Roasted Garlic and Tomato Pasta

This pasta is like a comfort food classic with sweet, just barely sauteed fresh tomatoes playing upon the fragrant roasted garlic while the melted strands of gooey fresh mozzarella soften every bite.


THE RECIPE


Roasted Garlic and Tomato Pasta

(serves two)

Don’t forget to check out my Tips, Tricks, and Substitutions at the bottom of the recipe.

Roasted Garlic

Ingredients

  • A whole head of garlic
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Peel the outer layer of paper off a head of garlic and discard.
  3. Slice off the top of the head of garlic so as to expose the tops of the cloves.
  4. Drizzle olive oil over the cloves, allowing it to seep down between them.
  5. Loosely wrap the whole head of garlic in foil (sealed tightly so as not to let any steam out) or place in a garlic roaster.
  6. Bake 40 minutes, until all of the cloves are soft. The center clove of garlic should be easily pierced with a knife.
  7. Set aside.

Pasta

Ingredients

  • 150 grams pasta
  • half a head of roasted garlic (about 8 mid-sized cloves)
  • one large, red tomato, diced
  • 3-4 large leaves fresh basil, finely chopped (optional)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 oz fresh mozzarella, sliced into 1/4 to 1/2-inch cubes

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil.
  2. Salt the water well, until it tastes like salt water.
  3. Add the pasta, stirring for a few moments to ensure the noodles don’t stick to each other.
  4. Cook for the amount of time listed on the package, testing for doneness a minute or two before the time is up.
  5. The pasta is done when it’s al dente. There’s no longer a hard, chalky bite in the center and it’s soft yet still firm (as opposed to limp).
  6. When it’s finished, reserve one cup of liquid before draining.

While the pasta cooks…

  1. Put the tomatoes in a saute pan and drizzle olive oil evenly over them.
  2. Add the basil and a pinch of salt and pepper.
  3. Cook over medium heat, occasionally stirring the tomatoes, until softened. They’re done when the pasta is done.

While both the pasta and tomato cook…

  1. Squeeze half the roasted garlic out of the cloves into a large bowl.
  2. Add a pinch of salt and pepper.
  3. Very slowly drizzle in olive oil while constantly whisking, until a sauce is formed about the thickness of a creamy salad dressing.
  4. Taste the sauce to check for seasoning and add more salt or pepper, as necessary.

When the pasta is finished cooking…

  1. Before draining the pasta, ladle out a cup of water and set aside.
  2. Immediately drain the pasta and transfer to the pan with the tomatoes.
  3. Turn the heat to low.
  4. Add the garlic sauce, stirring to coat everything evenly.
  5. If the sauce appears to need thinning out, pour in a small amount of pasta water and toss the pasta to incorporate. Continue to do so until the sauce looks as you like it.
  6. Evenly sprinkle over the fresh mozzarella.
  7. Place a lid on the pan until the mozzarella has melted.
  8. Once melted, use a set of tongs to toss the pasta until it’s evenly coated in wonderful, gooey strings of cheese.
  9. Transfer to bowls and serve.

Tips, Tricks, and Substitutions

Roasted Garlic

Roasting a Whole Head: If you have a preferred method for roasting garlic, by all means, use it.

Leftovers: You can cover the garlic with olive oil and store in an airtight container in the fridge for a week or so. You can also freeze the roasted garlic for several months.

Pasta

What Shape to Use:  The pasta should have ridges or grooves so that the bits of tomato and sauce cling well to it. Conchiglie, orechiette, rigatoni, tubetti, cavatappi…these and more are all appropriate pastas to use. I recommend against anything in long strands unless you chop the tomato very finely, though I prefer (and recommend) a large dice.

Tomatoes: The recipe calls for a large tomato, but if you can’t find a nice red one, feel free to use cherry or grape tomatoes, which are often more reliable. When tomatoes are out of season, the big ones aren’t usually very good.

Basil: If you can’t get fresh basil, just omit it. Do not use dried basil in this recipe. The flavor is too strong and will take away from the fresh flavor that the tomato and mozzarella bring to the dish.

