While most people immediately think of Italy when they hear the word “pasta”, it is most likely a descendent of ancient Asian noodles. Unlike pizza and tomato sauce, pasta has a long history dating back thousands of years. One common belief about pasta is that it was brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo during the 13th century; however, there is evidence to support the creation and consumption of pasta of Etruscans and Romans as early as the first century AD. This variety of pasta was believed to have been similar in ingredients, although it was oven baked rather than boiled.
Unlike noodles, the creation of tomato sauce, or Pomodoro sauce, was not until the 1700s. Tomatoes were brought to Europe from the Americas and were once believed to be a poisonous food as other related vegetables and plants (e.g., nicotine) were, in fact, poisonous. With their astringent, sour taste, and their somewhat off-putting odor, it took Italians quite a long time to accept the tomato as a viable food option. It was actually the Spaniards that first began utilizing tomato in various dishes. After the Italians understood that tomatoes were not poisonous and that they actually tasted great with other readily available foods (e.g., flatbreads, stews, soups, and sauces), the creation of the Pomodoro sauce was founded.
My friend Lindsay and I enjoyed a particularly delicious recipe when we were visiting Cinque Terre, in the town of Manarola. This recipe is inspired by that dish, one I will never forget. With fresh mussels, a sweet and salty Pomodoro sauce, and great quality noodles, this dish is sure to please!
2.5 pounds fresh tomatoes
3 ounces finely chopped onions
4 flowing ounces (1/2 cup) extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoon chopped basil leaves
Salt and pepper for seasoning
2-2.5 pounds fresh mussels
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
10 ounces dried linguine noodles (or fresh, if desired)
2 tablespoons pasta water
Sauce: After washing the tomatoes, remove the eye from each tomato. Score a cross on the bottom of each tomato. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and plunge the tomatoes into the pan for about 30 seconds-1 minute. Once you see the skins on the tomatoes starting to crack, they can be removed from the water and places into a strainer. Peel the tomatoes. The skin should come off quite easily.
Quarter the tomatoes and remove the core and all seeds from each tomato. I personally think it’s easier to do this part with a spoon. Discard the core and seeds, then dice the remaining tomato portions.
Put 1/4 cup plus two tablespoons of olive oil into a large sauce pan. Once the oil is hot, add the diced onion and a pinch of salt and sweat over medium heat until the onions start to brown (3-5 minutes).
Add the diced tomatoes and stir mixture well. Cover the pan with a lid and let simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove the lid, add the sugar, and allow to simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered. Stir occasionally.
While the sauce is simmering, you can get started on the mussels.
Mussels: Debeard the mussels and throw away any mussels whose shells have already opened. Heat oil and two garlic cloves, smashed, in a pan over medium high heat. Add mussels to the pan. Cover and cook until the shells have opened up (about 3-4 minutes). If you notice the shells aren’t opening and there’s not enough steam being created, you may add water or white wine to create more steam. Once cooked, remove from heat and set aside until pasta and sauce are finished.
Pasta: Cook pasta according to its package directions. Reserve 2 tablespoons of starchy cooking liquid from the pasta.
It’s time to finish the sauce! In the last 5-10 minutes, add salt to taste. Three minutes before the sauce is done, add the chopped basil leaves and stir well. Finish the sauce by adding two more tablespoons of olive oil. (If you would like to freeze the sauce, do not add olive oil at the end. Rather, add the olive oil once the sauce has defrosted and right before you’re ready to serve).
Combine Pomodoro sauce with pasta and two tablespoons starchy pasta water. Mix well.
Top with mussels and serve on a large serving platter.
Dig in and enjoy!