Insaporire – “to add taste” or “to build flavor.”
Marcella Hazan once said of the Italian concept, insaporire, “No matter how alluring the ingredients may be on their own, they must surrender their individual identity for the sake of a more expansive flavor…”
It has also been said that insaporire—like the French concept of terrior—does not have an exact translation into the English language, but rather that it is a larger concept, or a method of cooking. The idea of insaporire is generally invoked when describing the transformation that a soffritto undergoes during the preparation of countless Italian dishes, such as a ragù, a brodo, or even a risotto.
So when I first set out to build this dish at home, given that I was not using onion, carrot or celery, and not even starting out with a sauté, the idea of insaporire had not entered my thoughts. But when I first completed it and put a fork-full into my mouth, the term instantly sprang into my mind. It was an explosion of flavor that I was just not expecting from such simple dish.
In my conversations, I’ve variously heard insaporire described as “to add taste” or “to build flavor”. But Hazen expands the concept when she writes that insaporire is all about “the lowering of barriers that confine flavors, the release of flavor that takes place when ingredients intermingle and yield to each other.” And I think this best describes what’s going on in this dish. One would never guess that a simple sauce of tomato, olive, caper and olive oil could have such flavor, but when using quality ingredients, and gently cooking them just to the point of releasing their best flavor, the dish becomes another thing entirely.
Simply slice up some nice, ripe, organic tomatoes, and arrange them in your favorite baking dish with some sliced olives, capers, a few crushed garlic cloves, a bit of thyme and a sprinkle of oregano. Finally drizzle on a healthy dose of good olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. (Be careful with the salt! In a dish like this, the olives, capers and shredded cheese all bring salt to the party, and it’s easy to over due it.) Roast in the oven uncovered, under high heat until things are bubbling and the tomatoes are soft, but not falling apart. At 400°, that’s probably going to be about 15 – 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring some water to a boil and cook your pasta to a fairly firm al dente. The pasta should not be quite finished cooking, because you’re going to finish it in the sauce (this technique should be an entire blog posting all its own…..). Strain the water off of the pasta, and run under cold water to stop the cooking if your tomatoes are not quite done.
When the tomatoes are softened, take the dish out of the oven. Remove the thyme sprigs and garlic cloves, then transfer the rest—olive oil, juices and all— into a 12″ stainless sauté pan. Turn up the heat.
Strain the water off of your pasta. When your sauce mixture comes back to a high simmer in the sauté pan, chop up the tomatoes a bit with a spatula, and then add the pasta to the pan. Keep the heat pretty high, and keep things moving around with a pair of tongs, until the pasta is completely cooked and coated with the sauce. If the sauce becomes too tight (and it will, very quickly), or the pasta is not quite cooked at this point, add some white wine or pasta water back into the sauce, lower the heat to very low, and cover for a few minutes. The pasta will finish cooking in the sauce very quickly.
Adding wine here adds acidity, and you may very well already have plenty of acidity from the tomatoes. If you don’t like a really tangy sauce, adding reserved pasta water might be a better choice, but be careful of the salt!
When your pasta is completely coated in the sauce and fully cooked, plate it! Finally, good quality shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano always tops things off nicely.
I paired this dish with an ’07 MacPhail Anderson Valley “Frattey Shams Vineyard” Pinot, and nearly died and went to heaven.