True confession time: I'm not a big fan of raw tomatoes. I know...I know! Practically sacrilege this time of year. I do like them though in small doses, diced up in a salad, or cooked down into a lovely sauce. But as much as I wish I was one of those people that could just sit down to a plate of sliced tomatoes, fresh from the garden, lightly salted and dressed, it just isn't going to happen for me. There's just too much, well, tomatoiness going on. However, slice up some little beauties, throw them in a pool of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and a touch of sugar, pop them in the oven for a long and low roast...well, that, as they say, changes everything.
The health benefits of tomatoes are numerous...loads of vitamins, minerals, lycopene, beta carotene and fiber. They score high on the gorgeous factor too. So, even though I don't crave dishes that have loads of raw tomatoes, I do love their flavor (as an accompaniment) and all their healthy goodness, and feature them in as many dishes as I can, like my orzo and oven roasted vegetables, my Southwest couscous and now here in a light, healthy and delicious summer dish.
For this recipe, I took a pint of grape tomatoes, sliced them in half, and added some olive oil, salt and a smidge of sugar. After about 50 minutes in the oven, they are shriveled down, slightly caramelized and a bit chewy...in a word, delicious! The natural sweetness is intensified and the texture made more complex. All the acidity becomes tame and mellowed by roasting. I find them best (read 'addictive') straight out of the oven, but they can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a week or so. (I follow Heidi Swanson's directions in her cookbook Super Natural Every Day.)
I have been blessed with an exceptional crop of basil this year, so had loads of fresh on hand for this recipe. Some things just go together, right? Tomato and basil is a classic combination that epitomizes the flavors of summer. Nearly as sassy and irresistible a pairing as Loren and Mastroianni, I think.
This pasta dish could be served as a light side to some grilled fish or meat, or can be a stand-alone vegetarian meal. Whole wheat spaghetti pasta was used here, but any type would do. I wanted to balance out the flavors, so I mixed the sweet, unctuous flavor of the roasted tomatoes with the meaty notes of the dried crimini mushrooms, the creamy and salty bite of the freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese and the brightness of the fresh basil. A sprinkle of Aleppo pepper adds just the right zing and compliments the sweetness of the tomatoes. The leftover broth from the rehydrated mushrooms adds a tasty layer of flavor and helps 'sauce' the pasta as it mixes with the cheese and starch from the spaghetti.
Fresh mushrooms could be used in place of the dried crimini, but the concentrated, meaty flavor of the dried mushrooms works so well here and holds its own against the bold flavor of the roasted tomatoes. The slight chewiness adds an interesting texture contrast to the pasta and the slightly softer tomatoes.
Summer is a time for quick and easy meals that are as good to look at as they are good for you. This pasta dish features the classic combination of tomato and basil, two flavors that clearly belong together...kind of the foodie version of Marriage Italian Style. Not nearly as complicated, but with just as happy an ending.
Roasted Tomatoes and Pasta:
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
1 scant tablespoon natural sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 to 8 ounces whole wheat pasta, cooked and drained
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, or hard cheese of choice
1/2 cup dried crimini mushrooms, broken into small pieces and reconstituted with 1 cup of boiling water, reserve the liquid
Large bunch of fresh basil, to taste, and sliced into ribbons (roll the leaves lengthwise and slice thinly)
2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoon of olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a medium-sized bowl, mix the 1/4 cup olive oil, sugar and salt, and stir together. Slice the tomatoes in half and place them in the bowl with the oil mixture. Toss to coat evenly and turn out onto a greased or parchment paper lined, rimmed cookie sheet. Bake for approximately 50 minutes, or until the tomatoes are collapsed, lightly brown and caramelized. Approximately 20 minutes before the tomatoes are done, cook the pasta until al dente. Place the mushrooms in a small bowl, pour over one cup of boiling water and let sit for at least 15 minutes. Grate the cheese and set aside. While the pasta is draining, add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the bottom of the pasta pan. Sprinkle in the Aleppo pepper, salt and pepper. Tip the pasta back into the pot after it has drained, tossing well to coat. When the tomatoes are done, add them to the pasta with the cheese and drained mushrooms. Add approximately 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the reserved mushroom broth until the desired consistency is reached for a 'sauce,' tossing well to coat. Adjust the spices to taste and add the basil ribbons at the very last moment, just before serving.