Why It Works
- Sweet and bright cherry tomatoes quickly cook down, and burst into a rich, emulsified fresh-tomato sauce, thanks to their natural pectin content.
- Stirring umami-rich XO into the tomato sauce gives it the savory depth of an all-day ragù, but in a fraction of the time.
Like many people, I frequently find myself at a loss for weeknight dinner ideas when cooking at home. After a full day of recipe-testing or writing, the last thing I want to do is spend a lot more time and energy figuring out, shopping for, and preparing a meal. In these moments, I often end up rummaging through my fridge and cupboards to scare up a handful of ingredients that can be cobbled together into a quick and easy supper that doesn't require much cleanup afterwards.
When the best season (tomato season, duh) is in full swing, I've had a lot of fresh produce on hand, which makes pulling off quick meals a whole lot easier. Most of what little kitchen counter space I have has been taken over by trays of heirlooms, beefsteaks, and Sungolds, brought home from the farmers market for recipe development. Despite working on multiple tomato-based recipes at the same time, I can't get enough of them, figuratively, but also end up with too many of them, literally.
This pomodoro paradox is a good problem to have, and, while I may have a Michael Scott–level grasp of the economic principles behind a surplus, I do know how to turn extra tomatoes into some really solid weeknight dinners.
There have been panzanella and tomato tonnato salads aplenty, along with a few BLTs, but the peak-tomato dinner that I've been making the most recently is a riff on Kenji's pasta with blistered-cherry-tomato sauce. For extra savory punch, I've tweaked it with the addition of my favorite condiment, XO sauce.
This version gives you the best of both tomato-sauce worlds, balancing the bright sweetness of fresh tomatoes with the background savory depth of a long-cooked ragù. And it all comes together in about 20 minutes.
I start the sauce by sweating allium aromatics, in this case, sliced shallots and garlic, in olive oil until they soften, stirring frequently to ensure they don't scorch. Give the shallots a head start in the pan before adding the garlic, and season them early on with salt to coax out moisture and speed up the softening process.
Next, dump in a mess of cherry tomatoes (around two pints if you're cooking pasta for four people), and shake the skillet to distribute them in an even layer in the pan. Now all you have to do is stir, and wait.
As the tomatoes cook over medium heat, they'll begin to steam from the inside, eventually bursting their skins and releasing their juices. Those pectin- and sugar-rich juices will emulsify with the olive oil, turning into a creamy sauce in a matter of minutes.
You can speed the tomato-bursting process along by pressing down on them with a wooden spoon, but I recommend leaving a few of them whole to provide pops of juicy sweetness in the finished dish.
At this point, you could stop cooking the sauce; toss it with some pasta, cheese, and chopped herbs; and call it a day. That's a tasty meal right there.
But if you've taken my advice and stocked your fridge with a jar of XO sauce (store-bought is grand, but all the better if it's homemade), well, there's no better time to bust out that culinary cheat code to flavor.
Stirring a heaping spoonful of XO into this sauce brings out the umami notes of the tomatoes, without sacrificing their fresh aroma. The meaty, seafood-y flavor of the XO gives the sauce the kind of backbone that's usually achieved through a much longer cooking process, toeing the line between a slow-simmered ragù and a quick-cooked puttanesca.
This is the magic of great condiments: They make food taste better without making a cooking project harder or more time-consuming. If you put the time in when you've got some to spare to make things like XO sauce, you'll be rewarded down the line when you're short on inspiration and ingredients.
Once I've stirred the XO in with the burst cherry tomatoes, I let the sauce simmer for a minute or two to allow it to thicken while the flavors meld, adding a pinch of ground dried chiles (or pepper flakes) to complement the background heat of the XO sauce.
I then add pasta that's cooked a minute shy of al dente, along with a heavy splash of the starchy pasta-cooking water. This is, of course, standard operating pasta-saucing procedure.
Jack the heat up to high, then swirl, toss, and stir like your life depends on it, until the pasta is perfectly cooked and coated with sauce.
For this dish, I'm a fan of short, non-tubular pasta shapes, like casarecce or gemelli, that hold on to their chew well and can be speared on a fork with the remaining whole cherry tomatoes. With the richness and savory punch of XO, this pasta doesn't need any grated hard cheese, and leaving it out allows the flavor of the fresh tomatoes to shine.
What it does need is a big old handful of fresh herbs, so, right before serving, I fold in a bunch of chopped basil and mint to round out the dish. And there you have it: a quick and easy weeknight dinner, made possible by the power of condiments and tomato pectin. XOXOXO.
Pasta With Burst Cherry Tomatoes and XO Sauce
1 pound (450g) short pasta, such as casarecce or gemelli
1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium shallots (80g), thinly sliced
4 medium garlic cloves (20g), thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds cherry tomatoes (about 2 pints; 675g)
1/2 cup (140g) XO sauce, store-bought or homemade
Pinch finely ground dried Thai chiles or red pepper flakes (optional; see notes)
1/2 ounce fresh basil leaves (1 loosely packed cup; 15g), roughly chopped
1/2 ounce fresh mint leaves (1 loosely packed cup; 15g), roughly chopped
In a pot of salted boiling water, cook pasta until just shy of al dente (about 1 minute less than the package directs). Drain pasta, reserving 1 1/2 cups (360ml) cooking water.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add shallots, season lightly with salt, and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until shallots are softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until garlic is softened as well, about 2 minutes longer.
Add cherry tomatoes, shaking skillet to distribute them in an even layer, and cook, stirring and swirling the pan frequently, until tomatoes begin to burst, about 5 minutes. You can coax the tomatoes into bursting by pressing down on them with a wooden spoon, but leave some tomatoes whole for juicy pops of flavor in the finished dish.
Continue to cook and stir tomato mixture until it forms a creamy, emulsified sauce, 3 to 5 minutes longer. Add XO sauce and ground dried chiles (if using), stir to combine, and season to taste with salt.
Add pasta and half of the reserved cooking water (3/4 cup; 180ml) to skillet with cherry tomato sauce. Increase heat to high and cook, swirling and tossing skillet constantly, until pasta is al dente and sauce is thickened and coats noodles, about 1 minute. If the sauce over-reduces (it should pool around the edges of the skillet), add more pasta-cooking water in 1/4-cup increments to loosen it.
Remove from heat, stir in basil and mint, and season to taste with more salt. Serve immediately.
XO sauce packs a healthy amount of spicy background heat on its own, but an extra pinch of ground dried chiles or red pepper flakes will give the sauce more punch. Adjust the heat level of the sauce to your liking. For a milder tomato sauce, you can omit the dried chiles entirely.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This pasta dish comes together really quickly and is best enjoyed immediately.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 16g||21%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||12%|
|Total Carbohydrate 98g||36%|
|Dietary Fiber 7g||26%|
|Total Sugars 11g|
|Vitamin C 28mg||141%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|