Yeah, It’s Worth It

Sometimes it makes sense to pay for the good stuff.

You’ve actually managed to make staying in more expensive than going out,” Raymond said.

I just cracked into a $15 can of imported Italian tomatoes. I know that’s pretty obnoxious, but would it help if I told you that I had an $8 box of pasta to sauce? Pasta that precious has to be pampered, right?

Okay, you’re still not buying it. I don’t blame you. Even an economist of my meager training can tell you that a meal of spaghetti and tomato sauce for four people can be readily had for four bucks, which is about one-sixth of what I just spent, and that’s before counting the olive oil and the ne plus ultra of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Raymond took a bite. The pasta was unique—tender but with integrity, a subtle resistance, its rough texture gripping the tomatoes and their gorgeous, mellow flavor. It made the sauce seem richer, velvety and luxurious, as the flavor rang on and on.

“Well? Is it worth it?” I asked.

“…Wow. That is very good,” he said. He shook his head. “I wish I didn’t taste that, actually, because now I’ll have to start buying $15 cans of tomatoes.”

Well, it’s not like you have to stock your pantry with this kind of stuff. As a financial mortal, mine is full of bright blue boxes of supermarket pasta and three-buck cans. But here’s the thing: In the case of spaghetti and tomato sauce, you can spend very little money and have your thousand-and-first plate of something banal, or you can spend some more and have its platonic ideal. Something you will pay attention to, something you’ll concentrate on for all its nuances of texture and flavor, something you might remember for the rest of your life. Something for which to invite three of your best friends over, so that they will remember it for the rest of their lives. Twenty-five bucks doesn’t sound like very much when I think of it that way.

The Platonic Ideal of Spaghetti and Tomato Sauce

Serves 4; takes maybe 15 minutes, most of it standing around

1 28-oz can of Miracoli di San Gennaro tomatoes
1 500-gram box of Pasta Latini Spaghetti Classico
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper
Sugar, maybe
A chunk of the best Parmigiano-Reggiano you can get your hands on

· Boil water, at least a gallon of it. Yes, that much. And make it taste as salty as the sea.

· Put your oil and garlic in a cold pan and over low heat. You want a nice long infusion without browning the garlic.

· Meanwhile, purée the tomatoes and their juice in a food processor, or use a food mill if you’re the rustic-fancy type.

· When you can smell the garlic and it’s just turning golden around the edges, pour in the tomatoes. Now crank up the heat and bring it to a boil, then turn it down to a healthy simmer, and season the tomato mixture to taste with salt and pepper. A touch of sugar will bring out the tomatoes’ sweetness. Cook it, partially covered, until the puddles of tomato juice cook off the surface and you’re left with a thickened purée. It took me ten minutes. Maybe it’ll take you more, or less.

· Cook your pasta in your viciously boiling salty water. Stir it right away, and marvel at how quickly it wilts in the water and coils around your spoon, not like supermarket spaghetti that sticks straight up out of the pot for minutes.

· When is your pasta done? There are times on the box, so take a look. But do this: Taste it. Keep sticking your spoon in there. Is it still a little white in the middle? Try again in 20 seconds. Does it stick in your teeth? Try again in 20 seconds. Is it just hinting at sticking in your teeth? Good. Take a couple spoonfuls of your pasta water and splash it in your tomatoes; the starch will make the sauce and the pasta like each other. Strain your pasta and toss it with the sauce in the pan and divide into bowls.

· Grate some Parmigiano on top, finish with a little more olive oil, and get ready to remember this moment.

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