The last salsa cruda of summer

by Terry B on September 19, 2007

Tomato Basil Salsa Cruda with Pasta makes a fresh light meal or an impressive side. Recipe below.

A quick note before I get started: Check out Kitchen Notes at the bottom to see how Marion adapted her delicious Plum Cake with pears as the prune plums disappeared from store shelves for the season. But read this post first—no dessert ’til you’ve finished.

We didn’t have a garden this year. What with our move and everything, it just didn’t happen. So for the first time in years, we didn’t have tomatoes and basil and rosemary and a host of other goodies straight from our yard.

But at the farmers markets, the produce stands, even the grocery stores, you can see the season changing. Some summer staples are disappearing, and those that remain just don’t seem the same. The peaches that I reveled in for the first time in years are now sometimes being a little more iffy. And tomatoes, though still plentiful, aren’t the deep, robust red found just a week or so ago.

If you’re lucky enough to be harvesting your own tomatoes and basil—or if, like us, you do all your harvesting retail—here’s a quick, delicious way to make use of some of summer’s remaining bounty.

Both Italian and Mexican cooks lay claim to the term salsa cruda, with very different meanings. For both, salsa cruda means uncooked sauce. But Mexican salsa cruda is, well, an uncooked salsa—salsa verde is one example. [Oh, and by the way: Show of hands, who doesn’t know that salsa has replaced ketchup as the number one condiment in America? That says something cool about the American palate, I think!]

For Italians, salsa cruda is truly an uncooked sauce, most often to be served over pasta. The only thing you cook is the pasta itself. When you toss it with the salsa, the pasta cools down a little and the salsa heats up a little, creating a light late summer/early autumn meal. A month or so ago, I posted one of my favorite Italian salsa crudas, Pasta Shells with Italian Tuna and Artichokes. This one is even simpler.

Tomatoes are the star of this dish, and straight from the garden is best, of course. I didn’t even think of tomatoes as more than an ingredient in sauces or ketchup until I tasted one Marion had grown in our backyard in St. Louis. Suddenly, I understood what the big deal was.

Store-bought tomatoes are getting better, though. More varieties, better quality—I even saw heirloom tomatoes on a recent Whole Foods visit. Our go to tomatoes at the store these days [not counting grape or cherry tomatoes] are tomatoes on the vine—sold, as the name implies, still attached to the vine. I have to admit, the first time I saw this, I assumed it was just another marketing ploy to separate foodies from their money: Tomatoes sold on the vine command a considerably higher price than their plucked brethren.

But it turns out the vine really does make a difference. It continues to supply nutrients to the fruit, even after harvesting, naturally ripening them and producing firmer, juicier, better tasting, more nutritious tomatoes. How much the actual stem adds to the party isn’t fully understood, but that’s only part of the story. They tend to be better varieties to begin with, and receive gentler handling in harvesting and shipping to keep them attached.

Handle with care. Here are a couple of quick tips on keeping tomatoes and getting the most flavor out of them. First, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never refrigerate tomatoes. As in never. That is the quickest way known to man to rob them of flavor. Also never, never, etcetera place them upside down, resting on their “shoulders”—the raised, well, shoulders around where the stem attaches. All that pressure concentrated on those small points is a perfect way to bruise them and promote rotting. Place them right side up, on their bottoms.

Whatever tomatoes you use—homegrown or store-bought of any variety, including plum tomatoes—this simple, flavorful treatment makes for a light meal on its own or a fabulous side that will vie for attention with a seared chop or other main course.

Tomato Basil Salsa Cruda with Pasta
Serves 2

2 cups tomatoes, seeded and roughly diced [about 3 small]
1 small to medium clove garlic, minced [see Kitchen Notes]
1/4 cup [packed] basil, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt, freshly ground pepper to taste

6 to 8 ounces uncooked pasta [I used linguine]

Start a large pot of water to cook pasta. While water heats, prep and combine tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil in a large bowl and gently stir to combine. You can seed or not seed the tomatoes, but not doing so adds more moisture to the finished dish, making it kind of soupy. Set aside to let the flavors combine. DO NOT ADD SALT at this point. Salt leeches liquid from cut tomatoes and will create a soupy mess of a sauce.

Salt boiling water generously and cook pasta according to package directions. I like long pastas for this dish—spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine—but you can really use any pasta you like. Shells, farfalle or penne would play nicely too. Cappellini [angel hair pasta] may be a little on the fragile side for all the tossing you need to do.

