I often use freshly crisped breadcrumbs or croutons as a topping for pasta: they add toasty flavor and crunchy texture. But a few weeks ago Jackie and I were taken to dinner at a lively Italian-Spanish restaurant, where an antipasto of tender artichoke hearts was sauced with a well-seasoned blend of breadcrumbs, herbs, garlic, lemony cooking juices and oil. The crumbs gave up their crispness as the liquid penetrated them, but they retained flavor and a gained a new texture, and I thought a similar approach would work as a pasta dressing, with tomatoes providing the liquid and much of the flavor.
But it’s winter, and decent tomatoes are hard to find. Still, I’d bought a pound of dark-fleshed Mexico-grown tomatoes from the supermarket: One evening we were desperate for a tomato for our hamburgers, no matter what. They weren’t full of flavor, but their texture and juiciness were unexpectedly good. When the remaining ones were slow-roasted with olive oil and salt, they turned into an excellent – well, almost excellent – basis for this pasta dish, though it is something we’ll have again at the height of the 2018 tomato season. Even with perfect in-season tomatoes, I will slow-roast them as in the recipe: For this dish, the more intense flavor and sauce-like texture will be a plus.
Note the absence of garlic, onions and herbs: this is a spare dish with just a few good flavors. That is not to say that you couldn’t add a clove of garlic, sliced and sweated, or some chopped herbs. Thyme, parsley or basil come to mind.
Try to use fresh breadcrumbs here. For crumbing, I buy a big (1.5 pounds!) Italianate white loaf, which I slice, leave to partially dry on a rack in a warm place, then bit by bit chop into crumbs in a blender (the food processor is not good for this task). It is not especially crusty, so I use the whole thing, crust and all. I then freeze the crumbs in a plastic bag and use them by the handful for everything from binding grated potatoes for pancakes to coating wiener schnitzel.
The tomatoes can be roasted up to two days in advance and refrigerated; the breadcrumbs too can be toasted in advance.
- 3/4 Pounds tomatoes
- Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
- 1/2 Cup fresh breadcrumbs (or more – they freeze well)
- 2 portions dried pasta – spaghetti or bucatini, or a short form like fusilli or casarecce
- Grated parmesan (optional)
Heat the oven to 250 degrees F. Slice the tomatoes fairly thick – about 3/8 inch – and arrange them on a sheet pan, preferably lined with parchment paper. Drizzle sparingly with extra virgin olive oil; turn the tomato slices and drizzle with oil again. Sprinkle with salt and put into the oven. Carefully flip the tomato slices after 25 minutes; they should be softening and rendering juice, but not browning or drying out. If there are signs that this may happen, lower the temperature. Continue cooking for a further 25 or 30 minutes, then transfer the tomatoes and all juices and oil to a bowl (or, to save a step, to the frying pan you will use to finish the dish).
Toast the breadcrumbs: In a small pan, warm 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-low heat. Add the breadcrumbs and stir well to distribute the oil evenly; stir in a little salt and taste to make sure it’s enough. Drop the heat to low and cook the crumbs, stirring or tossing frequently, until they are golden brown and crisp, four to eight minutes depending on the heat, your pan and the moisture content of the crumbs. Transfer to a bowl or set aside in the pan.
Bring generously salted water to the boil and cook your pasta until a hair less tender than you like it: It will briefly cook with the tomatoes.
As the pasta cooks, add the tomatoes to a skillet with all their juices and warm through. When the pasta is ready, drain (not too thoroughly) and add to the skillet, reserving a cup or so of the cooking water.
Stir to combine, then add four or five tablespoons of the toasted crumbs and stir or toss to distribute the crumbs. Check for salt, and add a little of the pasta cooking water if necessary: as the crumbs absorb tomato juices and form a loose paste, the dish can become dry.
Serve in a warmed bowl with a minimal application of grated parmesan. Bring the hot water to the table along with extra parmesan, a bottle of your best olive oil and a pepper mill. Diners can use these to taste to garnish their own portions. Jackie and I found them unnecessary (apart from the water).