Recipes: Italian Favorites from Scott Conant

Chef Scott Conant has spent his career working toward the balance between simplicity and sophistication. His Manhattan restaurant, Scarpetta, is named after the Italian word for bread soaked with whatever's left on the plate after a good meal. Famed for his Italian dishes, Conant shares a few favorites.

Spaghetti With Fresh Tomato Sauce and Basil

Recipe courtesy of Scott Conant's "Bold Italian"

This is a straightforward, traditional, fresh tomato sauce in which ripe tomatoes -- and little else -- get cooked quickly to retain their vibrant flavor. Why, then, is it such a hit? The key is in the finish. Here's how I put the dish together at the restaurant: I take a single portion of pasta cooked just shy of al dente and add it to a sauté pan that holds a single portion of hot, bubbling tomato sauce. To toss the pasta and sauce together, I use that pan-jerking method we chefs are so fond of. I do this to look cool. Just kidding. The real reason is that this technique not only coats the pasta evenly with the sauce, but it also introduces a little air into the proces,s making the dish feel lighter and brighter. To accomplish this aeration with larger portions and without fancy wrist work, cook the sauce in a pan with a lot of surface area. When you add the pasta to the sauce, gently toss the pasta with a couple of wooden spoons (tongs can bruise and break the strands), lifting the pasta high above the bottom of the pot. Finish the dish with some butter, some cheese and some basil.

Serves four

About 20 ripe plum tomatoes
About 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to finish the dish
Pinch of crushed red pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butters
1 ounce freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about ½ cup)
6 to 8 fresh basil leaves, well washed and dried, stacked and rolled into a cylinder and cut thinly crosswise into a chiffonade
1 pound spaghetti,either high-quality dry or homemade

Instructions:

To peel the tomatoes: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Have a large bowl of ice water nearby. Cut a small "X" on the bottom of each tomato. Ease about five tomatoes in the pot and cook, let boil for about 15 seconds and then promptly move them to the waiting ice water. (Do this with the remaining tomatoes.) Pull off the skin with the tip of a paring knife. If the skin sticks, try a vegetable peeler using a gentle sawing motion. Cut the tomatoes in half and use your finger to flick out the seeds.

To cook the tomatoes: In a wide pan, heat the 1/3 cup of olive oil over medium-high heat until quite hot. Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and season lightly with the salt and pepper. (I always start with a light hand with the salt and pepper because as the tomatoes reduce, the salt will become concentrated.)

Let the tomatoes cook for a few minutes to soften. Then, using a potato masher, chop the tomatoes finely. Cook the tomatoes for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tomatoes are tender and the sauce has thickened. (You can make the sauce, which yields about 3 cups, ahead of time. Refrigerate it for up to 2 days or freeze it for longer storage.)

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