It started with a text. My friend wrote, “bumper crop of tomatoes! you want?” I quickly responded “yes” and within hours I was biking across town with bags of tomatoes hanging from my handlebars.
I know you’re probably thinking how delightfully summery that is. How it conjures images of Italy. How there I’d be replaced by a deeply tanned, lithe girl dressed in a vibrant flowy skirt so impossibly long that the gears would threaten to eat the hem with each push of the pedal. And, how she’d be attraversando the piazza with a basket of picture-perfect tomatoes.
But that was not me. I was zigzagging across Hollywood after sundown, whizzing along back streets on my single-speed bike, and clad in a reflective ski helmet that logs more time on my bike than it does on the slopes. And rather than crossing a piazza, I was doing my best to avoid potholes that were more or less the size of my small apartment. Needless to say, I arrived home to find the tomatoes were far the worse for the wear. To salvage them before the fruit flies took over, I embraced their squished state by charring them until they blistered and tossing them with pasta.
Now, when I think char, I can’t help think of the eastern Mediterranean. I cooked there last year and was intrigued how food would be charred within an inch of its life and I saw it over and over again be it almonds for garnishes, eggplant for dip, or onions for a stew.
Sure, I lightly toast food to amp up the crunch factor and nutty flavor, but taking it to that extra charred state lends a smoky almost bitter note to things. I’m now hooked and have come to desire a hint of bitterness in my savory dishes. Like sour and tart, bitterness is one of those underutilized flavors that adds layers of complexity and depth. So, I took those toasted memories and came up with this charred tomato pasta. One bite and it was clear these under-appreciated tomatoes found their moment in the spotlight.
Charred Tomato Pasta Recipe
- Makes: 4 servings
- Total Time: 30 minutes
- Hands-On Time: 15 minutes
At first glance, this seems like a typical tomato pasta sauce but three things make it anything but: the smoky char on the tomatoes, the overly toasted walnuts, and the sweet-sour note of the pomegranate molasses. This handful of ingredients combines for a lot of intriguing flavor.
- 8 ounces spaghetti, tagliarini, or perciatelli pasta
- 1 cup shelled walnut halves
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for garnish
- 1 sweet onion, small dice
- Kosher salt and Freshly ground black pepper
- 6 cloves garlic, sliced paper thin
- 1 1/2 pounds whole cherry or grape tomatoes, washed and thoroughly dried
- 2 tablespoons pomegrantate molasses
- 1 handful fresh basil or Italian parsley leaves, thinly sliced
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook according to package directions. Reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain pasta.
Meanwhile, place the walnuts in a 350°F oven, a toaster oven, or a dry small pan over medium heat and cook until they are dark golden brown and seriously toasted. You want them to be on the edge of being burnt but do not burn them!
Meanwhile, add 2 tablespoons of the oil to a heavy bottomed large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the onion, stir in a pinch of salt and a few cranks of pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil, stir in garlic, and cook until fragrant.
Add tomatoes, stir to coat in oil, then cook, swirling occasionally, until tomatoes charred and start to collapse, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water and the pomegranate molasses to the pan and stir to incorporate any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook until slightly reduced, about 3 minutes. Taste and add salt or sugar as desired.
Dump the sauce into the pot used to cook the pasta and, off the heat, add the drained noodles. Stir to coat the pasta with the sauce and add remaining pasta water, as needed, so that the sauce delicately coats each strand of pasta.
Stir in walnuts and basil or parsley and toss to coat the pasta. Taste, add more salt and pepper or oil as desired and serve immediately.