This is one of my all-time favorite dishes in summer, when tomato and basil are abundant and I can also usually find really good garlic at the farmers’ market. Freshness is everything here, but the very concept of the sauce is also gratifying, and delicious. I’ve been making a version of this since I read about it in an obscure paperback cookbook in 1984. At the time, I hadn’t heard of fresh basil, so I used dry, assuming that’s what the recipe called for, and still it was good enough to make again. I moved to New York City in 1985, where I discovered fresh basil at my local bodega. Ah! Now I get it, I thought. This dish became a staple in my penurious city days.
Maybe fifteen years later, I began to notice that when I salted the tomatoes early, they released a lot of liquid. I knew there was a ton of flavor in that liquid, but how to get at it? It was the consistency of water, and you wouldn’t want to put water on your pasta. By then I’d learned about beurre blanc (whisking butter into white wine to make a sauce) and beurre monté, a restaurant term for melting butter while keeping it homogenous, by whipping it into a small amount of water.
I figured the same could be done with the tomato water, making what in effect is not a beurre blanc, but a beurre tomate. It worked like a dream. The tomato water emulsifies into the butter so that it all clings lovingly to the pasta. Combine it with the tried-and-true combination of garlic and basil and you have a sublime pasta dish.
This makes for a genuinely satisfying meal in itself, or a terrific “primo” dish before the main course, Italian-style. It is best cooked as you need it—it shouldn’t take longer than it takes a pot of water to boil and spaghetti to cook. But if you want, everything can be made ahead and combined quickly à la minute.
Make your own spaghetti, and this one is out of the park.
Put the tomatoes in a bowl and sprinkle the salt over them to encourage them to give up their water. Take a pinch of the basil chiffonade and mince it. Add it to the tomatoes and toss to combine. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the spaghetti until al dente.
When the pasta is done, drain it and toss it with the beurre tomate. Serve in pasta bowls, topped with the tomatoes and basil.
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