In Sicily, they make a highly concentrated tomato paste called ‘estrattu’ and it is a true labor of love. They start with an enormous amount of tomatoes (about 10 pounds to fill one jar!), skinned and seeded, and cook them down with salt and spices. Then they spread the paste out on huge boards and lay them in the sun to dry – on rooftops, on porches – any where where the glaring summer sun can concentrate the flavor. They stir the tomatoes occasionally with huge wooden paddle-like things to drive more of the moisture out. The process can take days until you are left with a intensely flavored thick paste, oddly smoky but tasting of pure Sicilian sun. I have only once seen estrattu being made in Sicily. I saw the boards laying on a wall and first thought someone was perhaps painting the boards red for an art project. But then I got closer and realized that this was no ordinary paint – but a layer of thick tomatoes! How I wanted to dip a finger in that amazing sight to taste its sunny goodness (but thought better of it lest I be chased by a pissed off Sicilan cook.) It wasn’t until many months later that I was able to actually taste homemade estrattu – and wow, the taste is unlike anything I can find in the US. Unfortunately, east coast summers are not conducive to making estrattu at my home (and I would need to plant ALOT of tomato plants!) so I am forced to dream of this culinary delight.
A Italian friend once suggested I try oil packed sundried tomatoes, whirled in a food processor, as a substitute. So I gave it a go and although the taste is still not the same as the magical estrattu, they do impart a flavor much closer than using our store bought tomato paste. I made this quick and simple pasta as a side for a dinner party the other night and the next day, with the leftovers staring at me from the fridge, I ate every last strand of pasta to the amazement of my boyfriend. Thought you might enjoy it as well.
Simple Pasta with Sun-dried Tomato Sauce
1 8 ounce jar of good quality oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (don’t panic if your jar is a slight different size; the amount you use is flexible)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, diced
Dash of red pepper flakes
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch of fresh basil, divided
1 pound of spaghetti
1 sauce pot large enough to hold the sauce and the pasta, 1 pot to cook the spaghetti
1. Put the sun-dried tomatoes in a food processor with a bit of the oil from the jar. Process until the tomatoes form a chucky paste.
2. In a sauce pot over medium heat, add the olive oil and heat. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add in the dash of red pepper flakes.
3. Add in the diced tomatoes and simmer until the liquid is reduced, about 10 minutes.
4. Stir in the sun-dried tomatoes. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Simmer until thickened and incorporated, about another 10 mintues. Stir in a few handfuls of chopped fresh basil.
5. Bring salted water to a boil and cook the spaghetti according to the package directions until ‘al dente’. Once cooked, reserve 1 cup of the pasta water. Drain pasta.
6. Add the pasta to the sauce and stir to coat the strands with the sauce. Add a bit of pasta water if pasta is too dry. (I add about 1/2 cup of water.) Adjust seasonings. Garnish with additional basil and serve with plenty of freshly grated parmigiano!
7. Buon appetito!