Improvising Summer Spaghetti

The spaghetti that I eat today is not the spaghetti I grew up with.

Like many Americans whose families are not Italian in origin, I grew up primarily with spaghetti that had been overcooked into thick, mushy ropes of pasta, drowned in a fairly bland meat sauce that was almost completely devoid of the flavor of garlic. There were never enough tomatoes in it for my taste, and I remember my parents jazzing their portions up with Frank’s Hot Sauce and cut up green olives. When I tasted from their plates, they saw I liked that spaghetti better, so I was allowed to jazz mine up, too.

And we cut our spaghetti up with a fork and knife to eat it, barbarians that we were.

And you know what? I still liked it.

It was still spaghetti.

Now, when I was lucky, I got to eat spaghetti and meat balls at Aunt Nancy’s house–she could cook the heck out of some tomato sauce and meatballs. I think it had to do with the fact that she grew up cooking among Italians in Providence, Rhode Island, and wasn’t afraid of the flavor and aroma of garlic. Even so, she served her noodles a little overcooked (probably because Uncle George would eat them no other way) and swimming her amazingly delicious deep red sauce redolent with garlic, onions and peppers.

I finally tasted al dente pasta in New York City at the age of twelve, when I visited that grand place with members of a church group. I fell in love all over again. The pasta was toothsome and delicious, and the sauce–it had no tomatoes, nor meat, either–it was made with clams, and wine, garlic and butter and cream, and herbs–it was amazing. There wasn’t a lot of it–just enough to cling to the pasta and flavor it.

What a revelatory experience eating that spaghetti was! It was a wonder–how could they make it taste so good with so little sauce? How long did they cook the pasta? What was the secret of it, how did it work, and why was it all so good?

Of course, I asked the waiter, much to the embarrassment of the other kids and the tour leaders. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care at all. I wanted to -know-. I had to know how and why and oh, it was so wonderful.

The waiter gave me a few tips, of course. He was sweet–told me about al denta pasta (which some of the kids in the group thought was underdone: pah!) and explained that you don’t need to make the pasta drown on the plate in sauce if you make your sauce deeply flavored and thick enough to cling to the pasta.

I kept his words in my heart for years, and when I was out in the world on my own, I started making my own pasta sauces, some more successful than others, that did not necessarily involve lots of meat and lots and lots of tomato puree.

Culinary school refined my sauce-making abilities to the point that I am pretty capable of making a flavorful spaghetti sauce out of very little. Summer is the perfect time to make such sauces, because of the plethora of fresh vegetables and herbs growing all over the landscape, though some really nice ones can be made in the spring and autumn as well.

The one pictured above is based on caramelized onions, fresh garlic, a single fresh beefsteak tomato, shredded chard leaves and fresh basil. The liquid components of the sauce are minimal: a quarter cup of cream, a quarter cup of white wine, a tablespoon of tomato paste and a ladleful (about a half cup) of the pasta cooking water. Two tablespoons of olive oil mixed with a tablespoon of butter and a scant quarter teaspoon of anchovy paste and 3/4 cup of shredded Parmesan cheese make up the rest of the ingredients.

The key to the sauce is, surprisingly, the cooking water. I learned that trick from an Italian chef in culinary school. He always made his sauces quite thick in the pan, then used a little bit of the pasta cooking water to thin it down just before dumping the barely cooked pasta in the pan and swirling it in the lightly bubbling sauce. The heat from the sauce finished cooking the pasta, and the starch from the cooking water helped thicken the sauce while the pasta was stirred through it, making it all stick nicely together without clumping.

A few more notes before going on to the recipe. This recipe calls for seeding the tomato, but not peeling it. The easiest way to accomplish this is to core the tomato, and then cut it in half, along the equator of the tomato: in other words, don’t cut down across the core where the stem was, but across the fat belly of the fruit. This exposes the seed sacks, and it is then simplicity itself to use your fingers to dig the seeds out of the fruit. Voila–seeded tomato. You can peel the tomato if you wish, but I don’t think it is necessary for this recipe–the tomato bits are not cooked so long that the skin becomes a textural issue.

Also, when it comes to the tomato paste and anchovy paste, I keep in my pantry/refrigerator, these items packed in tubes, like toothpaste. This packaging makes it easy to use small amounts of these ingredients, then seal them up and refrigerate them. They stay fresh for months this way, and the Amore Tomato Paste packed in the tube is delicious, with a very rich tomato flavor without a tinny aftertaste which plagues most canned tomato pastes.

