Thursday, December 6, 2012

Spaghetti Caprese -- My Favorite Meal

Have you heard of Insalata Caprese? If you have been in a decent Italian restaurant, you have probably seen it on the menu.  It consists of fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella cheese, and usually some good olive oil, maybe a bit of vinegar or lemon juice, and salt.  It can be prepared in a variety of ways.  I've seen it diced and tossed together.  I've often sliced the tomatoes and cheese to roughly the same size, and layered them with a whole basil leaf tucked between.  You can use a beefsteak tomato slice and a large ball of mozzarella, and serve a single stack with tiny ribbons of basil scattered over the top, as a first course or lunch in the summer.  Or you can make a platter full, alternating tomato, basil and cheese in rows.  I once even made little hors d'oeuvres by skewering a grape tomato, basil leaf and bocconcini (the little balls of fresh mozzarella that you can buy in a tub or on the olive bar) on a toothpick.  Any way you serve it, it is the most perfect combination of flavors, textures and colors that I can think of.  In fact, pizza Margherita uses these same basic ingredients.  Supposedly, it was first made for the queen, and the colors were a nod to the Italian flag.  Being the corndog that I am, that story makes it even better.

Well, I love pasta.  And years ago, I made a pasta sauce from fresh garden tomatoes.  It was a process, but delicious.  So I figured, why not bring some mozzarella to the party?  The results are fantastic, and this is absolutely my favorite meal ever.  That's saying something, because I loves me some beef, and there is no meat to be found here.  But the freshness of the ingredients, the simplicity of it, and the pure pleasure of the process of creating it, make this my number one.

I should note that this dish, in its simplicity, relies heavily on the quality of its ingredients.  Especially the tomatoes.  Fresh tomatoes from your garden or the farmers market are the best.  However, it is November in Michigan, and there is not a decent tomato to be found, right? Well, I discovered campari tomatoes a few years ago, and they get me through the long, dreary, tomatoless winter.  They come in a clamshell package, and you can get them at Meijer or Sam's Club, at least.  They are not cheap, and they are small, which means a little more work. But they at least taste like tomatoes, which is a far cry from the pallid, rock hard balls with frosty white flesh inside that they label as tomatoes at the supermarket.  Of course, Sam's Club has the better price, but I found them on sale at Meijer this week, and I snatched up a couple of boxes.  As for cheese, I've heard that freshly made mozzarella is the best. Alas, I have never had the pleasure of eating mozzarella that is house-made, so I don't know what I am missing.  Therefore, the stuff you get at Aldi or Meijer or any other supermarket, is just fine. Once again, though, Sam's Club has a great price on a large package.

Alright, let's get started! 

This is all you need, plus some olive oil.  Tomatoes, basil, fresh mozzarella, garlic, salt, red pepper flakes, and spaghetti.  Get everything together, because this moves pretty quickly.

First, get a large pot of water on to boil.  While you are waiting for that to happen, rinse your tomatoes off.  I use the same pot for the tomatoes and the pasta, so you just want to make sure that there is no dirt or dust on the tomatoes.

Fill a large bowl with cold water, about halfway, and drop in a few ice cubes. Then get a smaller bowl and put a mesh strainer in it.  I've got this down to a science.  I used to use about 5 bowls, but now I only use these two.

Now prep your rinsed tomatoes by cutting a shallow X in the bottom of each with the tip of a sharp paring knife.  You only need to go just through the skin.

I don't know how your stove works, but I was still waiting for the water to boil, so I went ahead and prepared my garlic.  I use a whole head of garlic, and I chop it need to really mince it here.  Just no bigger than you mind biting into.

Finally, my water boiled, so I turned it down to a simmer and dropped in some tomatoes, using my handy spider.  You don't want to add too many tomatoes at one time, because it will bring down the temperature of the water too much.  Plus, the timing works out perfectly.  These tomatoes are small, so I did four at a time.  For larger garden tomatoes, do about two, maybe three at a time.

There....see the crack in the skin?  That means that it is done....well, more than done.  It took me a few tries to get a decent picture.  Once you see the X getting longer, you can get them out.  It doesn't take long--maybe 30 seconds, so don't walk away.

Now you can plunge them into the ice water.  Immediately put another batch of tomatoes into the simmering water.  Then get a tomato out of the ice water and pull the skin away.  It comes right off.

Like that.  Of course, if you have ever canned tomatoes, you are familiar with this process.  It's as simple as can be.  The only thing I do differently is to do a few at a time instead of all at once.  I find that the peel comes off more easily if the tomato is still just a little warm.  The longer they sit in the ice bath, the more the skin wants to adhere.  And as soon as you get the peel off of one batch, the next one is ready to come out of the hot water and into the ice bath, so there really isn't any extra time involved.  

As I peel each tomato, I set it into the strainer inside the bowl.  This is just so that any extra water can drip off.

Once all the tomatoes are peeled, you might need to add some water to the pot in order to have enough to cook the pasta.  Once you add the water, you can put the pot on a back burner and turn it back up to high.  Then add enough good olive oil to a skillet to cover the bottom.  I like green, fruity olive oils, but that's just my taste.  In this recipe, the oil is adding flavor, not just lubricating the pan, so use what you like.  Put the pan over medium-low heat and add the garlic.  This will slowly heat up together, and the flavor of the garlic will infuse into the oil.  Your house will smell wonderful, and you will be happy.  If the oil gets above a low simmer, turn it down a little.  You want to hear a mild sizzle, but not much more than that.  

