Long-simmered tomato sauces are just right in winter, when you’re looking to spend hours next to the stove in the company of a steaming, bubbling pot. But summer demands something brighter and fresher, dishes that feature the season’s ripest produce but do so with minimal cooking time.
A burst cherry tomato sauce fills the bill with panache.
To make it, sweet cherry tomatoes (or grape, or pear or any other diminutive tomatoes) are halved, then sautéed in oil until their skins burst and wrinkle, their juices condense and their edges brown and caramelize. Halving the tomatoes helps them cook more quickly and integrates the tomato bits more evenly throughout the pasta so you get some in every bite. Use a mix of red, orange and yellow tomatoes, if you can find them, for the prettiest dish.
You could make a perfectly lovely pasta dish with just the tomatoes burst in oil along with some garlic and red pepper flakes. So feel free to stop there. But I like to add browned pancetta for a brawny, salty bite. Then, to smooth out all that intensity, I swirl in a little butter and top the pasta with dollops of milky ricotta. Make sure not to mix the ricotta into the sauce. You want to keep it distinct so you can revel in the contrast of cool and creamy against hot, spicy and salty.
As a final touch, I garnish the dish with mint and scallion. But instead of a mere smattering of greenery to make things pretty, I add a salad’s worth: three full cups of mint leaves and four scallions. If it seems like a lot, that’s because it is. But all that mint and scallion adds a wonderful freshness to the dish, brightening and lightening its spirit. Make sure to tear (and not cut) the mint leaves so they don’t turn brown. Or use small leaves that can be left whole. If you’re not a mint lover, basil works here, too, though it’s a more typical pairing with summer tomatoes.
Although this dish is best made with ripe in-season tomatoes, the fact that you burst them means that the recipe also works with less-perfect tomatoes in the dead of winter. And as much as we all love a long-simmered sauce, something quick is always welcome.
Pasta With Burst Cherry Tomatoes
Fine sea salt and black pepper, as needed
1 pound fusilli pasta
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling
6 ounces pancetta, preferably thick cut, diced
6 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
Pinch red pepper flakes
1 quart cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
3 tablespoons butter
Fresh ricotta cheese, for serving (optional)
3 cups whole mint leaves, torn
4 scallions, preferably red scallions for color, thinly sliced
Flaky sea salt, to finish
BRING a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until 1 minute shy of al dente. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup pasta cooking water.
HEAT a large skillet over medium-high heat for 15 seconds, then add the oil and heat until it thins out and easily coats the pan when swirled. Add pancetta and cook until it starts to render its fat, about 2 minutes. Add garlic, red pepper flakes and a large pinch of salt and pepper and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook until they burst, turn golden at the edges and shrivel up slightly, about 5 to 8 minutes.
ADD pasta to pan and toss with tomato-pancetta mixture; if the mixture looks dry, add a little pasta cooking water a few tablespoons at a time. Cook over high heat until the pasta finishes cooking in the sauce. Add the butter and toss until it melts and coats everything.
DIVIDE pasta among warmed pasta bowls. Garnish with dollops of ricotta if desired, and top with a generous mound of fresh mint and scallions. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and more pepper before serving.
Note: If you would like to leave out the pancetta (making the dish vegetarian), toss 1/3 cup grated pecorino in the pasta along with the butter.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.