One more thing: you can use this recipe as a sort of template, or springboard, for the creation of your own summery, vegetable-based spaghetti sauce. If you start out with about a cup of sliced onions, about a tablespoon or two of minced garlic, about a half to three-quarters cup of flavored liquids, and then add a cup or two of minced fresh herbs, and whatever vegetables you want, with some tomatoes, and cook quickly on brisk heat, you cannot go wrong. Just cook the sauce base: the onions, garlic and liquids, down to a thick paste, add the vegetables, barely cook them and then add the fresh herbs, the pasta, a swig of the pasta cooking water and the cheese, then toss in the pan–you cannot go wrong. It will result in a delicious, quick and nutritious pasta dish.

It can be a side dish or you can add a good green salad, and maybe a light soup and make it a full meal.

Here at our house, we had it for lunch, and it was filling without being heavy and lumpish around the middle. It beat the heat and yet satisfied both our souls and stomachs. (And yes, Kat liked it, too.)

Spaghetti with Tomato-Chard Sauce


1 pound of spaghetti
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup thinly sliced fresh onions
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2-2 1/2 tablespoons fresh garlic
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 teaspoon anchovy paste
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups roughly chopped fresh seeded tomato
1 1/2 cups finely shredded fresh chard leaves (you can use spinach, but all of the spinach is gone here–it is a cool weather crop in Ohio, but chard grows all spring, summer and autumn long, and tastes great)
1 cup packed basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/4-1/2 cup pasta cooking water
3/4 cup freshly shredded Parmesan cheese


Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook spaghetti until it is just barely al dente. (In other words, until it is just slightly underdone to your taste.)

While the spaghetti is cooking, heat oil and butter in a heavy-bottomed braising pan or frying pan on medium heat and add onions. Sprinkle with salt and cook, stirring until they begin to brown. Add garlic and cook, still stirring, until the onions turn a nice rich brown and the garlic is golden and fragrant. Deglaze the pan with white wine, and allow alcohol to cook off.

Stir in anchovy paste, tomato paste and cream, and allow the mixture to cook down to a pinkish brown pasty sauce.

Stir in tomatoes, chard and basil, and allow to cook for about two minutes.

Drain out spaghetti, reserving a few ladlesful of water as stated in recipe.

Add spaghetti to the pan, along with some of the water, using the smaller amount first. Sprinkle the cheese over the top of the pasta, and while still on heat, using tongs (don’t try this with two spoons, use tongs–there is a reason I say to do that! Otherwise, you will make a mess…) mix everything together. It will go together, and the pasta will cook the last little bit in the pan among the sauce and steam.

Ideas for Other Vegetable Combinations:

One could use any leafy green in place of the chard: spinach, collards, kale, turnip or beet greens.

Or, you could use summer squashes cut into thin strips or shreds.

Or, one could use broccoli or broccolini, or rapini, again, cut into small pieces.

Or, slivers of fresh mushrooms. Shiitake mushroom caps cut into slivers would be excellent.

Or, thin slices of sweet and or hot peppers.

The possibilities are nearly endless, if you think about it. See what is fresh at the farmer’s market and play.


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  1. Even I dont like to drown the pasta in sauce.. But tomato+cream in the sauce is my favourite. Have you tried adding a dollop of mascarpone cheese to the tomato sauce?

    Comment by Suganya — July 7, 2007 #

  2. Sounds simple and delicioius, I think I want to try making this. A question – is it possible to omit the heavy cream without effecting the sauce? Not really available in the nearby stores where I live and I’m not that partial to it myself.

    Comment by Mona — July 8, 2007 #

  3. I love the way that sounds, and I’m trying it tomorrow!

    Thanks a lot.

    Comment by wwjudith — July 8, 2007 #

  4. Mona, the purpose that the cream serves is that it acts rather like a glue–it helps hold everything together.

    You could either substitute half and half for it, and reduce the sauce a little longer, or try leaving it out altogether, and see what happens. You could also add a bit more of the cheese at the end–it also acts like a glue, holding it all together.

    I am glad you liked the idea, Judith–I hope it turns out really well for you. We sure liked it!

    Comment by Barbara — July 8, 2007 #

  5. I’m absolutely clueless when it comes to making sauces OR improvising in the kitchen, so this entry–particularly the last bit–helps me a LOT. Thank you!

    Comment by Jim — July 9, 2007 #

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