Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

How To Make Weeknight Pasta Sauce

Are you a childless adult? Are you not charged with the care of any invalid friends or relatives? Do you live in New York, or some other place where it's possible to get decent groceries? Then listen, you have no excuse to ever buy jarred pasta sauce.

I can hear the complaints already:

YOU: I’m very busy and have no time to craft fanciful sauces!
ME: No, you aren’t. Making sauce only takes around half an hour.
YOU: But I’m too important to concern myself with such matters!
ME: Fine, you’re excused. Go spend those I-Banker dollars on pasta prepared by professionals, and have it delivered to your tastefully appointed Brooklyn Heights rowhouse. Also, choke on it. Just don’t buy jarred sauce.
YOU: Actually, I’m unemployed and too broke to purchase exotic ingredients for foreign foodstuffs!
ME: In general, fresh sauce is no more expensive than jarred sauce.
YOU: I just lost both arms in a terrible farm accident!
ME: Oh my god, I’m sorry. Call me and I’ll come over and make you some sauce.

Glad we settled that. There is a common and insane notion that pasta sauce is a difficult and time-consuming thing to, best left to Italian grandmothers or smug pricks like Gordon Ramsay. But that's not true. Here's a recipe that will serve two comfortably, probably with enough left over for at least one lunch tomorrow as well.

At the most basic level, you need only five inexpensive and common ingredients: salt, garlic, some decent olive oil, an onion and a can of Italian tomatoes. If you don’t already have those things you can probably find them within walking distance, at most bodegas or groceries. That, and some pretty basic kitchen equipment and, as I said, about thirty minutes. So, come on. You’re an adult—throw out the Prego, stop your whinging and let’s make dinner.

1. Set a skillet on a burner set to medium, and drop a nice big splash of olive oil in there. After a moment or two put a little water on your fingers and flick them toward the oil. A pleasant sizzling sound should result, letting you know that it is sauce time. Add a finely minced white or yellow onion and several minced garlic cloves.

(Super-remedial sidebar: Do you not know how to mince onion or garlic? Wallow momentarily in your shame (you are a grown and educated adult!) and let’s take care of this. This cool video shows you how to peel an entire head of garlic in less than 10 seconds. Watch this Goodfellas clip for inspiration before chopping the garlic. And see this for a good onion lesson. Try not to chop off your fingers.)

2. So: oil, garlic, onion. Let this go for awhile, stirring it around occasionally (or agitating the pan on the burner if you’re trying to look impressive) until the vegetables are soft and mostly translucent. If they turn brown, throw everything away and start over. You'll only be out about two dollars at this point.

3. Now let’s discuss tomatoes. I like Cento's San Marzano peeled tomatoes best. They're “DOP” certified, which means that they are honest-to-god San Marzano tomatoes from a volcanic region of Italy, which, I guess, is some sort of big deal to Italians. If you’re not being observed by any Italian people while preparing this dish, you can probably buy some other variety. Either way, get a 28-ounce can and open it up while you’re waiting for your onions and garlic to cook. You can toss these into the blender for a few pulses if you like, or just dump the can, juice and all, into the skillet. The tomatoes will break down as they cook, but you may want to chop up anything that looks too big for a comfortable mouthful. Add a large handful of good coarse kosher salt, and a small handful of black pepper. That’s it—you have just made pasta sauce. Let it simmer for fifteen minutes, and then it’s time to eat.

Those are the three-step basics. Now some variations!

• Are you drinking wine as you prepare this? Of course you are. What the hell, dump in a cup of whatever you’re drinking with the tomatoes.

• Throw in some other veggies and herbs, like chopped mushrooms or diced eggplant. Maybe some seeded jalapeno. How about, oh my god, a mélange of other various peppers varietals? Some local organic fiddlehead ferns? Sure thing, Brooklyn, knock yourself out. But definitely finely chop some fresh parsley, oregano or (especially) basil, and put that in right before you serve it.

