Like most celebrated Italian chefs, when Scott Conant begins to theorize about pasta sauce, he starts talking about his mom. “She’d start from scratch—always from scratch—and she’d cook the tomatoes for at least 20 hours.” says Conant, chef and owner of Scarpetta restaurants and host of Food Network’s 24 Hour Restaurant Battle.
“Her sauce was incredible,” Conant continues, “But I understand that most people want convenience when it comes to pasta. With full respect for my mom, I think you can still make great sauce in far less than 20 hours.” The key, he says, comes from the mastery of a few simple steps.
Step 1: Buy smaller tomatoes
Larger tomatoes varieties have thick skins that require blanching before you can peel them. Save yourself work by opting for cherry tomatoes instead, says Conant. “They’re just as flavorful, but the skin is tender so you can cook them with the skin on,” he says. Look for cherry tomatoes that are deep red throughout. If they smell sour or have splits on their skins, keep hunting for a better batch. A pint will make enough sauce for two people.
Step 2: Add a few secret ingredients
Heat two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a medium-sized pan over medium heat. Toss in some thinly sliced garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and cook until the garlic begins to brown. Then add the cherry tomatoes, halved, and simmer until they thicken into a sauce, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Next, add secret ingredient number one: three or four tablespoons of your favorite pasta sauce. “It’ll help give the sauce some body, but you’ll still taste the fresh flavors of the tomatoes,” he says. Cook for a few more minutes, until well incorporated.
Finally, when you cook your pasta, reserve some of the pasta water and add a tablespoon or two to finish your sauce. The salt from the water will heighten the flavors of the tomatoes and the starch in the water will help give the sauce a silky texture, Conant says.
Step 3: Balance sauce to pasta
“In Italy, you make the sauce for the pasta. In America, it’s the opposite,” says Conant. If you’re using fresh pasta, the sauce should act as backup. “Add enough of the pasta to the sauce so that it just coats the noodles,” he says. And never do this on the plate–toss in the pot.
Step 4: Finish your pasta in the pan
Add your boiled pasta to your saucepan and cook it, tossing a minute or two before serving. This will help the sauce coat the noodles more evenly. At this point, you can also adjust your seasoning, and add fresh herbs like basil or parsley. Once the pasta and sauce are well incorporated, then it’s time to plate.
The second season of 24 Hour Restaurant Battle premieres tonight, Thursday, April 21 at 10 pm/9c on Food Network.
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