Thursday, December 3, 2015

Rigatoni with a rich cherry tomato sauce and spinach

There are very few things in this world that are better than a bowlful of pasta with homemade tomato sauce. It’s perhaps the most comforting, unpretentious and downright delicious food of all time.

There are numerous versions of tomato sauces for pasta, from the traditional to the more unconventional ones, from the simple to the more intricate, from those made smack in the middle of summer with fresh in-season tomatoes to those made in the dead of winter with tinned tomatoes or passata, from super smooth to ultra-chunky, from those containing all sorts of spices and chilli to those loaded with fresh herbs, made with onions, with butter, with olive oil (the only way to go in my book), with wine, with peppers, with garlic, with vinegar, I could go on forever; it’s a crazy world of tomato sauces out there, but not all of them are memorable.

I myself have made multiple kinds of tomato sauces in the past with various degrees of success and with my favorite being the one that I customarily make in the summertime, when tomatoes are at their best, which is loosely based on this pizza sauce.

My latest, however, tomato sauce of choice is this one which, even though is a year-round tomato pasta sauce since it uses fresh cherry tomatoes, it’s ideal for winter. Apart from the cherry tomatoes, there’s also tomato passata in there to give the sauce body and that intense red color you want in such a sauce, there’s a bit of dried chilli for some heat, stock to add more depth of flavor —this is a real wintery tomato sauce after all— herbs, onion and garlic, and the ever-present extra virgin olive oil.

And let me tell you, it is awesome. Super tasty and thick, with a rich and ever-so-slightly acidic tomato flavor that is deep, concentrated and intensely savory, with bright notes from the cherry tomatoes, a gentle spicy kick from the dried chilli and an earthy, almost woody quality from the thyme and bay leaf. Tossed with some properly cooked pasta it is a dream come true.

Speaking of pasta, there’s the issue of how you prepare it. It’s a common practice in Greece to toss the boiled and drained off pasta in sizzling hot butter or margarine before you add it to your sauce (like I showed you in this Greek beef stew recipe with pasta or this Greek braised rabbit with hilopites pasta) and I grew up eating it exactly like that. I don’t generally do that anymore, because I choose not to cook with butter often (I reserve it for my baking), but there are times, like this one, that I want to finish the pasta off with some silky butter. It adds extra flavor to the pasta, it coats and gives it a smooth shine, and lest not forget what the aroma of butter can do to your appetite, right?

I opted for rigatoni pasta which is nice and thick and has ridges to catch the sauce, and I also added a few handfuls of baby spinach leaves for extra freshness and iron flavor. Paired with the rich tomato sauce and the umami flavor of the generously grated parmesan on top, it was an exceptional pasta dish.

P.S. As mentioned in my two previous posts, apart from your votes, there’s a judges panel of the Greek VIMA Gourmet Food Blog Awards competition, that will judge specific recipes submitted for the competition using sponsors’ ingredients. One of the sponsors is #Flora (a Greek butter brand) and they send me maaaany packets of butter to feature in my recipes for the competition. I have loved using them. So, this pasta recipe is submitted for one of the categories I’m nominated in, “Best Sweet Treats”. (Do not ask me what pasta has to do with sweet treats; it sounds weird but the brief we were given included a savory dish. I know, crazy.) If you wish, you can still vote for me here for Best Cooking Blog, here for Best Sweet Treats and here for Best Food Photography & Styling by clicking the “like” button below the Greek text and next to where it says “Like for Vote” in each category. You will make me very happy if you do. Thank you very much for your support!!

Rigatoni with a rich cherry tomato sauce and spinach

The recipe yields a lot of sauce. You can keep the remaining sauce from this dish in an airtight container in the fridge for a couple of days or in the freezer for up to a month.
The sauce works great not only for this kind of pasta but also with all sorts of baked pasta dishes.

I used chicken stock but you can use vegetable stock to turn this dish vegetarian.

Yield: 4 servings (plus a lot more sauce to store for later use)


for the tomato sauce (adapted from Marco Pierre White)
90 ml (6 Tbsp) olive oil (I use extra-virgin)
2 onions (about 250 g), peeled and grated or whizzed in a food processor
3 garlic cloves, peeled and grated or whizzed in a food processor
600 g fresh cherry tomatoes (about 50), cut in half
1 liter tomato passata
1 cup hot water
2 chicken stock pots (I used Knorr) or stock cubes
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 dried bay leaves
1 tsp sweet paprika (not smoked)
½ tsp dried red chilli flakes
Freshly ground black pepper (4-5 turns of the pepper mill)
Salt, to taste

for the pasta
500 g dried rigatoni (I used mezzi (short) rigatoni)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter

100-150 g fresh baby spinach leaves
Parmesan, grated, for serving

Special equipment: grater, small food processor (optional), colander


for the sauce
In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, add the olive oil and place over a medium heat. When it starts to shimmer, add the grated onions and garlic and sauté, stirring constantly so they don’t catch, until soft, for about 6 minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook until they break down and start to release their juices, for about 5 minutes. Add the passata, the water, the stock pots, thyme, bay leaf, sweet paprika, dried chilli flakes and black pepper to the pan, stir well and bring to the boil. Then turn heat down to low and simmer gently with the lid slightly ajar and stirring from time to time to ensure the sauce is not sticking to the bottom of the pan, for about 40 minutes or until the sauce has thickened and reduced. See photos for reference.

When ready, remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs, check the seasoning and add salt if needed and stir well.

for the pasta
While the sauce is cooking, prepare the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil over high heat and add the rigatoni. Cook until al dente (firm but not very hard), or cook to your liking, following the instructions on the package. Drain the pasta in a colander, discarding the water.
In the same pot you boiled tha pasta, add the butter and melt it over a medium-high heat to foam. Return the pasta to the pot, turn off the heat and quickly stir the pasta around so that it gets coated with the butter.

Immediately add ladlefuls of sauce to the pasta, as much as you like depending on how you eat your pasta, add the spinach and toss well to mix. The spinach will wilt in the heat of the pasta.

Serve immediately in large pasta plates and grate a generous amount of parmesan on top.
Enjoy with a good bottle of red wine.