Genius Recipes

Michael Ruhlman's Pasta with Tomato Water, Basil, and Garlic

By • August 20, 2014 • 29 Comments

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Every week -- often with your help -- Food52's Executive Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Tomatoes do double duty in the summer's best pasta -- and it all comes together in the time it takes to set the table.

Tomato Water Pasta

Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, basil, and garlic sounds like plenty of summer pastas you've had before. In fact, it sounds a lot like a summer pasta I wrote about three weeks ago.

But with a little smart maneuvering -- and no greater investment of effort or time -- you'll end up with a dinner that's entirely different. This pasta has a brighter tomato flavor than any you've had before, and is in a position to completely change your August dinner routines. You should let it, and fast, because the good tomatoes won't be here nearly long enough.

Tomato Water Pasta

Michael Ruhlman first read the bones of this recipe -- a simple pasta with chopped tomatoes, basil, and lots of garlic -- in a long-since-forgotten paperback cookbook in 1984. "I had never heard of fresh basil," he told me. "So I used dry and it was still pretty good."

It's been a weeknight staple in his family ever since, and over the past thirty years, he's refined the technique -- through practice and repetition, and through his tireless self-education as a cook and writer.

Tomato Water Pasta  Tomato Water Pasta

Tomato Water Pasta

Now, dinner starts as your water is coming up to a boil: by chopping up ripe tomatoes, salting them, then stirring in some fresh basil (apparently 1984 Ruhlman can attest that dried basil works too, but, as he says, "When I moved to Manhattan in 1985, I saw fresh basil in a bodega and thought, ah, that would make more sense.")

More: Another genius tomato basil pasta -- if, instead of butter, you want five cheeses.

The salt immediately pulls moisture from the tomatoes, splitting the fruit in two: a collection of pale pink, intensely flavored tomato water, plus a heap of well-seasoned and relaxed (and less watery) tomatoes.

Tomato Water Pasta

"I used to toss all the ingredients together but never really liked the way the tomato water would pool at the bottom of the bowl," Ruhlman wrote on his website in 2010. So, he decided to briefly simmer the tomato water (dumped straight into the pan as he strains the tomatoes) with softened garlic, then swirl in some butter to mount the sauce, much like making a beurre blanc. The sauce emulsifies and thickens enough to cling to the pasta, taking up all the garlic and tomato with it.

In addition to pasta, you can apply this technique in all kinds of other places -- Ruhlman is working on a variation with sautéed chicken, but I think it would also go well with delicate fish or scallops, stripped corn, seared zucchini, or lobster hash.

Tomato Water Pasta

tomato basil pasta  Tomato Water Pasta

To finish, you'll drag your cooked pasta through its tomato-garlic-butter sauce, pile it on plates, and spoon the drained, seasoned tomatoes on top with a last hit of basil. It will be nothing like your average summer spaghetti, a culmination of 30 years of ever-smarter cooking -- where will you take it next?

Tomato Water Pasta

Michael Ruhlman's Pasta with Tomato Water, Basil, and Garlic

Adapted slightly from ruhlman.com

Serves 2 to 4

4 ripe tomatoes, large dice
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
12 ounces spaghetti or any pasta you like
10 cloves of garlic
1 cup basil, cut into ribbons
3 ounces butter, cut into three chunks
Olive oil, as needed

See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here. 

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by Linda Pugliese

Jump to Comments (29)

Tags: genius recipes, tomato water pasta

Comments (29)

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29 days ago Joan Heymont

I made this yesterday. Just amazing, and the smell in the house was also amazing. Thanks

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about 1 month ago Anne

Seeing those sliced fresh tomatoes makes me drool. Haven't seen that quality of tomato here this summer. Beautiful!

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about 1 month ago lisam

I made this recipe this with tomatoes and basil fresh from my garden. It was delicious!

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about 1 month ago Texas Ex

Find some nice heirloom tomatoes and make this today. It's the perfect pasta dish for summer.

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about 1 month ago Judith Fine-Sarchielli

Patricia, thanks for the tips. Never knew about ripening tem on a hot, cloudy day.I bought those tomatoes on the vine because my son requested them. I never buy them as I prefer dun-ripened as you advise. However. I was amazed with what a little tweaking did for them. I lived in Tuscany for 20 years and learned to cook from my Florentine mother-in-law. She always cut the tomatoes and sprinkled them with salt to sweeten them and remove the acid. I only eat tomatoes in their prime, as they are form the nightshade family and too acidic for my system. I can't resist a bacon and tomato sandwich when the tomatoes are at their best.

