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Cooking Off the Cuff: Another Round of Perfected Tomatoes

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Those intensely flavorful and juicy pan-roasted tomatoes I described the other week? I continue to keep them around the house, and they came to the rescue the day after a dinner party: We served substantial slabs of swordfish set on a layer of those tomatoes and topped with a salad of raw cherry tomatoes quartered, salted and dressed with olive oil and fresh mint. Our guests somehow managed to finish their portions, but Jackie and I threw in the towel after a while, leaving four ounces (115 g) of delicious cooked fish, along with extra pan-roasted tomatoes and tomato salad.

With the right sort of pasta, I thought this would make an ample and delicious sort-of-Mediterranean dinner for two. It did, and the outcome was so good, so well integrated and so easily attained that it's worth cooking with fish and tomatoes prepared expressly for the purpose rather than with leftovers.

I began by making a two-portion batch of what I call cavatelli and what people in Sardinia might call malloreddus or gnocchetti sardi, using about 110 grams of all purpose flour and 40 grams of finely ground semolina. I often make them with flour alone, so don't fret if there's no semolina in the pantry. In a bowl I mixed the two flours, then stirred in room-temperature water until a firm but supple dough had formed. On this day, half a cup (120 ml) water was needed; start with less and add additional water as required. Though I left the ingredient list at that, there wouldn't be any harm in seasoning the dough with fine salt and/or steeping saffron in the water ten minutes beforehand. Knead the dough until smooth, then wrap it in plastic and let it rest for ten minutes (or longer if you like). Lots of on-line videos will show you how to form the cavatelli using a little ridged gnocchi board or the tines of a fork. Yes, you can use store-bought cavatelli or orecchiette; the flavor and texture will be different but no less convincing.

Once the cavatelli were formed and spread out on a paper-lined tray sprinkled with semolina to keep them from sticking, I put up a pot of salted water in which to cook them.

As it was heating, I warmed a big tomato's worth of my pan-roasted sliced tomatoes in a pan large enough to eventually hold the cavatelli. There was some olive oil on the tomatoes, but I added a tablespoon more. I broke them up with a spoon, then added the remains of the raw cherry-tomato salad, including all juices: not much more than half a cup by volume. If you're making this from scratch, prepare the raw-tomato element at least an hour ahead to enable the salt to draw moisture from the tomatoes and make them saucier. All it takes is cut-up tomatoes, delicious olive oil, salt and chopped mint; only if the tomatoes are sorely lacking in acidity will you need a teaspoonful of lemon juice or vinegar.

Put the cavatelli on to boil and consider your pan of tomatoes. Is there enough juice not just to coat the cavatelli but to bathe them in savory liquid? There might be, depending on the tomatoes. If there isn't, add a few tablespoonsful of vegetable stock or even water.

Remove any skin from the cooked, but not overcooked, fish and break it up into small pieces by hand: cutting it neatly will mar the look of the dish and will feel wrong in the mouth, or so I claim. Add it to the simmering tomato sauce to warm through. By now, the cavatelli will be nearly done: fish one out and taste it to see if it is properly chewy but not raw-tasting. When they are ready, use a skimmer or big slotted spoon to transfer them to the sauce pan. Combine well and simmer for ten seconds or so, and stir in as much chopped (or hand-torn) fresh mint as you like. Lacking mint, use parsley. Lacking parsley, omit this step. A drizzle of your best olive oil will finish the dish.

The flavor of the fish (you could use something like pre-cooked bluefish too, or tuna) pervades the whole dish but without letting you forget for one second that this is about the two kinds of tomatoes. It also tastes authentic. Authentic what will depend on your experience. For Jackie and me, it shouted "Sicily." For you, it might be some Greek island or an Italian restaurant around the corner from where you live.

As the farmers' market tomatoes start to decline at summer's end, remember that they can be improved by pan-roasting and that this dish is a worthy way to use them.

Another Round of Perfected Tomatoes