Back to the Classics: Tomato & Basil Pasta ala Scott Conant
As with most food nerds, I am a pretty big fan of Anthony Bourdain’s travel channel show No Reservations. While working my way through some of the older seasons, I came across an episode which featured Scott Conant (Food Network personality and executive chef at Scarpetta) giving a rundown on how he makes traditional, old school pasta sauce for the spaghetti dish at his restaurants. I was intrigued since his recipe differed from most that I’ve seen in the sense that he does not directly season his tomato sauce, rather he flavors the dish right before being served with a garlic and basil infused olive oil that steeps like a tea while the tomato base bubbles away on the stove top.
After digging around online a little bit I was able to find a few pages all offering up slightly different variations on the same basic sauce. I took a crack at the recipe earlier this evening and here’s how it went down in my kitchen.
Start by peeling and removing the seeds from your tomatoes. You can easily peel tomatoes by creating an X shaped incision on the tomato’s bottom, boiling vigorously for 15 seconds and then shocking in an ice bath. Once you have removed the skin of the tomatoes, remove the seeds and set aside. Blend tomatoes alongside a couple TBSP of olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Most of the recipes I found online highlighted the fact that Scott Conant himself uses a potato masher to break down the tomatoes, but I really like the velvety consistency you can get from a sauce when you bring it together in a food processor. You can take whichever route suits you best. Once you have transferred your tomato base into a pot, cook for 45 minutes over medium heat. If you need to thin out your tomato base, simply strain and add the tomato liquid from your leftover seeds.
10 minutes into your tomato base’s cook time, begin prepping your infused olive oil. Simply combine olive oil (I made 1/2 cup’s worth), garlic, fresh basil leaves and a pinch of crushed red peppers. Let the oil steep for the remaining 35 minutes over low heat; the garlic cloves should be starting to brown by the time you are ready to cut the heat.
After your tomato base and your infused oil are ready to go gather what you’ll need to finish the pasta and cook your pasta almost to al-dente. If you remove your pasta from your heat source one minute before it hits al-dente, you can finish it off in the next step and have perfectly cooked noodles.
In order to finish your pasta, ladle one servings worth of your tomato base into a sauce pan and reduce over medium heat for 2-3 minutes. Once sauce has thickened, add your pasta, your infused oil (I used about 1/4 cup), a splash of pasta water, 2 finely chopped basil leaves, 2 TBSP of parmigiano reggiano, and a knub of butter (approx 1/2 TBSP). Toss to combine all the ingredients, and plate alongside a couple fresh basil leaves for garnish.
Things I learned:
- Make sure your tomatoes are nice and ripe. The tomatoes I used were a couple days short of being perfectly ripe, and I think had I waited a little bit the end product would have been all the better. Most recipes online stipulate that you can substitute in 1/4 of a can of San Marzano tomatoes if your fresh ones aren’t quite ripe yet.
-Don’t cut corners when it comes to parmigiano; if it comes in a green shaker tube it doesn’t count. This really is one of those ingredients where there is no substitute for the real thing.
-Since this recipe is based on showcasing simple, but high quality ingredients it is a great time to use fresh pasta.
-Your pasta should be coated in sauce, but not swimming in it. Don’t over do it.
-Don’t skip that knub of butter or the dash of pasta water at the end of the finishing process. The creaminess and starchiness of both will help to create a fantastically textured sauce that will stick to your noodles and won’t let go.
And that’s it really. Truly phenomenal pasta sauce made from scratch in 45 minutes…can’t complain about that. Conant charges $24 for his spaghetti at Toronto’s Scarpetta location, but I’d suggest tackling it at home first before you go out and drop that kind of coin on a dish as basic as this. You definitely won’t regret it.