Posted on 8 mins read

Sometime in 2018 (or possibly earlier; the site only lists the date of the last update, not the date of the original post) Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats posted a recipe for Blistered-Tomato Pasta Salad With Basil. It’s very simple: eight ingredients if you count both salt and pepper, just under an hour from start to finish (I know the recipe says 25 minutes, but if you’re a normal home cook and not an award-winning chef with a TV show, you’ll need to double or triple the estimates given by sites like this). It’s also a great weeknight recipe to have in your back pocket: aromatic, pleasantly flavored, a kid-pleaser even for tiny ones who haven’t mastered the use of a fork. It’s become a go-to meal at our house.

It hasn’t gotten a ton of attention on the site, which isn’t altogether surprising. People visit Serious Eats in droves to read Kenji Lopez-Alt’s mad scientist experiments with caramelized onions or Stella Parks’s techniques for a masterfully moist bundt cake. This recipe isn’t quite the same. It has the air of a workaday summer potluck recipe, a casual side dish, not something you spend hours perfecting and then hoard for yourself. It seems like something a C-list recipe blogger might post on a Tuesday if they don’t have anything more interesting to offer.

Psst. It’s not what it seems.

The gist: cook a pound of rotini or fusilli just past al dente, then chill it under cold water. Saute some thin-sliced garlic in olive oil, add two pints of cherry/grape tomatoes to the pan and cook over medium heat until they swell and burst. Toss the tomatoes and garlic with the pasta, add some torn basil leaves and mozzarella chunks, drizzle olive oil, add salt and pepper, and serve.

Easy, right? But people are struggling with this one. There aren’t many comments on the recipe, but maybe half of them complain that it’s bland. I’ve made it several times and while it may not be an explosion of overwhelming flavor, it certainly isn’t bland. On the contrary, this is the sort of recipe you might make if you’re trying to impress someone who cooks for a living. It’s humble and unpretentious, and the care with which you select and prepare the ingredients will really shine through.

I think I know why people are having problems. This recipe is a deceptive little toad. Like I mentioned, it seems like something you can phone in. It seems foolproof. But its simplicity is a trap: with ingredients so few and so subtle, any failure in ingredient or technique can bring the whole recipe crashing down. In a more complex dish, a modest substitution or shortcut might go unnoticed. That is not the case here. It’s not just a matter of “stick to the recipe” either, as Gritzer’s depending on an unwritten rule or two to make this one work.

Let’s clear things up, starting with a couple of ill-advised shortcuts you may be tempted to take.

1 - Use fresh ingredients

Nothing could be worse for this recipe than dried basil or canned tomatoes.

Your basil should be coming straight from a basil plant. I’m talking big, bright green leaves plucked by your own hand. The ideal basil leaf is about the size of your thumb. If all you have is basil from the spice section—dry, sharp-smelling basil confetti in a McCormick jar—don’t even think about making this recipe yet. Luckily, basil is one of very few ingredients commonly sold as a whole plant in grocery stores, and it’s pretty easy to take care of (water it when the leaves droop). If you’ve only got space or energy for one live herb, basil is a great choice.

Whole cherry or grape tomatoes are also a must. The tomatoes provide practically all the flavor here so this isn’t the place to spare your wallet. If you have access to a farmer’s market or community garden, make the trip. Under no circumstances should you reach for the can opener; fresh tomatoes are much brighter and more acidic than canned. And cherry/grape tomatoes are typically sweeter than their full-sized cousins. In a pinch you could use regular tomatoes, but remember that your choice here is the single greatest factor in how the salad will taste.

There are other areas where you can save a buck without ruining anything. Fresh mozzarella is a great addition to the salad, but the other day I sliced up a couple of string cheese sticks in its place and nobody complained (boujie, I know). And fresh garlic is always delicious, but if you or your kids don’t like garlic or you just want to save a step, you can get by without it.

2 - Use a good olive oil

The best olive oil comes from specialty shops. It tastes great on its own. You can dip fresh bread in it as a two-ingredient appetizer. You could use that here with likely spectacular results, but it isn’t necessary.

For this dish, Costco olive oil is fine. The salad’s going to be thoroughly coated with it though, so you definitely don’t want to use your plastic bottle of Kroger olive oil that’s a year past the date. Taste a drop of oil before you use it. It should be rich and smooth, maybe bitter but just barely. If it tastes like an exhaust pipe, throw it away.

You’ll want to add a heavy drizzle of olive oil at the final stage of the recipe. The burst tomatoes will provide a bit of dressing for the pasta, but the oil picks up a lot of slack. You don’t want any unsauced noodles hiding in there. Then again, I like sauce more than the average person, so you do you.

3 - Add plenty of salt

There are two foods in the world that always need more salt than you think they do: beef and tomatoes. You almost can’t over-salt them (obviously you can if you’re trying to, don’t take me literally). There’s no beef in this recipe but tomatoes are the main flavor component, and a tomato just doesn’t taste like a tomato until you salt it.

It’s been said that the unwritten rule of cooking is to salt each ingredient at each stage of the process. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but regardless, most recipes expect you to intuitively understand when and how to add salt. It’s more art than science.

Some people are under the impression that you should leave salt out of your recipes and let people salt their own food at the table. What a stupid idea. By that logic, why don’t you just lay out a bunch of plain ingredients and let your guests cook for themselves? Some of them might not like flour or water as much as others. Sigh. It isn’t your guests’ job to make the food taste good, it’s yours. And by the time the food has reached the table it’s too late. The salt just won’t have the same effect as if you had added it when you were supposed to. End rant.

Okay, some people have heart conditions and can’t eat much sodium. I get that. Accommodating your guests’ physical needs is more important than making food that tastes good. But if that’s your situation may I recommend you make a different recipe. This one is so salt-dependent it’s ridiculous.

In this case you should salt your pasta water, salt the tomatoes while they’re cooking in the pan, and most importantly, add salt while tossing all the ingredients together until the salad tastes good.

It will be bland at first. Think about it, it’s an oily bowl of white pasta and tomatoes—of course it starts out bland. But the more salt you add, the louder and louder the tomatoes get until that magic moment when the salad tastes like springtime. This will probably involve a few cycles of sprinkling, stirring, and tasting, and you’ll want to take it slow, a pinch at a time. But this is the part I think all those internet commenters must have skipped. The salad doesn’t taste like much without salt. It tastes awesome with it.

If you slightly over-salt the salad by accident, you may be able to save it by adding more oil or tomatoes and putting it in the fridge for a stretch.

4 - Refresh it if it’s been in the fridge

If you’re not serving the salad immediately (which is the ideal) it can survive a night in the fridge. However, it will have gone dry and bland again. The solution is simple: refresh it with some olive oil and (more cautiously this time) salt. It’ll be back on its A-game in no time.

One of the aforementioned commenters on Gritzer’s recipe recommends the addition of balsamic vinegar to make it pop. I’m sure that’s delicious (I’ve been known to sneak a sip of balsamic if I’m alone in the kitchen) but it’s a fundamentally different recipe. A caprese pasta salad like this isn’t an excuse to coat your mouth in dark, intense flavors. It’s something much humbler than that. It says here are tomatoes. Love them.

I do love them. But they’re a delicate ingredient and they have to be treated right. This recipe is your chance to prove you can.

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