I remember the “Aha!” moment back in the ’80s when I discovered the brilliant Italian idea of featuring summer’s superb tomatoes in an uncooked pasta sauce. For years I made this dish the way I’d learned: marinating the peeled, seeded and diced tomato cubes for several hours with olive oil and fresh garlic slivers, basil, salt and black pepper.
The stove doesn’t go on until it’s time to boil the spaghetti or linguine. Bathed in this sweetly aromatic sauce, the noodles convey the essence of a sun-ripened tomato. It’s great as a simple supper, starter for a multi-course dinner or, cooled to room temperature, a picnic or potluck dish.
You can’t improve on perfection, right? And yet. I started to play with this classic crudo sauce, using it as a taking-off point for a more substantial pasta dish that can BE the meal.
I quit bothering with those tiresome peeling and seeding steps. If the tomatoes are thin-skinned beauties, I’m happy to eat them in their entirety. If they’re not, why would I make this dish? Over the years, I’ve changed up the seasonings and experimented with adding up to three more things–in the dish’s spirit of fresh and convenient, always ingredients that need no cooking.
Good-quality anchovies are my favorite add-in. They ground the sauce, adding a protein note, and get a slightly raucous party going with the raw garlic and the red pepper flakes I like to substitute for black pepper. If you are anchovy averse, canned tuna is good, too, and a little lemon juice brightens the flavor.
Sometimes I leave out the basil and, after mixing the sauce with the hot pasta, fold in baby arugula straight from the “washed three times” box. It wilts slightly and gives me an excuse for not making a salad.
The crudo tomato sauce can be marinated for up to eight hours–always at room temperature! Refrigerating raw tomatoes damages their flavor. If you’re strapped for time, make the sauce while the pasta water heats up. Believe me, it’ll taste just fine.
- 2 medium tomatoes or 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil the best you have
- 2 cloves garlic cut in thin slivers
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- Hot red pepper flakes
- 8 ounces spaghetti or linguine
- 2 handsful baby arugula
- 10 anchovy fillets or 1 can (7 ounces) tuna drained
- Juice of 1/2 lemon optional
Core and dice the tomatoes; quarter or halve cherry or grape tomatoes, if using. Combine tomatoes with olive oil and garlic in a bowl large enough to hold the cooked pasta. Season to taste with salt and hot red pepper. Marinate up to 8 hours at room temperature.
Fill a large saucepan about two-thirds full with cold water and bring to a boil. Add a small handful of salt and the spaghetti, pressing with a wooden spoon until fully immersed; stir well. Cook until al dente, 8 to 12 minutes.
Drain the pasta and turn into the bowl with the sauce. Mix thoroughly and while the pasta is still hot, stir in the arugula, anchovies and lemon juice (if using). Serve warm or at room temperature.
Other good variations and add-ins include diced roasted yellow or red pepper, toasted pine nuts, slivered black or green olives. For the arugula, you could substitute 1/2 cup basil leaves cut in rubbons. Another idea: In southern Italian fashion, mix a pinch or two of sugar into the tomato sauce and top the pasta with toasted fresh bread crumbs. Or, for the anchovies or tuna, substitute smoked Alaska salmon in canned or frozen (thawed) form; Taku is an excellent brand that does a mail-order business. And sometimes I add 1 tablespoon capers and substitute 1/4 cup finely chopped scallions for the garlic and freshly ground black pepper for the hot pepper flakes.