This is one of my favorite recipes I’ve made recently, and one of the most simple. I know it’s been my mantra as of late, but I think simple and delicious is really the way to go, and I really believe that simple equals delicious most of the time. As I was cooking it for a dinner, a friend said, “I think I just memorized the recipe just by watching you make it.” The secret to this dish is, like in most good Italian cooking, a few really fresh ingredients. Fresh grape tomatoes, fresh basil, some cream, and fresh mozzarella. You don’t have to use fresh pasta, but I’m sure it would be amazing if you did. I used fusilli pasta because I like the texture over penne, but you can really use any short pasta you’d like. Using long pasta noodles becomes problematic when portioning from the baking dish, because if you don’t cut all the way through the noodles, you’ll take half the dish of pasta with you.
I made and tweaked this recipe three times to get it just the way I wanted it (sorry to the first time guinea pigs!), and am really happy with what it evolved into. The fusilli pasta is topped with a creamy grape tomato reduction, which is blanketed by slices of fresh mozzarella that is melted and sprinkled with fresh chopped basil.
- 30 oz grape tomatoes
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/3 cup chopped basil plus few basil leaves reserved for garnish
- 8 oz fusilli pasta or other short pasta
- 1 lb lightly salted fresh mozzarella
- salt and pepper to season
- First, bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil for the fusilli. While the pasta water is coming to a boil, begin making the tomato reduction. In a large sautee pan, heat enough extra virgin olive oil to just cover the bottom of the pan, swirling to coat. On medium heat, add the grape tomatoes and toss to coat evenly in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside for about 5 minutes, tossing occasionally, and chop and chiffonade your basil in the meantime. To chiffonade the basil, roll up a basil leaf from bottom to top, and slice along the width of the rolled leaf to create long, curly pieces.
- To cook the pasta, toss into the boiling water, cooking for about 6 minutes, or two minutes shy of the recommended 8 minute cooking time. You want the pasta to be just under-cooked, as it will be baked later in the oven. To stop the cooking process, pour into a colander and toss immediately in cold water. Toss with extra virgin olive oil to prevent the starch from making the pasta stick together, and set aside.
- The grape tomatoes will have made progress once they begin to blister and split open. You'll notice that even in this early stage, liquid from the tomatoes will begin to collect and bubble, forming the sauce. Once most of them have split, about 10 minutes into cooking, they are ready to be pressed. Do this carefully with a fork, flattening them to the bottom of the pan. When they have all been flattened, begin adding the cream in small amounts, stirring to incorporate. Simmer on medium low for about 5 more minutes, tasting to add more cream and salt as needed.
- Once you are happy with the tomato reduction, take off the heat and stir in the chopped basil leaves. In a 9 by 13 shallow baking dish, layer the pasta about 2 pieces deep. Top with the tomato, evening over the pasta and letting the sauce percolate through. Layer the mozzarella, sliced into quarter inch rounds, making sure to cover the entire dish so that the rounds just touch each other. At this point, make sure the pasta itself is totally covered by either the sauce or mozzarella, as it will become over-baked and tough if exposed directly to the oven air.
- Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until the mozzarella is completely melted. Remove from the oven, and top with chiffonaded basil before serving.