Fresh Mozzarella: If you can’t get this then, I don’t know…You’re out of luck. I don’t know of any cheeses that are an appropriate substitute for fresh mozzarella, not even low-moisture mozzarella, though I suppose that would be the closest appropriate substitute. Remember, fresh mozzarella may also be called Mozzarella di Bufala or bocconcini (which are just small balls of fresh mozzarella). Look in the specialty cheese section of your local grocery store where you can find things like feta and goat cheese. Fresh mozzarella should be in a vacuum-sealed package or a plastic container and you should be able to see that it is either coated in or bathed in a brine.

Cooking the Pasta: Using a large amount of water will ensure it comes back to a boil very quickly, which will allow your pasta to cook more quickly. Salting the water properly will allow the pasta to absorb the salt so that it’s properly seasoned; skipping this means the pasta will be bland and you’ll have to rely on the sauce for all seasoning (it’s not desirable).

Do not put oil in the water to keep the pasta from sticking. The oil rises to the surface of the water and, in fact, does nothing to keep the pasta from sticking together. Then, when you drain the pasta, it will get a light coating of oil, creating a slick surface that the sauce is not able to adhere to as well.

Also, do not ever rinse your pasta off, which removes important starches necessary for the sauce to cling to the pasta properly.

To thin out pasta sauce, always use pasta water because it contains these same important starches, which will prevent the sauce from becoming too thin and watered down, causing it to have difficulty coating the pasta properly.

Making the Garlic Sauce: You don’t need to break your arm whisking this sauce. Just relax and go slow. If you end up with olive oil separating from the garlic, don’t worry about it because it’s all going to end up in the same place and taste the same. A nicely emulsified sauce is most desirable, but it’s not the end of the world if that doesn’t happen. It’s not like you’re making mayonnaise.

Don’t use a food processor to make this sauce. It’s faster and easier, yes, but the intense friction causes molecules in the olive oil to break, lending it a terribly bitter flavor. Trust me on this, I’ve made that mistake and had to throw out precious, expensive extra virgin olive oil.

Mixing in the Fresh Mozzarella: You need to evenly sprinkle the mozzarella over the pasta and allow it to melt before mixing it in because, if it’s not yet melted, it’ll just clump together in one big fat mass. Only once it’s melted all over the top of the pasta should you begin to toss the pasta.


THE STORY


I can’t deny that I’m a bit of a pasta freak…I suppose, actually, a big pasta freak. It’s generally quick, easy, and there are so many flavor and texture options. As a person who has trouble planning meals, pasta is one of my last-minute, go-to meals, along with risotto; I can’t tell you how often B. and I eat these two dishes compared to anything else during the week! This particular pasta, I created years ago, in college. I can’t even recall what inspired me, but, up until that point, I really only ever added butter, olive oil, and a bit of garlic powder to my noodles. One evening, though, I got adventurous and created something that, I think, is truly spectacular.

After having made it on several occasions by now, I’ve tweaked it a bit…When I first made the pasta, it was dinner for my mother and I while my dad was away on business. For two people, I used a full head of roasted garlic; the flavor was phenomenal. But putting that much garlic into your body at once probably isn’t the greatest thing, so I’ve since reduced it to half a head per two people 🙂

So, what I do is cook down some fresh, diced tomatoes with chopped, fresh basil; make a thick sauce out of roasted garlic and olive oil; and mix it all together with the ultimately ooey, gooey, stringy wonderfulness of fresh mozzarella. Diced, fresh tomatoes are absolutely necessary in order to keep the flavors of garlic and tomato separate; otherwise, you end up with a garlic tomato sauce. Of course, if you know someone who likes to pick around the chunks of tomato (like B!), feel free to cut them up much smaller, but don’t bring it to the point of a puree. As you can see in the photo above, I chopped the tomato quite finely so it would be impossible for my wonderfully picky boyfriend to avoid it, yet each bit is clearly separate from the garlic-coated noodles.

In the same vein, fresh mozzarella cannot, without a single doubt, be replaced with any other cheese and expected to give the same flavor or texture. The dish is completely transformed without this element; it’s still wonderfully delicious, but the strings of gooey mozzarella add that extra something, bringing the pasta to the next level. In my opinion, once you’ve experienced melted fresh mozzarella, you’ll wish you could easily find a pizza shop that uses that instead of the sad, boring alternative. There’s just nothing like it!

This is a completely different pasta, but shows exactly what you want to happen to the fresh mozzarella!

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