Let’s Talk Tomato Sauce: Five Questions for Scott Conant
Noted chef and "Chopped" judge Scott Conant has Scarpetta restaurants in New York City, Miami, Toronto, Las Vegas, and Beverly Hills. And he has a new book, "The Scarpetta Cookbook," which captures the essence of his much-heralded Italian cooking and the luxurious feeling of his restaurants.
We spoke to him about tomato sauce and other essential matters. Read on to find out why you should make reservations at Scarpetta or add Scott's book to your Christmas list.
Why do you think Italian food is so popular and is what we all want to eat at restaurants and at home?
I think one of the reasons it resonates with people across the board is that there is a lot to offer. People want full flavors, and they want simple and delicious and well executed. And I think if you really capture Italy and Italian food, if you capture that romantic idea in a bite -- who wouldn't love that?
You're known for dishes that seem simple but are luxurious and well thought out. Have you always been so polished?
It takes a lot to get to simple and for years, starting as a young chef, I think you put a lot of stuff into the pot: Throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and try to see what works best. It's kind of getting to know yourself and getting that artistic touch, getting to understand your art a little bit better, hopefully. I think a lot of things fall by the wayside, fortunately, over time -- whether some ingredients or flavor profiles or whatever it is. So I think it just takes a lot to get there, and I feel like well-executed simplicity is really, paraphrasing Da Vinci, the ultimate luxury.
So how do you capture that with a book like "The Scarpetta Cookbook"?
It's about extraction of flavor. It's about recognizing: Here's a tomato, and how do I get the best flavor from it? Your traditional tomato sauce, like my mother makes, would sit on the stove for 24 hours. I talk about using only fresh tomatoes -- not canned, only fresh -- and cooking it for 45 minutes to an hour at most. That way you are maintaining the freshness of the product. That preserved flavor, that tinniness from a can, the preservatives and citric acid that are inside a can, aren't present with the fresh tomatoes. Even if your fresh tomatoes are not 100-percent perfect, you could still use them and utilize a canned product as a backup, as opposed to the forefront.
Let's talk more about that tomato sauce. It seems so different. How did you come to that technique?
There are a few things: first of all, by using a potato masher and not putting an immersion blender in it or running it through a food mill. By using this potato masher it adds texture, and I feel like the texture of the tomato is such an important component. And you never realize it until you don't have it. Tomato sauce does not have to be smooth; it should have texture chunks of tomato. That texture is flavor, and the reason we do this is for flavor ultimately, isn't it? And also the olive oil we add, I treat it like a tea. Garlic, crushed red pepper, and basil are infused into that extra-virgin olive oil, and then we strain the oil and use that as a flavoring agent in the sauce. If you look at this tomato sauce, you would see that it has this beautiful texture and a sheen to it that wouldn't otherwise exist if the oil wasn't in there. And it's very important to understand that the sauce needs to be reduced if it's too liquid. Instead of reducing it in a large pot so it cooks unto itself, which changes the flavor -- the sauce doesn't stay as fresh when you cook it like that. So we reduce it at the moment of order, taking 6 ounces of that sauce and reducing it down to 4. That does it more quickly and maintains the freshness. And when it's about 90-percent cooked, we add the pasta into the sauce, we finish cooking it and adjusting it with the cooking liquid that the pasta was cooking in because it's tremendously flavorful, that water. And then we finish with a little butter, a little fresh Parmesan cheese, and fresh basil, a little more olive oil if it's needed.
(What does your mother say about that? My mother really likes it. She just makes a different sauce.)
Is there something you learned from cooking with Martha?
You know, not just from cooking but from observing. I have been fortunate: I've had dinner with her, had drinks, she's come to many of the restaurants. What I've learned overall observing her is, I think, remaining open and seeing what other people do -- not just in my career but overall in my life. And she brings an automatic level of authenticity and quality, which is something I think we all strive for. I certainly strive for.
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