By Alexa Weibel, The New York Times
Separated from perfection by nothing more than a pinch of salt, ripe tomatoes inspire a very particular type of summer joy. In the last few weeks of the season, many of us consume them ravenously, as if storing sunshine for the cold months ahead.
You’ll still find plenty at their peak right now, but even when the best of the summer tomatoes are gone, cherry tomatoes can be counted on year-round to provide more texture than canned tomatoes and more taste than larger varieties.
“The big thing about cherries is that they pack more flavor than their larger brethren,” said Harry J. Klee, who studies tomato fruit development at the University of Florida. “Think of a larger tomato as the same amount of flavor with a lot more water.”
This spicy and saucy tomato pasta leans upon that diminutive fruit for an easy weeknight meal that delivers bright flavor with minimal effort. The sauce starts with just two fresh ingredients — cherry tomatoes and basil — and is finished with tomato paste and salty capers for a robust punch.
Tomato paste fortifies the fruit’s flavor, the same way a combination of fresh lemon juice and zest might intensify the flavors of a citrus dessert. The technique here is simple: While your pasta water boils, heat some olive oil, squeeze in some tomato paste, and cook until it darkens from brick red to a plummy shade of red wine. This effectively caramelizes the paste, exaggerating the tomato’s natural sweetness.
Sweat some garlic and red-pepper flakes — or Aleppo pepper, chiles de árbol, gochujang or any other spicy condiment you have on hand — then simmer with cherry tomatoes and a splash of pasta water, and your pasta sauce is ready in 20 minutes.
Toss in your cooked pasta — orecchiette will cup everything nicely, but any shaped pasta will suffice — and some torn basil, top with crispy fried capers and a dollop of ricotta, and you’ve got a quick pasta dish that will taste like summer no matter what season it is.
RECIPE: Spicy and Saucy Cherry Tomato Pasta
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 25 minutes
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons drained jarred capers
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 to 2 teaspoons red-pepper flakes (optional)
- 16 ounces orecchiette or other shaped pasta
- 1 1/2 pounds cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1/2 packed cup thinly sliced fresh basil, plus small whole leaves, for garnish
- Fresh ricotta, shaved ricotta salata, or grated pecorino or Parmesan, for garnish (optional)
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.
2. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high. Pat the capers dry, then add them to the skillet and cook, stirring frequently, until crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the capers to a paper towel-lined plate.
3. Add the tomato paste to the skillet and cook over medium-high, stirring frequently, until tomato paste darkens in color and deepens in flavor, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, the garlic and red-pepper flakes, if using, and cook, stirring frequently, until garlic is softened and fragrant, about 2 minutes.
4. Add the pasta to the boiling water and reduce heat to medium. Cook according to package instructions until al dente.
5. While the pasta cooks, add the cherry tomatoes to the skillet, season with salt and pepper and cook over medium-high, stirring, 5 minutes. Add 2/3 cup pasta cooking water from the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes start to fall apart and the liquid becomes saucy, about 10 minutes.
6. Drain the pasta, and transfer it to the skillet with the sauce to combine. (If your skillet is too full to accommodate the pasta, you can transfer the cooked pasta back to the pot, then add the sauce to combine.) Stir in half the basil and season to taste with salt and pepper.
7. Divide among plates or bowls and top with capers and remaining basil, plus cheese and whole basil leaves. Serve immediately.