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my perfect tomato tarragon pasta

November 26, 2012

Serves 6
Prep time: 45 mins, mostly idle

Overhead view of spaghetti

A few years ago my husband and our (now eldest) daughter packed up our lives into a beaten-up old camper van and headed for the continent, where we spent the best part of a year travelling at a snail’s pace through France, Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece.  Much of that time was spent trying to find camper van repair places; but whenever we weren’t trying to improvise ways to reattach the door or to make the toilet flush work, we managed to squeeze in some moments of life-changing brilliance and, of course, some pretty spectacular meals.

This isn’t to say that all the food we ate was great.  I had the worst pizza of my entire life in Sirmione, Lake Garda – the thought of those wormy onions still makes me shiver.

But overall, what we experienced day to day taught me some valuable lessons about food, especially this: food doesn’t need to be fussy to be mindblowing.  It doesn’t need to be expensive.  The best food emerges from honest, simple ingredients, put together with care and a bit of heart (omnis – insert crap joke of choice here).

In Italy the quality of the produce was a revelation, even in the humblest of supermarkets.  I loved seeing parsley treated like a vegetable, piled up in huge bunches next to the other greens.  I loved the word itself – prezzemolo – what a word!  I loved the total absence of seedless grapes, in fact any grapes at all once the season ended.  I loved eating at the places where the locals ate, next to the office workers enjoying their multi-course lunches.

It goes without saying that we ate AN AWFUL LOT of pasta.  This particular recipe brings together the most memorable elements of a number of meals, mostly from southern Italy.

There is a school of thought in southern Italian cooking that says you shouldn’t put garlic and onion in the same meal.  Sometimes I do this recipe with garlic, sometimes with slow-fried red onion.  For me garlic probably has the edge, but if you are oniony then try it that way – it certainly goes well with tarragon.

Use the best quality tinned tomatoes you can find.  It really does make a big difference to the flavour.  They don’t need to be expensive – Sainsbury’s have got Cirio tomatoes on offer at the moment for £1 for two tins.

I am not a fan of vegan parmesan subs, but pasta does need something sprinkled on it.  I like crunchy pangrattato: breadcrumbs fried with garlic and lemon zest.  Fried bread!  Oh yeah.

It needs a good drizzle of the old evoo at the end.  Just outside a crazy little town called Missanello, in the region of Basilicata, we were served orecchiete with a bottle of chilli oil to drizzle over and, I am not exaggerating, it was the most sublime thing I had ever tasted.  So these days I keep a little bottle of olive oil in my cupboard that I stuffed with dried chillies costing pennies from a Chinese supermarket.  Whenever it gets low I top it up with regular olive oil, and this way I never run out.  And of course I feel indescribably smug about this.


Durum wheat spaghetti, 600g (or use whatever type of pasta you prefer)

For the sauce:
Good quality tinned tomatoes, 2 x 400g tins
Garlic, 3 cloves, lightly bashed and skins removed
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh tarragon, 1 tbsp finely chopped

For the pangrattato:
Fresh wholemeal breadcrumbs, 100g
Olive oil, 3 tbsp
Garlic, 2 cloves, crushed
Zest of 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

To finish:
Extra virgin olive oil, chilli or plain, 3 tbsp
Rocket, a few handfuls

First make the sauce.  Empty the tins of tomatoes into a saucepan, chuck in the bashed garlic cloves, take it up to boiling point, put a lid on, and then let it simmer very slowly for half an hour without stirring.  After half an hour take the lid off and break the tomatoes up with a wooden spoon.  Let the sauce simmer for a further 15 minutes, then remove the garlic, add the tarragon, season to taste with salt and pepper and it’s done.

Cook your pasta according to instructions until al dente.

To make the pangrattato fry the breadcrumbs, garlic and lemon zest in the olive oil over a medium heat for 4-5 minutes, tossing often, until golden brown and crispy.

To bring the whole dish together toss the cooked pasta with the tomato sauce and rocket.  Finish each plate with a drizzle of chilli oil and a generous sprinkling of pangrattato.

Side view of spaghetti


From → Mains, Recipes

  1. I love how this sounds and the photos look great! I’m a big meat eater, but I love how the breadcrumbs add the texture to this great tasting pasta dish! 🙂

    • Thanks! The breadcrumbs are lovely I must say – pangrattato was originally ‘poor man’s parmigiano’ but you won’t miss the cheese if you try it, I promise!

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