• Everybody is always going on about bacon now, right? Fine, whatever, cook some bacon (don’t burn it), then dice it up and toss it in with the vegetables, before the tomatoes go in. If you want to really impress everyone then upgrade your deli bacon from the deli to butcher-shop pancetta, or get really crazy with guanciale. Some Italian sausage, hot or sweet, cooked and sliced, is welcome in any non-vegetarian sauce. I guess you could put some cooked chicken in there, although I’ve never really seen the point of it. If I put chicken in pasta it probably means that I had some leftover thighs about to hit their expiration date, so I tossed them in as if I were disposing of a corpse. Remember that if you’re ever having dinner at my place. If you want to add red meats, then you are talking about that mother of all pasta sauce (and the foundation for the best lasagna) called Bolognese. You have also just embarked upon a fabulous three-to-six-hour journey, best for weekends, and beyond the simple weeknight dish that I came here to discuss. Enjoy.

Shrimp, calamari, cockles, mussels, crab meat… use your judgment. Go bananas! Don’t actually add any bananas though.

• And to state the obvious: some finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, or whatever other hard Italian cheese you have, will make everyone prefer your sauce to if you had not added it. If you want it to turn your pasta into lazy weeknight lasagna, just add five or six spoonfuls of ricotta a few minutes before the sauce is ready, and stir the whole thing up before you serve it. You could also add a cup of cream to the tomatoes, and if you’re doing that then you might as well put a cup of vodka in. Holy shit, you just made your own vodka sauce. Isn’t this easy, you guys? Why would you buy sauce in a jar?

• Another variation, and my standard go-to these days, is puttanesca sauce, which means “whore’s style,” but because the sauce has such a strong, smoky taste, I prefer to think of it as “smoker’s style.” Start with three or five anchovy fillets, sliver them with your knife and toss them into the sauce before the tomatoes go in. Some people are horrified by these funky little fish, and you may want to keep them a secret until after your guests have eaten. No one will know because they don’t actually make the sauce taste fishy. They will just add a mild undercurrent that makes things more complex and interesting. They will also add a great deal of salt, so cut back a touch on the amount we discussed earlier. Other stuff for your smoker’s pasta: black, kalamata or green olives, pitted and roughly (read: lazily) chopped; half a jar of drained capers; and a goodly sum of red pepper flakes. Before you serve it add some fresh herbs: parsley and basil in particular, and while the standard recipe doesn’t call for it (are any Italians watching?) I usually grate some Parmesan over the top before serving as well.

Noodles: In the best case scenario you’re making your own, with a Grandma-approved flour-well method and a pasta machine, but again, that puts you a bit beyond our agreed-upon weeknight purview. I’m usually quite happy with the fresh pastas that FreshDirect sells (the egg fettuccine and linguine from Ravello in particular) but dry pasta has a place in life too. Whichever you choose, get your water for this started before your sauce so that it's merrily bubbling away when you’re almost ready to eat. Use a big pot, and fill it up about three quarters of the way. Add enough salt to make it taste like seawater, because that will make the pasta taste good, and don’t add any oil, because it doesn’t do a damn thing. Dry pasta boils for about 9 minutes, fresh pasta for only a minute or two. You will read that fresh pasta is ready when it comes to the surface of the water, but I haven’t found that to be the case. The important thing is not to overcook it.

Supposedly proper al dente pasta, when thrown, will stick to the door of the refrigerator. I don’t like throwing noodles around my apartment, so I generally just fish one out with a fork and eat it to see if I like the texture.

Don’t drain the noodles, and certainly don’t bother washing them, as they have just been boiled in saltwater, and are as clean as any food product will ever be. Instead extract the noodles with some kitchen tongs and put them directly into that big skillet with the sauce in it. A little water will go will also go into the sauce, and Gordon Ramsay would tell you that this starchy pasta water “binds” the dish, which I suppose means that it forms some sort of barely-perceptible flavor bridge between the pasta and the sauce. I guess that’s probably the case? Just do it, stir the whole thing up, and let it sit on a low fire for a minute or two so that it’s all the same temperature and integrated as a dish. It’s time to eat.

