Dear, sweet, gentle reader. It is taking all of my mental and most of my physical capacity to endure life until tomorrow night when Germany plays Spain in the semi-finals of the World Cup. If you've been following along, and I sure hope you have (the drama! the intrigue! the exhilaration!), you might have caught drift of the way the German team is playing and though I've been a devoted fan since the age of five, when a sticker of Rudi Völler in all his permed and mustachioed glory found a permanent home glued to the underside of a shelf positioned right above my bed so that I could see him before I went to sleep at night and first thing when I woke up, I have to say it's never been this much fun to watch them play. And how they have played!
Anyway, since you come here for food and chat and not sports commentary, I will do my very best to keep my nerves to myself, but I'll just say it's hard, okay? It's hard! You should see my cuticles. My new gray hair. Me muttering to myself before I go to sleep at night. "They'll be okay without Müller, right?" "Maybe David Villa will get the stomach flu." "Four goals against Australia! Four goals against England! Four goals against Argentina!" "Please, psychic octopus, please be wrong just this one time."
Food and chat, woman! Focus. Okay.
So, the other day I was thinking about spaghetti. I think about spaghetti a lot, you know. Maybe because I'm half-Italian. Maybe because we eat it multiple times a week. Maybe just because it's good. Who knows. I was thinking about spaghetti and how I go through phases with spaghetti sauce. Like, there were a good two years where my favorite tomato sauce involved canned cherry tomatoes, a small can of tuna and a garlic clove. I made it over and over and over again until I could no longer look at tuna the same way again (good thing, too). Then I had a thing with Marcella Hazan's tomato-butter-and-onion sauce. Over and over and over again, until it started tasting like tomato soup to me and I had to take a break. Then there was the sauce made with sliced zucchini simmered in diced tomatoes (Muir Glen, I miss you!), particularly delicious with grated Parmigiano - I do believe that one lasted the longest. But my first love, the tomato sauce that started the obsessive sauce-making, well, I had managed to banish it from my memory so entirely that when it popped back into my head the other day, I almost jumped.
That tomato sauce, made of little cherry tomatoes halved and baked in the oven with a cheese-breadcrumb topping, was one of the four pillars of my diet during my first years in New York. I made it All. The. Time. I found it in the Best American Recipes cookbook from the year 2000 and I committed it to memory. My roommates were obsessed, my faraway boyfriend smitten. It was fast, it was cheap, it didn't dirty many pots, and it was delicious. Best recipe, indeed.
But as these things go, I overdid it. I made it one too many times, relied on it too much for weekly nourishment. I started getting tired of halving those little tomatoes, making sure their perky little faces faced the right side up in the baking pan, getting the sprinkle of breadcrumbs and cheese just right. One day, I moved on. (What came next? Olives and capers with peeled plum tomatoes, I believe. Oh...that was a good run. Don't forget the parsley.) So on that I forgot all about my beloved baked tomato sauce, until I was lying around thinking about spaghetti sauce the other day, probably in an attempt to distract myself from the terrifying prospect that was the Argentina game, because why on earth else would I have needed distraction?
Focus, woman. Fo-cus.
I went through my old recipe binder and sure enough, there was the recipe, lying sweetly in wait to be welcomed back into the fold again. And really, it is so good. The tomatoes, roasting under their garlicky-cheesy cap, collapse and go all sweet and sticky. The breadcrumbs get toasty, the cheese melts and browns, the garlic infuses everything with this savory, mouthwatering scent. You mash everything together loosely, adding some olive oil for moisture and aroma, and torn basil leaves for flavor. Then in go the cooked pasta (penne are nicest, I find, but spaghetti works wonderfully, too). You can dish it up into plates, then, or, if you're eating alone just fork it up out of the serving dish (the little crusty bits in the corners are especially good). And that's it. Obsession-worthy, no?
Almost enough to distract me from the game taking place just a short 27 hours and 8 minutes from now. Almost. So now if you'll excuse me, I have some incantations to do.
Pasta with Baked Tomato Sauce
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound very ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup plain dry breadcrumbs
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano
2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino (or, if you don't have this, just more Parmigiano)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound dried penne or spaghetti
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, torn
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with one-third of the oil. Place the tomatoes cut side up in the dish.
2. In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, cheeses, and garlic and toss with a fork to mix well. Sprinkle the bread-crumb mixture over the tomatoes, making sure that each cut side is well covered with the crumb mixture. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until the tomatoes are cooked through and starting to brown on top, about 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until al dente. Time the pasta so it finishes cooking about the time the tomatoes are ready to come out of the oven.
4. When the tomatoes are done, add the basil and stir vigorously to mix everything into a sauce. Drain the pasta and immediately transfer it to the baking dish. Add the remaining olive oil and mix well. Serve at once.