It was while I was wandering around Waitrose today that I saw packs of San Marzano tomatoes. I’d no particular plans for supper and thus couldn’t resist buying these famous Italian tomatoes to make a pasta sauce. Although actually when I got home, I saw these came from Spain! To be honest, it is a little early for the true tomato season; I’m pretty sure Italians wouldn’t approve of my doing this post now. When I was in Florence last year where many classic recipes contain tomatoes, they believed certain dishes could only be made in June when tomatoes were at their best.
But hey! It’s quite rare to see fresh San Marzano tomatoes here – in some specialist Italian food shops you can find tinned – so I wasn’t going to give a good opportunity up. But what’s so special about these tomatoes, you might ask. Well, the San Marzano tomato is a king amongst tomatoes in Italy. More particularly, in the Campania region. They came originally from the small town of San Marzano sul Sarno near Naples, which lies in the shadow of the Mount Vesuvius volcano. It is said that a true Napoli Margherita pizza can only be made with San Marzano tomatoes. The volcanic soil in which they grow gives them a deep, sweet flavour like no other tomato. Where the pizza comes in, however, is that while they’re not particularly special raw, cooking them produces a wonderful and unique flavour. Long and pointed, they have a firm flesh and few seeds, which makes them ideal for slicing or chopping to cook with. Now – as with mine from Waitrose – they’re grown in other parts of the world, including US, but it’s hard to imagine they can really compete with those genuine Italian ones grown in the volcanic soil.
I make fresh tomato sauce for pasta quite often. It has a different, fresher taste to a sauce made with tinned tomatoes. Tinned tomatoes have their place – just as dried herbs have their place – but seem to me to be a favour better suited to winter with their deep, earthy flavour. Today has been a brilliantly warm and sunny day, so what better than making a supper that reflects the beautiful weather?
Now, I have quite a few Italian friends and I knew I couldn’t risk making the sauce and serving it with the wrong pasta. You may think pasta comes in different shapes and sizes just for the fun of it; buying whichever shape you like the look of. But oh no! Never, ever say that to an Italian! I love their passion for food (well, really passion for life). Italians are always very knowledgeable about food and they have a strong loyalty towards the food of their region. And the thing about pasta that you need to know is that you should always match the shape of your pasta to the kind of sauce you’re serving it with. This is why Italians – especially those from Bologna – get very upset about serving a Bolognese ragu with spaghetti. An Italian would never serve a meat sauce with spaghetti because it’s not the right shape to support the heavy sauce. The sauce needs to cling to the pasta; wrap itself round the pasta.
So, there was only one thing to do. I walked down into central Twickenham and into Corto Italian Deli. I told Romina about my tomatoes – and she was kind enough not to question my using fresh San Marzano so early in the year! – but instead directed me to the perfect pasta for my sauce: Casarecce. There was even a picture on the front of the box of the pasta served with tomato sauce. The sauce would wrap itself into the pasta, she told me.
Back home, nearing suppertime, I got started.
San Marzano Tomato Sauce for Pasta – Serves Two
- 400g San Marzano tomatoes, skinned and chopped
- 1 large shallot or small onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra to serve
- 1 large clove garlic, crushed
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- a few fresh basil leaves
- 200g casarecce pasta
- Parmesan to serve
Cut crosses into each end of the tomatoes (mine were large so I needed to cut both ends) and cover with boiling water. Leave for a couple of minutes then remove. Carefully – as they’ll be hot – peel off the skin (some people plunge them in cold water at this point to prevent burnt fingers). The skin should come off easily.
Cut the tomatoes in half and then chop into even-sized pieces- about 1cm cubes.
I like to use shallots as they have a milder, sweeter flavour that’s not so overpowering as onion for this kind of sauce, but a mild small onion will do fine. Put the sliced shallot into a pan with the olive oil. Cook gently until the shallot starts to soften.
Add the crushed garlic (don’t put in too early or it can become bitter if it browns). Immediately add the chopped tomato and stir to mix. Add seasoning. Bring to a simmer and put a lid on. Leave for 15 minutes, giving it a stir halfway through. I then mashed the sauce down a bit with a potato masher. I didn’t want a smooth sauce, so mashing was a good way to thicken the sauce but retain some bites of tomato.
Tear a few basil leaves into the sauce. Stir and put the lid back on and leave for another 5-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, start cooking your pasta. Mine needed 9 minutes cooking but check instructions on your packet. Drain. Return to the pan. Check the seasoning of the tomato sauce then add it to the pan of pasta. Stir gently but thoroughly to mix well over a low heat for just a few seconds. Italians always mix the pasta and sauce like this – they never plonk the sauce on top of the pasta! And I think you do get a better flavour doing it this way.
Transfer to serving dishes. Grate over some Parmesan and drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil. Garnish with a few more fresh basil leaves.
I served mine with a side green salad. Really it was the simplest of meals – just a few ingredients. But everything was perfect: the best ingredients cooked to be eaten straight away. The sauce did have a lovely flavour. I’d like to buy more of the tomatoes later in the year when they’re at their best; hopefully find some Italian ones from the Naples area to get the authentic San Marzano experience. Meanwhile, my supper was a glorious way to see the sun set on a perfect spring day and brought back some lovely memories of Italy.