Start with vine-ripe tomatoes. Taste them. Great flavor is the key to great sauce. I adore the Carbon variety (seed available from johnnyseed.com) and love traditional Italian plum tomatoes like San Marzano and Roma.
The best tomatoes, of course, come from a backyard garden or local farm. Soft tomatoes are best for sauce, a small flaw is okay. Tell the farmer that you want “seconds.” If you need to ripen tomatoes, do that in a single layer, at room temperature, stem-end down. Stem-end down is important: they'll ripen evenly and keep twice as long.
Italians are pasta connoisseurs, eating 60 pounds a year for every man, woman and child, more than anyone else in the world. That boils down to a serving every day for everyone. (Americans eat just 26 pounds per person per year.) Buy Italian pasta; it just tastes better.
Select a shape that fits the sauce. Chunky sauces need chunky pastas. Smooth sauces need skinny pasta. Cook that Italian pasta in a large pot with lots of vigorously boiling, salted water. It's ready when the pasta is al dente, i.e. chewy, just after firm but before soft and way before mushy.
Basil and oregano, both members of the mint family, are interchangeable, but they are not the same. Basil is delicate. Use it fresh, stack the leaves up and slice them thinly, add it at the end of cooking or as a garnish. Oregano is basil's tough cousin. Buy whole-leaf dried, and add it early in the cooking. I like to crush it in my palm and toss it into the sauté with the garlic. (Find whole-leaf oregano with the Mexican spices in your grocery store, or buy an oregano plant for your yard and you'll have it forever.)
I grind pepper right out of my pepper mill into the sauté as well. Dried oregano and cracked peppercorns are rich with oil-soluble aromatic compounds. The best way to extract them is in a gently heating pool of oil. I recommend extra-virgin olive oil. Trader Joe's has a big selection with great prices. Scientific evidence shows extra-virgin olive oil to be the “healthiest fat on earth.” (Check out healthline.com)
Garlic, garlic, how I love thee! After 35 years of growing Chino Valley Silverskin, both commercially and in my home garden, I feel like an expert. Raw garlic should be used sparingly and micro-minced to diffuse the punchy flavor. Oil-toasted garlic is my cooking signature. I chop it and treat it to a slow olive-oil sizzle until golden, developing a mellowness that complements many things, including tomatoes. You can buy Chino Valley Silverskin from Whipstone Farm at the Farmer's Market or at their farmstand in Paulden. [whipstone.com]
If you use cheese, please buy a block and grate it yourself. I keep it in the freezer, handy and ready. I'm partial to Pecorino Romano, a salted, hard sheep cheese from the island of Sardinia with a 2,000-year-old origin. It is full of rich nutty flavor, and a super bargain available at Costco.
Last but not least: salt. It is true that salt is the balancing act in flavor, harmonizing the sweet and sour elements of your tomatoes. Use it wisely: add a little at a time at the end of cooking until the flavor is perfect.
I made this for lunch every day back when I was a potter. It comes together fast and serves four.
Start with 1/2 pound of thick pasta (tubes, twists, shells) cooked al dente in lots of salted water. While the pasta is cooking, chop 2 pounds of very ripe tomatoes. Then mix them with 2 cloves of finely minced garlic, 10 Greek olives cut into big pieces, 6 basil leaves finely sliced (or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano), and 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the pasta is done, drain quickly and return it to the cooking pot. Add the tomato mixture and 2 ounces of freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese, and stir everything together. Grind in some black pepper and a couple of dashes of salt, mix and taste. Of course, serve this immediately. Enjoy! and get back to work.
For four servings start with 1/2 pound of spaghetti cooked al dente in a generous amount of salted water. Drain, toss with olive oil, and set aside.
Peel the tomatoes and crush the pulp. There are two ways to do this. You can cut the tomatoes in half, around the equator, and then grate the pulp side on a hand grater, leaving the skins behind. Alternatively, drop those tomatoes into boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove quickly and chill them in ice water. The skins will slip right off. Crush the resulting naked tomatoes with your hands or in a food processor.
Now place 2 tablespoons olive oil and 2 large cloves of garlic, chopped, in a wide skillet. Put the pan over medium heat and let the garlic sizzle slowly. Add a couple grinds of fresh pepper and a teaspoon of dried whole-leaf oregano. When the garlic is golden, slowly pour in the tomatoes. Simmer about 20 minutes until the sauce thickens. Taste and add salt, pepper or oregano as needed. Drop the pasta into the sauce and allow everything to simmer together for a minute or two. Serve with a grating of excellent cheese.
I developed this recipe while cooking on a fierce, fire-breathing two-burner propane stove at the Farmer's Market. The farmers donated flawed tomatoes that they couldn't sell. The characteristic seared flavor comes from sugars caramelizing on the hot skillets.
Start with 2-1/2 pounds of very juicy, very ripe tomatoes. Chop them finely and mix them with 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Let this sit for an hour or so. Meanwhile. coarsely chop up a whole bulb of garlic.
Put two large cast-iron skillets on two burners at medium heat. Right away put 2 tablespoons of olive oil and all the garlic in one skillet. Add 1 teaspoon whole oregano leaves, or skip this step and add basil later. Sizzle gently until the garlic is golden. Turn up the heat on both skillets to high. Slowly pour the tomato mixture into the pan with the garlic. Let it come to a rolling boil. Now, very carefully, pour the contents of the first skillet into the second skillet, letting the liquid go first. Let it boil ferociously for a few minutes, then carefully pour it back into the first skillet. Repeat pouring back and forth until the sauce thickens.
In a large pot of salted water cook 1/2 pound of your favorite pasta al dente, drain well. Add your pasta to the sauce. Toss and heat for a minute. Top with finely cut basil (if you’re using it instead of oregano) and a grating of excellent cheese.
Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.