I grew up in an Italian family, and am nearing the mid-century mark in age. So, it’s not often that a month goes by where I don’t have a couple of plates of spaghetti. If you do some quick math you can easily determine that the total number of spaghetti plates with tomato sauce I have consumed is well into four figures. So I was quite shocked last week to discover that all of them were incorrectly prepared. I tried a new cooking technique last week, which resulted in a plate of spaghetti far superior to any I had ever prepared, or had been served in anyone’s home or restaurant.
The technique was one that has been popularized in recent years by NY chef Scott Conant, at his Manhattan restaurant Scarpetta. Chef Conant is a regular judge on the Food Network reality cooking competition, Chopped. On that program he comes across as someone who appreciates simple and sincere food. It should be no surprise that he has invented a very simple way to elevate a kitchen staple. Shockingly, people gladly line up to pay $25 for a plate of spaghetti at his NY eatery. Yes, it’s that good, and the secret really couldn’t be simpler.
Prepare the spaghetti noodles in the standard way. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. You are wasting your time adding just the small amount of salt that you would add to a finished plate of cooked noodles. The noodles will only absorb some of the salt from the water, so you have to get several quarts of water to a point where it actually tastes salty if you are to impart any flavor to the pasta itself. Three or four tablespoons of salt in the pot wouldn’t be unusual, but only you know how big your cookware is. Just taste the water, it should taste as salty as the ocean.
Some folks like to add a few tablespoons of oil to the boiling water before adding the spaghetti, on the theory that this helps the strands not stick to each other. I have found that gently moving the noodles around with a spoon for the first two minutes of cooking prevents them from adhering to each other better than oil, which typically just floats on top of the water. Another thing I have noticed is that no pasta is ever ready in the time indicated on the package. My experience is that it takes about half again as much additional cooking time to get a perfect al dente.
While you are boiling the water for the spaghetti noodles you need to get some tomato sauce ready. In the past, I would have done this in a small saucepan, but to pull off Chef Scott’s recipe you need to simmer the sauce in the largest pan you have. A wok pan with high sides works really well, if you own one. The web site newyork.seriouseats.com has the full recipe for making Chef Conant’s tomato sauce, including fresh tomatoes, if you want to try it, but almost any tomato sauce will work. You can use your favorite sauce from a jar. The thinner ones, without a bunch of chunky additional veggies or meat, will work better. I made a quick tomato and basil sauce from canned San Marzano tomatoes and fresh basil.
Here’s where the cooking instructions on the pasta package will come in handy. At the recommended time, the pasta will be not quite done yet. Get a set of tongs or a pasta claw type utensil and lift the noodles out of the boiling water and put them directly into the simmering pan full of sauce. Don’t worry about letting the noodles drain completely. A bit of salty, starchy water added to the sauce is only going to make it taste even better. Stir the spaghetti into the sauce until they are mixed completely. If the sauce seems a little thin, that’s fine because it will reduce and thicken a bit from the starch coming out of the noodles. If it seems that the sauce is already too thick, just add a bit of the water from the pasta pot to thin it out. Cook the spaghetti in the sauce for just a couple of additional minutes, stirring slightly every twenty or thirty seconds. Chef Scott melts in a knob of butter at the end because butter just plain makes everything taste better. But if you are a calorie counter, you can leave this step off and still have a great result.
What you will end up with will be totally different from any plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce you have had in the past. The dish will taste richer and more fully integrated as a composed whole, not a typical pile of noodles with a splash of sauce on top. In the past, I would have piled a whole bunch of grated cheese and fresh ground pepper on top of my spaghetti. But cooking it this way you really don’t need the extras to enjoy a unique and savory Italian flavor.
Dee Marcus writes food-centric commentary for Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to email@example.com.