|My try at making the famous $24 Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil from Scarpetta in NYC.|
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.
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.
"Disney Princess" spoon I just went for it and did it the fun way).
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.
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.
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.