Drain pasta and add to bowl with salsa cruda mixture. Start by adding maybe 2/3 of the cooked pasta, add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and toss to combine. If the mixture looks like it could use more pasta, add accordingly and toss to combine. Now that you’re adding salt, be generous with it. You’re working with non-processed ingredients, so you don’t have to worry about hidden sodium, and salt really brings out the flavor of the ingredients. Be generous with the pepper too, just because.

Divide between two pasta bowls and serve. If you’re using long pasta, use tongs to transfer to bowls. You will mainly get pasta, which is actually a good thing. Then you’re left with mainly the tomato mixture to spoon on top. Beautiful!

Kitchen Notes

Basil and Weekend Herb Blogging. Yeah, I know. Every time I cook with an herb, I declare it a favorite. Well, basil is one of my favorite favorites, so I’m including this post in Weekend Herb Blogging. This week, it’s being hosted by Myriam over at Once Upon a Tart. She’s all the way over in Zurich, Switzerland, so you’ll have to speak up [the Internet’s kind of like long distance, isn’t it?]. And be sure to check out her complete round-up on Monday, September 24.

Garlic—sliced or minced? There are a couple of ways to add garlic to this dish. Mincing is the most straightforward. One small-to-medium clove does the job for me, since you don’t cook it [garlic loses its intensity the longer it cooks]. Follow your taste buds, though—add more or less depending on how much you like [and more important, how long you’re willing to continue tasting garlic after your meal].

Sometimes, when we’re making the salsa at least 45 minutes to an hour before we want to eat it, we’ll slice two cloves of garlic thinly and COUNT THE SLICES, then toss them with the tomatoes and other ingredients. Then, before adding the pasta, we’ll go through the salsa and fish out ALL the slices of garlic. This imparts the garlic taste to the dish, albeit with more subtlety. This might be a good approach if any diners are less enthusiastic garlic fans.

They have no prune plums? Let them eat pear cake! In her original post here, Marion said the recipe lends itself to other fruits as well. She proved it beautifully this weekend with this wonderful pear cake. She started by substituting chopped pears for the plums, then added a teaspoon of ground ginger to the mix. Everything else follows the original recipe.

Also this week in Blue Kitchen

What do a cooking rodent and a singing mobile phone salesman have in common? Listen up and find out, at What’s on the kitchen boombox?

Thaw for three days. Serves 158. A sort of food-related story, at WTF? Random food for thought.


{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

moveablefeast September 19, 2007 at 3:00 am

Thank you for the informative post. I’ve found it tough to find good tomatoes (many supermarket bought tomatoes just don’t taste like tomatoes do then) and your tips to preserve flavour is a good one. Lovely photos, by the way….

Phil @

Ronnie Ann September 19, 2007 at 3:15 am

As you know, Terry, there are certain foods I can’t eat too much of. Tomatoes are one of them. I also adore them. So when I do eat tomatoes, however much I do have must (if at all possible) be FABulous. As you also know, I love simple recipes with minimal ingredients aimed at bringing out the full flavor of the “star”. For me, this is a home run. I can taste it already. And luckily I’m not one bit allergic to that gorgeous photo. Now to find tomatoes worthy enough. Luckily, I have a few decent sources (and sauces) here in Brooklyn. Yummm!

Lydia September 19, 2007 at 3:38 am

I love tomato sauces like this, with a bit of fresh buffalo mozzarella thrown in, too. In fact, we’ve been eating this for days as the basil now begs to be harvested before the first frost.

Jennifer Hess September 19, 2007 at 1:06 pm

Gorgeous! I love these simple uncooked or barely cooked sauces. Also, I’m feeling a bit of plate envy. :)

Carolyn September 19, 2007 at 3:05 pm

Basil. Terry, I love the salsa cruda recipe but I want to talk basil. Recently friends prepared me an impromptu meal from their picnic basket. On day-old, crusty rolls were placed super-thin slices of red onion and a mild cheese. This sandwich was generously loaded with fresh basil. Ohmigosh! Heaven. Truly, nothing ever tasted better.

Terry B September 19, 2007 at 4:19 pm

Phil—I agree, home grown tomatoes are still the best, particularly when they’re still warm from the sun. Marion, the gardener in our household, would occasionally pick a ripe tomato in our St. Louis backyard and just eat it on the spot.

Ronnie—Among your sources, I hope you include New York’s amazing green markets. We have them in Chicago too, but nothing on the level you do.

Lydia—A little cheese would be an interesting addition. When we had this the other night, I had intended to heat a little leftover chicken to go along with the pasta [not to mix in, but in addition to] to make it a complete meal. But Marion and I devoured the pasta right away and decided that it was a complete and satisfying meal on its own—at least that particular night.