Super bonus extra credit: Here’s an easy trick that classes up the whole operation: put the plates you’re going to use in an oven set to around 200 degrees for the last few minutes of the process so that they are warm, and thus will keep the food warmer for a longer time. Take a warm plate, extract a tong-load of food and place it on the plate with a jaunty little wrist action. Then scoop up some of the fun stuff from your sauce (mushrooms, olives, whatever) and drop those around so that they’re looking good. Add herbs and cheese. You’re done, dinner looks great, and you’re feeling all smug and Ramsay-like, or maybe just grandmotherly. Either way, you have my word that you will prefer this to a jarred sauce.

Related: How To Cook A Bolognese Sauce and Half-Baked: How To Make A Pizza.

Brian Pritchett is a writer and web producer in Brooklyn.

61 Comments / Post A Comment

Annie K. (#3,563)

This is so true. Every word of it is true. I just do the basic recipe and add chopped fresh rosemary and diced pancetta. I can't tell you how good it is.

bg (#208,880)

@Annie K. Every word except "add a large handful of kosher salt." That sounds gross!

mBrad (#1,276)

i agree @bg, that would be too much salt?!

Annie K. (#3,563)

@mBrad @bg Yes, absolutely. I was ignoring that part. Salt the water if you like, but not the sauce. Especially if you put pancetta in it.

aSaltySalute (#293)

@Annie K. Eh, yes. Note my username. I'm going to die young. But when I say "large handful" I'm not talking about a baseball glove worth. Put in the right amount. Do it a bit at a time, since it's easier to add than remove. It will probably take you a few tries to get it exactly where you want it.

"…only takes around half an hour."

Opening a jar of Sockarooni takes about 2 seconds.

@ReginalTSquirge Yes. To some of us, a half-hour sauce is kind of a big deal.

@turingcub It's almost as if you KNEW that I'm a loser who can't get laid. Intriguing. Will try a solid 45 minutes of cooking very soon.

@turingcub * only gets you laid if there is someone else in your house. Cooking alone results in no-laid.

HereKitty (#2,713)

Mincing, eh … too lazy. Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce with butter and onion FTW.

shawn (#1,859)

@HereKitty That sauce is no joke. It has the biggest effort/taste ratio of all time.

Annie K. (#3,563)

@shawn Yes, well. The rosemary/pancetta variant I was passing off as my own up above there? It's Hazan. As you say, the best price-to-earnings ratio going.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

adjacent / hypotenuse

liznieve (#7,691)

@dntsqzthchrmn I see what you did there, and I like it, ms./mr. cosine.

AnonymousHoward (#8,069)

Simple pasta sauce is the answer to all temptation to eat processed food. It's a life changing revelation when you realise it tastes better and is as easy as the crap in jars.

But, it inspires complete fundamentalism about the right method. So, onions, really? Completely uncalled for. The garlic should be sliced, not minced. Put a pinch of nutmeg in there too, and a teaspoon of crushed dried chilis, not jalapenos.

If you're going to put cheese in, put mascarpone in, which will melt evenly into the sauce, rather than breaking up into little white specks like ricotta. Keep the ricotta for when you have some spinach. Put the parmesan on top, not in it.

As for oregano, well, that is purely for pizza, nothing else. And all those vegetables (aubergine, ffs, you're just adding gloop), see the scene in Homicide where Bayliss describes Crosetti's advice on pasta: all those other ingredients are "because the Protestants got to it".

And putanesca doesn't mean that the sauce is whorish, but all that fire and strength makes you feel whorish.

And dried pasta is completely the right thing for this sort of sauce, 'fresh' pasta is another hideous trick of the food industry to make you pay more for something less good. Good dried pasta cooked the right time will give the right toothsome texture. and a ladleful of starchy water to add to the almost dry sauce at the end, and bind all that oil and tomato together into a nice glossy emulsion.

Food bitching aside though, great to see someone stand up for making your own sauce.

I'm an oldster of 50+, but the 70'-80's generation would not have survived if we hadn't known how to cook at least the basics of the basics. Spaghetti with garlic and oil? Garbanzo stews? What the hell ever with brown rice? Once a month on sale scrawny broiler chickens at Key Food? I fed myself, and mystill in school boyfriend, on a fraction of what even my boho grad student friends got by on. Everñy time I go home to NYC from Yurp I can't believe how even starving students live off takeout. Can't anybody cook this game anymore?

