Smashed Tomato Spaghetti

When I moved to Boston 5 years ago, I felt invisible.

I grew up in an insular community, where I went to school with the same 100 kids from third grade until high school graduation. When it came time to pick a college, I wanted to get as far away from that insular world as I could — so I chose Bucknell, a tiny liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania. But while Bucknell was far from my home town, it was sequestered, too. With nothing around us but corn fields, everyone knew everyone else’s business. It felt like what I wore, did and said was always under intense scrutiny. I was careful not to misstep. By the time I graduated, I could name almost every one of my 900 classmates as they walked across the stage.

On my third day in Boston, once my dad had flown back to Seattle, I changed into a dress. I walked to a local bakery and bought one sourdough roll. I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a hunk of cheese, a bar of dark chocolate, and some iced tea. Then I packed a blanket and boarded the train headed downtown, to the Boston Common. I remember looking at the people around me and feeling enviously, gloriously invisible. They didn’t care if my hair was greasy or if my outfit looked cute. They didn’t care that I had no idea which stop to get off at, that every street corner was new and shiny and exciting to me. In typical Boston fashion, no one made eye contact with me for that entire trip downtown. I loved it.

Once I got downtown, I spread my blanket on the grass and sat for two hours, eating and people watching. I wrote in my journal: “I feel free, finally.”

Later that week, I took the train alone for the second time to my friend Damon’s apartment, where he taught me how to make a version of this pasta recipe. On my way home, I pledged to never forget how good it felt to be new in a strange place.

Of course, by now, I’ve almost forgotten. After five years, the street corners hold stories instead of possibility. The restaurants around me are known, labeled, checked out and checked off. Now, I’m one of those people on the train who doesn’t give a crap about the outfits or hair styles of the people around me.

I’m moving away from Boston in a few weeks and suddenly, surprisingly, the novelty of this city is springing back up, just like it did on that first week, reminding me of why I chose this place to begin with. Reminding me of how terrifyingly glorious it will be to resettle, to be a new person in a strange place, come August. Reminding me of how good I’ve had it here. Reminding me that endings can be just as fresh and deep and heartbreakingly perfect as beginnings.


Smashed Tomato Spaghetti

Makes 4 servings.
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1/2 small yellow onion, sliced thin
  • 8 oz spaghetti noodles
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 large-ish tomatoes, cut into rough chunks
  • 1 t dried or fresh basil
  • 1 t dried or fresh oregano
  • 1/8 t red pepper flakes (you’ll want to adjust this based on how spicy you like your food — a little bit goes a long way!)
  • 1.5 cups pasta water
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese [you can also swamp in 1/4 cup goat cheese for a tangier version, or 1/4 cup heavy cream for a creamier version, or 1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese for a lighter, summer-y version]
  • salt and pepper to taste

Boil a pot of water for your pasta. While the pasta cooks, melt 1 T butter with 1 T olive oil in a skillet, then saute the onions for 5 minutes, until they become translucent.

Once the onions are soft, add the tomatoes, garlic and spices (basil, oregano, red pepper flakes) to the pan. Steal 1/2 cup pasta water from the pasta pot (the starch from the noodles acts as a thickener) and add it to the tomato mixture, simmering for 3 minutes until most of the liquid has disappeared.

Strain the pasta, reserving an additional 1 cup of pasta water for your sauce before dumping the rest out. Then, head back to your sauce and use the back of a wooden spoon (or a fork) to smash each tomato piece flat. Add another 1/4 of pasta water and let the sauce simmer again, for 2 more minutes.

To finish the dish, add the pasta to the sauce with another 1 T butter, most of the cheese, salt and pepper to taste, and the remaining 1/2 cup pasta water. Mix together, allowing the sauce to coat all the noodles, then top with additional cheese and serve!

**Using pasta water as a sauce is a traditional Italian method, and it will change the way you make pasta forever. Once you figure out how this concept works (the starch in the pasta water, from the noodles, thickens any sauce), you can use this technique with all sorts of toppings. Another one of our favorites is balsamic vinegar + butter + cheese + pasta water + caramelized onions and garlic. YUM.


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