Now finish prepping the tomatoes.  Empty the ice water bath.  Now empty any water from the small bowl, and then drop the tomatoes into the bowl.  Then put the strainer into the larger bowl.  It's like musical chairs, except with bowls instead of chairs, and no music.  You will need to work over the strainer, because the tomatoes are going to drip as you cut them, and you want to catch all the juices in the bowl.  The strainer is to catch the seeds.  Of course, if you don't mind seeds, you can skip all of this and just core the tomatoes, then tear them up.  I don't like tomato seeds, especially in my pasta sauce.  Use the tip of your paring knife to cut a v-shaped circle around the core of the tomato (the stem end).  You want the cut to be shaped like a cone, I guess.  Then reach in with your fingers and grab the little cone and pull it out, taking as little flesh as you can.  Drop the cone into the strainer.  Now just dig your thumbs into the hole and pull the tomato apart.  Slide your fingers along the inside of the tomato wall to push most of the seeds out.  That jelly-like stuff around the seeds will come with them.  That's okay...we'll deal with that in a minute.  The picture above shows what it will look like when you are done.  The empty shell of a tomato goes into the bowl under the strainer.  The seeds have all been captured by the strainer, and much of the juice is collecting in the large bowl underneath.  When all of the tomatoes have been emptied, use your spider to transfer the tomato flesh back to the smaller bowl.  The spider will allow the juice to drain away from the flesh, but you don't have to go crazy.  Now reach into the strainer and grab fistfuls of seeds/gel and squeeze to break up the gel.  Do this for a minute or so, over the strainer, and then you can just swish your hand around to push most of the liquid out into the bowl.  At this point, the strainer should be rinsed off.  Dry seeds will stick, and that's a mess you don't want to deal with. Plus, you can use the strainer to drain the pasta later, and you'll want it clean.

By this time, the garlic should just barely be turning golden around the edges. If that starts to happen earlier, just turn the heat down until you are ready.  Keep an eye on it, because you don't want burnt garlic.  If, on the other hand, you see no sign of golden color and there is no sizzle at all, just turn the heat up for a minute or two, until you see some.  

Then turn the heat up to high and drop in the red pepper flakes.  If you have never used red pepper flakes, I highly recommend that you buy the mild version.  These little puppies pack some heat!  The thing that I have found with pepper flakes is that they seem to get milder as they sit in your pantry.  But you kind of play roulette every time you use them.  If you are sensitive to heat, just use a pinch, or use a bit of black pepper instead.  But I like a punch, so I used about 1/2 teaspoon here.  It was bracing.  

After only about 10 seconds, add the tomato flesh.  Sprinkle well with coarse salt and then toss around, and press the tomatoes to the bottom of the pan.  The combination of salt (which draws moisture out) and heat breaks down the tomatoes pretty quickly.  

At this point, your water should be boiling again.  Salt the water well, and put the pasta in, and don't forget to stir it around well to keep it from sticking to itself.  

After only a few minutes, the tomatoes have broken down to this.  You can help the progress along at this point by pressing on them with your tongs or a spoon.  They are pretty soft, so they will break apart easily.  Don't go crazy, though.  A few chunks are good, and well, I think they make the dish prettier.  Yes, that matters.

When the tomatoes are broken down to this, you can go ahead and add the reserved juice.

Then just stir it around and let it keep cooking away over high heat.  This is a thin sauce, and you want some of the moisture to evaporate, but you want the body and flavor from the juice, so don't skip it.

Somewhere in here you will need to drain your pasta.  I like to pour the pasta into the strainer, and then immediately place the pot underneath the strainer.  It will catch around 1 cup of water as it drains, and you might need that later.

Now it's time to prepare the basil.  Don't do this ahead of time.  It only takes a minute, and the basil will start to discolor if cut and exposed to air for too long.  Tear all of the leaves off of the stems.  Discard the stems, and place the largest leaf you have underneath a stack of all the rest.

This package had an enormous leaf, which was very convenient.  Now just roll up the outer leaf, wrapping it around the rest of the basil, and slice thinly across the roll.

Here's what you end up with.  For what it's worth, this is a chiffonade of basil.  Oooh, French!

Turn the heat off and toss the basil chiffonade into the sauce.  You don't want to cook the basil.  The residual heat is enough to pull the flavor into the sauce without turning the basil to mush.  Seriously, isn't this pretty?

Now add the pasta and toss it around.  I go slowly when adding my pasta.  If I have a little leftover, I can throw it in the fridge and use it for something later.  But I don't want to be left with dry pasta without enough sauce.  If you accidentally add more pasta than you need, go ahead and drizzle in a bit of pasta cooking water.  It will help to loosen the pasta up, while the starch in the water keeps the sauce from becoming too thin.  I realize that this doesn't look as red and saucy as you may be used to.  Again, this is a thin sauce, unlike the stuff you find in a jar.  It hasn't been cooked down to near paste.  But it is more than saucy enough to coat the pasta, and the freshness makes up for the lack of redness.  

Now just cube up the cheese and scatter it over the spaghetti.  Toss with your tongs, and get the cheese kind of covered up.  The residual heat of the pasta will soften the cheese, so that when you serve and eat it......

........this will happen!  Oh, yum.......

Give yourself a little taste of summer!  Get your hands on some campari tomatoes and pretend that we're not on the cusp of snowfall.  I always have fun making this, and I hope you will, too!

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