For most of the year, cherry tomatoes are our go-to choice because they’re more reliably sweet than the larger—and too often flavorless—tomatoes available in the average supermarket.
But recently, Jerusalem-raised chef Yotam Ottolenghi showed us how deceptively easy it is to elevate even those cherry tomatoes to have more flavor and more impact—and produce a transformative pasta sauce.
In his latest cookbook, “Ottolenghi Simple,” he coaxes flavor from halved cherry tomatoes by slowly simmering them for nearly an hour over medium-low with about 1 cup of water and 5 tablespoons of olive oil. An ancho chili adds smoky heat and complexity, and just half a teaspoon of sugar heightens the tomatoes’ natural sweetness. A full cup of basil leaves stirred in off heat adds freshness.
The sauce, which he tosses with fettuccine and dusts with Parmesan, is astoundingly flavorful for being so seemingly basic. It’s all in the technique. Because the combination of water and oil slow the cooking process, the tomatoes don’t brown. This allows their natural flavor to gently intensify over time while preserving their brightness.
We loved the clean flavors that sprang from his hands-off approach, but we saw an opportunity to amplify the dish with just a few small tweaks. And since ancho chilies aren’t common in most pantries, we thought we’d try to replicate their contribution with two substitutions that were more likely to be on hand.
We started by sautéing sliced garlic over medium-high in ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil, along with red pepper flakes and two bay leaves, which added a savory undertone. A pound of halved cherry tomatoes went into the skillet 30 seconds later with salt and a cup of water. After coming to a simmer, the tomatoes began to break down and we lowered the heat.
The sauce cooked uncovered for nearly an hour, reducing and concentrating its flavor with minimal stirring. Off heat, we added smoked paprika and 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh sage, whose herbaceous, slightly bittersweet flavor complemented the clean tomato.
Instead of fettuccine, we tossed our sauce with bucatini, a thick spaghetti-like pasta with a hole running down the center that sucks up liquid. And rather than Parmesan, pecorino Romano contributed a saltier, more intense flavor that rounded out the dish.
The combination of smoked paprika and pepper flakes was nearly identical to the ancho chili, leaving us with a silky sauce that clung to the noodles, while the chunks of broken-down tomatoes lent texture. A little smoky and a little spicy, our version of Ottolenghi’s pasta took something as familiar as pasta with tomato sauce and amped up the flavor. Just as important, it could hardly have been simpler.