Jennifer—Isn’t it a lovely bowl? Marion spotted it when we were in Sur la Table. Since I’ve started this blog, we’re always on the lookout for interesting pieces. As a result, our kitchen is increasingly cluttered with a bunch of one-offs, but that’s okay. Makes even a toasted muffin or morning bowl of cereal seem fancier.

Carolyn—I love basil! One of my favorite ways to use it when we had a garden was to pick a couple/few leaves and put them on a sandwich. Roast turkey or chicken were best. I would also chop some up to mix with tuna salad.

Andrea September 19, 2007 at 4:39 pm

Oh, I always buy the “on the vine” tomatoes but now you’ve reinforced that it’s worth the extra price! I had assumed it was but had nothing to back that up!

Katiez September 19, 2007 at 7:21 pm

I sympathise with the lack of tomatoes and basil…we had a garden, but no summer… The tomatoes rotted off in June and the basil never grew…
Like you, thankfully, we have markets.
Wonderful sauce…I’m thinking how good it will be next summer 😉

Kirsten September 20, 2007 at 5:43 am

Wow, how lovely of a photo, recipe and tomato tutorial! Delicious!!!

And plum or pear, cake is cake. My favorite food. :)

Paola September 21, 2007 at 7:02 am

Your pictures are fantastic! Gorgeous food!


Brett Kelley September 21, 2007 at 6:39 pm

I use heirloom tomatoes (my favourite variety is the “Green Zebra” variety) in place of regular tomatoes, and also I use Bruce Cohn’s (of B.R. Cohn winery) special extra virgin olive oil along with his limited-run balsamic vinegar (his label, but comes from Modena of course). Another nice addition is one small finely-minced shallot thrown in the mix. Oh yeah, and whole wheat noodles actually go well with it as well.

Bonnie Ape Tit!

ann September 22, 2007 at 3:20 pm

I’ll admit, this is my favorite “agh-I-just-got-home-from-work-and-its-already-8:30!” dinner, but with one small modification. I tear the basil and I use a garlic press for the garlic. I know, shameful. But after I’ve spent close to 11 hours at work, I really can’t be asked to whip out a cutting board. I just slice the tomatoes straight into two bowls, press the garlic into the bowls, tear the basil into the bowls, add salt, olive oil and then plop the hot pasta on top. Sloppy cooking, but soooo delicious! That reminds me, I need to go buy some ‘maters this weekend! Thanks TerryB!

Terry B September 23, 2007 at 4:00 am

Thanks, all! Ann, my problem with garlic presses is that I always feel as though I’m leaving half the garlic clove in the press. Of course haven’t tried one in years, so perhaps they’ve gotten better. But I find a good bash with the side of a chef’s knife goes a long way toward mincing a garlic clove in a heartbeat. But your late evening speed prep of this dish points up yet another advantage: When dinner’s over, the only pot to clean is the one in which you cooked the pasta.

Michael September 25, 2007 at 1:00 pm

Great pictures! And I agree with your comments on salsa cruda, I make the Mexican version of it all the time and I love it. Fresh, uncooked salsa is one of my favorite condiments, although I usually put more jalapenos in than most people.

Susan from Food Blogga September 26, 2007 at 6:14 pm

I whole-heartedly agree with you about the deliciousness of this sauce and all of your tips regarding tomatoes–most especially the NEVER refrigerating them part. You can never have to many “nevers” in that sentence! Thanks to Marion for suggesting the pear cake as well. Pears are one of the fruits that i really enjoy when I have but tend to overlook in favor of other fall fruits.

Dalia June 30, 2010 at 5:37 pm

There could be nothing more simple and more delicious than this dish. Simple truly is best! (BTW I stumbled upon your blog by mistake, and do I say that your blog is not only pleasing to the eyes but the stomach too!)

Dani H August 23, 2014 at 1:25 am

I have to be “in the mood” for pasta (maybe two or three times a year) and much prefer a sauce made with fresh tomatoes. This sounds right up my alley! Thanks, Terry!

Mike November 22, 2016 at 12:37 pm

Great recipe and good, informative comments. Just one question: is a salsa cruda ever cooked? I’d like to add some zucchini, yellow squash, and red peppers to this, but I think they’d go better cooked al dente.

Marion November 22, 2016 at 9:35 pm

Mike, it won’t be exactly a salsa cruda, but while the pasta is cooking, you might lightly sauté your additions in a little olive oil and add them to the dish when you add the pasta. Definitely leave them on the crunchy side when you cook them, though.

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