When You Don’t Know What to Cook

Here’s what to cook when you don’t know what to cook. It’s easy and relatively versatile. You can make roasted tomato sauce in the winter months from canned tomatoes, and once summer comes you can lighten it with this simple fresh tomato sauce that takes all of 40 minutes to make.

People ask me all the time: What’s your favorite thing to cook? I invariably say anything with vegetables. But I fell in love with pasta al pomodoro when I was cooking in Rome, and I doubt I will ever tire of it. There is something so heartbreakingly beautiful about a dish like this, humble yet unapologetic in its bareness. Tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil and parmigiano. It goes without saying that these five ingredients should be the best that you can afford. It makes all the difference.

When you don’t know what to cook, cook something simply and without fuss. One of my favorite chefs says: The dish is complete when there’s nothing left to take away. Each ingredient must bring something to the table, and don’t tire your diners by tossing in needless add-ons. Simplicity always shines when done with care.

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Pasta al pomodoro with fresh tomato sauce

Serves 1 hungry cook (with extra sauce to freeze or use elsewhere)

  • 2 pounds tomatoes, halved (use scraps from slicing tomatoes if you have them)
  • 5 garlic cloves, sliced
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 250 grams spaghetti (Rustichella di Abruzzo is one of my favorite brands, and they carry it at Mariano’s!)
  • Fresh basil
  • 2 heaping handfuls of grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Heat an 8-quart pot of water to boil for pasta.

In a medium saucepan, heat the garlic in the olive oil over moderate heat. Let it cook gently – a little color is fine but you don’t want the garlic to brown. As you see it begin to turn translucent and soften, turn the heat up to medium-high. Once the garlic begins to dance in the oil, add the tomatoes. You should immediately hear a sizzling sound as the tomatoes fry in the oil. Let them cook undisturbed for 30 seconds before stirring.

Turn the heat to medium and let the tomatoes cook down and begin to thicken. Stir intermittently to prevent the sauce from scorching. It usually cooks for 40-50 minutes. Once the tomatoes have fully disassembled and amalgamated with the olive oil, it’s finished. Take it off the heat and blend it using a food mill (to maintain some structure and body in the sauce). Alternatively, if you don’t have a food mill, you could use a blender, but the sauce will turn an orange-ish color.

Once the pasta water is boiling, salt it generously and drop the pasta in. Undercook it by 2 minutes so it can finish cooking in the tomato sauce.

Drain the pasta, saving some of the cooking liquid. Heat ½ cup of the tomato sauce in a sauté pan. Transfer the pasta to the sauté pan and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring and adding a little pasta water to achieve a slightly loose, saucy consistency (the pasta will continue absorbing some of the sauce as it finishes cooking).

Once the pasta is cooked to al dente, toss the pasta vigorously as you shower in grated Parmesan and a handful of basil leaves. If it starts to clump together, add a little more tomato sauce and pasta water.

Serve with extra Parmesan sprinkled on top.

This recipe will make an ample amount of sauce, but it freezes beautifully. I also like to eat this sauce with polenta and a softly fried egg or make an Italian-style shakshuka.