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about 1 month ago patricia gadsby

tasteless tomatoes on the vine generally benefit from long slow cooking in the oven (perhaps preceded by sun-cooking on a hot cloudless day.) Uncooked tomato recipes best made with sun-ripened tomatoes at their most flavor-full peak.

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about 1 month ago Judith Fine-Sarchielli

PS
Lots of fresh vasil and anchovies too.

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about 1 month ago Judith Fine-Sarchielli

Just made a tomato marmelade (coulis) with tomatoes on the vine that looked great and had very little taste. Sauted until softened part way in garlic and grapeseed oil, Added Bionature organic tomato paste (not acidic), capers, apple cider vinegar, adn raw garlic plus Mediterranean herbs and coarse blended. Added olive oil and perfect for bruschetta, risotto, pasta, salsa, gazpacho, etc.

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about 1 month ago Linda

Let's do whatever we want! This lovely basic is malleable and sparks the imagination. Ceramic's lemon zest is inspired (zest with pasta, olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, garlic or no garlic -- you know, a gremolata variation -- is a comfort any time of year, especially when Meyers are going strong. So, once drained perhaps those lovely San Marzano's could be heated through in a flash cook method -- separately in a bit of olive oil to heat -- and brightened a bit with a spritz of red wine vinegar or that lemon zest? And then perhaps fresh parsley (which winters over in my neck of the woods) could be substituted for the basil? Worth the experiment for one meal.

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about 1 month ago Anthony

How would you do this when we're out of tomato season? Could you use whole san marzanos canned in their own juice?

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about 1 month ago Ceramic

made this on Saturday for a small dinner-- was bright and good, but almost too buttery. didn't miss cheese at all. I added a little zest from a meyer lemon and a bit of lemon juice too. next time i'm going to use oil and add eggplant.

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about 1 month ago Betty Jo McDonald

I have been making a version of this for years, except that I add toasted pine nuts and before I became vegan a shave of Parmesan--our favorite quick dinner.

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about 1 month ago Beauty Follower

Simply yummy
quickly to make and eat :)

Stringio

about 1 month ago Kevin Bilbro

I got this recipe from his website years ago. I can hardly wait until heirloom tomato season just to make this.

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about 1 month ago Judith Fine-Sarchielli

Thanks Linda. I understand the heating temperature of olive oil a little better thanks to your website suggestion. i am going to go to the farmers market and buy organic San Marzano tomatoes to freeze raw in chunks with some garlic cloves and basil for the winter, when I will make these sauces.

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about 1 month ago Linda

Interesting article about Heating with Olive Oil: http://www.oliveoilsource.... And now? Am going to pick more tomatoes!

Stringio

about 1 month ago Gigi

Michael Ruhlman's recipe reminds me of one that I found in a magazine a number of years ago. You take ripe tomatoes, core them, then crush them with your hand into a large bowl, add torn fresh basil, crushed fresh garlic, coarse salt, fresh ground pepper, and a fair amount of good olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and set in the hot sun for about 3-4 hours. Cook your pasta; I use cavatappi for this recipe. Combine the cooked pasta with the sun-cooked tomato mixture...voila!... a very fresh tasting pasta!! And now is the time to use all those wonderful garden tomatoes!!

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about 1 month ago Judith Fine-Sarchielli

Bradley and All, if olive oil is heated over a certain very low degree it loses its benefits and flavor, This even happens in very hot weather when not refrigerated. Not sure of the exact temperature. My Tuscan mother-in-law only use it when roasting or on salads.

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about 1 month ago Linda

Tomato water from fresh heirloom tomatoes is a precious resource that runs in tasty streams only this time of year. No canned tomato yields this amiable and surprisingly clear juice. It is lovely in salad dressings, as the base for dip for bread (imagine the possibilities!), and although I've not made it, I understand tomato water makes a good frozen appetizer or dessert. As for this Pasta with Tomato Water, using fresh oregano instead of basil on occasion in this dish offers the tingling warmth characteristic to oregano, which probably means a mild type of garlic might be best. And, although I adore the tender basil leaf growing now in the garden, that zesty bite of oregano with fresh sweet tomato, pasta, olive oil and a bit of butter just sends me.

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about 1 month ago Ceramic

using the juice in salad dressing sounds like a stroke of genius-- can't wait to experiment

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about 1 month ago patricia gadsby

I use olive oil in place of butter, not that much, and boil the liquid and oil together (as if making bouillabaisse) until they amalgamate.