When people tell me they don’t know how to cook, I know what they really mean. They mean to say they don’t know how to cook well off the fly or they don’t have a deep repertoire of dishes that they can prepare with ease. I say if you can read, you can cook. Furthermore, most people can cook something they ate as a child, if nothing else. If I learned zip about cooking and never stepped foot in a kitchen after I left home, I would at least be able to make Pasta alla Checca.
I actually got a little choked up in a class last month when I reminisced about how I ate this pasta dish weekly during the summers of my youth. Pasta alla Checca is nothing more than pasta with a raw tomato and basil sauce. Sounds simple, but the success of the dish relies on the quality of the tomatoes. If you have divine tomatoes, the pasta will be fabulous. If not, it will be forgettable. Therefore, I implore you only to make this dish in the summer when tomatoes have a chance of being splendid. If you make this dish in January with pale, dreary tomatoes and email me that you don’t know why this didn’t taste like very much, I might just direct you back to this post.
We always had beautiful, tasty tomatoes and basil growing in the backyard and this was an easy weeknight dish for my mom to pull together after a day at the beach or if was too hot to do too much in the kitchen. My mom was not one for creating extra work for herself, but she always insisted on peeling the tomatoes for this dish. I have made it both ways and she is totally right — peeling the tomatoes is worth every minute of the 5 minutes it will take you. When the tomatoes are without their skins, they release more of their juices and flavors and everything just tastes so much richer and more…tomato-y! My mom used to buy that atrocious plastic-wrapped Polly-O mozzarrella, cube it and marinate it in the tomato mixture while she was cooking the pasta. When the hot pasta hit the cheese, it melted ever so slightly and yours truly would fight her sisters for it. If you decide to go this route, keep in mind the garlic cloves are crushed in the sauce and tend to look very much like melted mozzarrella, so you might want to pull out the garlic before serving.
If you are not eating tomatoes right now, you’re missing out. Even if you don’t eat pasta, make the tomato mixture and put it on top of any number of things — steamed green beans, grilled eggplant, grilled bread, poached or grilled fish or chicken. The season is short and fleeting and nothing says summer like a real sunkissed vineripened tomato. To this day, just the aroma of this tomato and basil mixture immediately makes me think summer. The good news is, you still have plenty of summer left to enjoy it.
pasta alla checca
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, about 6 medium (or more if you like a high ratio of tomatoes to pasta)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ cup torn or sliced fresh basil leaves
¼ cup unrefined, cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt to taste (I think 3/4 teaspoon is about right.)
1 pound dried pasta (I like a pasta which catches the tomatoes, such as orrecchiette or conchiglie. My mom always made it with spaghetti.)
Kosher salt to season the pasta water
- In a pot large enough to fit the tomatoes, fill ¾ with water and bring to a boil (“instant hot” from your sink won’t work, already tried it.) Cutting through the skin, make an “x” on the bottom of each tomato with a knife. Turn the heat off and submerge the tomatoes in the water for 20-30 seconds, depending on the size of the tomatoes. Remove the tomatoes from the water with a slotted spoon and place on a cutting board. Peel (non-negotiable), core, seed (if you want) and chop the tomatoes.
- Place the tomatoes in a serving bowl. Add the garlic, basil, olive oil, and a few healthy pinches of sea salt to taste. Toss to combine.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1 Tablespoon kosher salt. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions or until al dente. Remove 1 cup pasta cooking water and reserve (you won’t need it if your tomatoes are juicy.) Drain the pasta. Immediately add to the serving bowl with the tomatoes and toss to combine, adding reserved pasta cooking liquid if necessary to moisten the pasta. Remove garlic before serving, if desired.