About once a week, for my entire upbringing, my mother would prepare a very simple side of pasta with a sweet, buttery tomato sauce. Usually she used elbow macaroni pasta, because usually a small bowl of tomato pasta would be served alongside tuna macaroni salad, our standard Catholic fish-on-Fridays family meal. Mom would just make extra macaroni and stir in the tomato sauce for it. She did this because my dad requested it, and he wanted it because that’s what his mother in Minnesota used to make for him. Oddly, the hot buttery tomato pasta was, and still is, a perfect taste complement to the cool, crunchy, acidic tuna salad.
This is my father’s comfort food. Mom made it the other day with corkscrew pasta instead of elbow macaroni and I liked the way that the ridges in the corkscrews capture the sauce better. Apparently, a simple tomato sauce cooked with butter instead of olive oil is a classic in Italian cuisine. (News to us, my grandmother was German Austrian!) If you haven’t tried making tomato sauce with butter, I recommend it. It’s actually crazy good. We add a bit sugar to the sauce, because the sauce just tastes better to us when it’s sweeter. My mother also adds a little bit of fresh or dried basil, not much, just a pinch. Not so much that you get distracted from the sweet, buttery tomatoes.
My mom insists that the trick to the tomatoes is the sugar, and I agree. Tomatoes are naturally acidic. You need to add sugar to balance the acidity and this particular dish should be a little on the sweet side, which is why we add sugar. Use the best quality canned tomatoes available. We recommend Muir Glen brand or San Marzano. The sauce has so few ingredients, it's important that the tomatoes you use are high quality. Cheap, generic canned tomatoes just will not taste as good.
- 1/2 pound of fusilli pasta or elbow macaroni
- 1 14 ounce can of good quality whole tomatoes
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 2 teaspoons sugar (more or less to taste)
- Pinch of dried basil or fresh sliced basil (optional)
1 Half fill a 4 quart pot with water. Add a tablespoon of salt. Bring salted water to boil. Add pasta. Cook until al dente, tender but still a little firm.
2 While the pasta water is heating and the pasta is cooking, prepare the tomatoes. Shred the canned whole tomatoes with your fingers as you put them in a small saucepan. Add any tomato juice left in the can to the pot. Add the butter. Heat to a simmer and stir to melt the butter. Simmer gently while the pasta is cooking. Stir in sugar, salt, and pepper to taste. If you have fresh basil, thinly slice a couple leaves and stir in. If not, if you want you can add a pinch of dried basil.
3 When the pasta is done, drain it. Stir in the cooked tomatoes and put in a serving bowl.