaves and bits of tomato chunks evenly distributed.

Serve your pasta simply- just put it on the plate, and top off with a little grated parmesan or breadcrumbs. If you really want to you can top with a little black pepper (but you probably won't need to). You'll notice a rich flavor to the sauce from the butter. Yes, even though it runs counter to my southern Italian roots, I have to admit, it works. You should get a nice floral flavor and aroma from the basil, a little heat from the garlic and chili flakes used to infuse the oil, but most of all, the fresh, clear sweetness and slight acidity of the tomato should come through clearly. Surprisingly, this sauce packs a huge amount of flavor and texture in a remarkably simple sauce. You basically have three main components- the spaghetti, the cooked down tomatoes, and the infused oil, simply seasoned with salt, fresh basil, and parmesan. As I mentioned earlier, while I used very fresh tomatoes, they were not the optimal type, I cheated by using garlic from a jar, and I made an outright mistake by starting with too much oil. While it is easy to mess up a simple dish, I was surprised to find it more forgiving than I thought it would be. The excess oil ended up in a sheen on my plate, but otherwise didn't seem to hinder the overall dish. Too much salt would probably be a much worse offense.

I can easily see why Chef Conant can get way with charging $24 for what is basically a simple peasant dish. Even my good, but not good enough for Scarpetta attempt at it was surprisingly good. In the hands of someone who has mastered the process, and has unlimited access to the best possible ingredients, I can only imagine how much better it can be. The quality of the ingredients is very important. The simplicity means that you can taste every detail of every ingredient. Would I pay Scarpetta $24  for it? Probably- but if I make it myself, even with it's flaws, I don't have to shell out another $24 when I want a second helping. This Chef "who hates raw onions" clearly knows what he's doing, and can take a simple, basic idea like a basic tomato sauce, and make it into something special by applying a few simple twists.

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