SeanP (#4,058)

@AnonymousHoward Or you could, you know, just do whatever? Food "fundamentalism" is actually kind of tiresome.

Bittersweet (#765)

@SeanP: No kidding. No one's ever complained about the generous amounts of oregano in my homemade pasta sauce.

Megoon (#201,547)

@AnonymousHoward I disagree with most of this, except for oregano (oregano sucks). You will pry the onions I'm using in my sauce out of my cold, dead, onion-y hands, and only after you get through the fresh pasta I keep in the fridge (I work near a specialty shop where an actual Italian grandma makes it in the back. It's $2.50 a pound). But my purism and your purism clashing is a beautiful thing.

Oh also – a little pasta water in the sauce AND a little pat of butter will make it smooth and glossy. I recommend.

ls (#9,728)

Canned tomatos probably contain more BPA than anything else you eat. The acid leeches it out of the plastic can liner.

Odm (#11,228)

@ls For the people that find this concerning, Eden Foods has BPA free cans, and this may be true of the organic/"natural" tomatoes carried by your supermarkets.

deepomega (#1,720)

This is completely true. And for those complaining about time – make it on a weekend, in a huge volume, and you can freeze some of it for later.

deepomega (#1,720)

@deepomega You can also COOK THE PASTA IN THE SAUCE. WHAT?? Why didn't everyone in the world teach me this before I left college. Basically, put enough pasta on top of the sauce in a big skillet with a lid. You want about one layer of pasta. Then just cover it and let it go. Takes a little longer than boiling, but leads to fewer dishes.

"Put down the Prego." Prego? What, am I Rockefeller over here?

Reed (#276)

People using bottled salad dressing is infuriating, but I've always let pasta sauce slide. That's about to change.

Trilby (#3,897)

What condescending rubbish. Onions may turn brown in the pan. That shows they are caramelized, which everyone loves.

aSaltySalute (#293)

@Trilby Condescending Rubbish is going to be the title of my cookbook! In truth though you don't want this stuff to get too brown, particularly the garlic. You just want to sweat it so it releases its magic.

SeanP (#4,058)

@aSaltySalute I agree. But throwing it out is a little over the top. The onion might not be that expensive, but you've got some labor invested in it at that point. I think that if they were anything short of actually burnt I'd live with a little unintended caramelization.

dialectric (#6,128)

The thing about pasta sauce is that is a sort of open form which allows you to experiment with a lot of leeway before you ruin it. I enjoy making puttanesca sauce, but in line with previous pizza-toppings-in-order contention, realize it is not for everyone. If you do attempt puttanesca, 'half a jar' of capers, like the handful of salt discussed above, is a crazy amount. Try a teaspoon of capers, ideally packed in sea salt, instead.

Roaring Girl (#164,743)

This is timely and amazing, because the grocery store stopped carrying my vodka sauce. I WILL NOT EAT PLAIN MARINARA, SO HELP ME.

LyndaSyon (#209,020)

nice dish

Doug Henwood (#6,729)

No need to run the tomatoes through the blender/food processor. Just break them up with a spatula as they cook.

Also, mix up some tomato paste (the tubed kind is great because it lasts a long time) with about a half-cup of red wine. Add it towards the end of the cooking – thickens it up and adds lots of flavor.

KikiCollins (#209,031)

"If you want to add red meats…. You have also just embarked upon a fabulous three-to-six-hour journey."

Whaaaaa? Madness! Just brown a pound of ground beef (or crumbled italian sausage) and mix that in. I usually just do this and the onion/garlic as one step.

Danzig! (#5,318)

Go bananas! Don’t actually add any bananas though.

For a white wine sauce (particularly a heavier one, w/ cream), please do. Also grapes and pineapple.

CaptBackslap (#10,313)

No. Just…no. That's not a meal, that's dessert.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@CaptBackslap Don't knock it til you've tried it B) Just add lots of garlic and broccoli and capsicum.

illcommunication (#13,090)

@Danzig! Whaaa?! Are we talking sliced or like mashed up into the sauce? Is this an Australian thing? Do you fry them first? Why do I feel so compelled to try this?

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Danzig! It's a Caribbean thing I think. I had an old friend from St. Lucian Islands who would make a fruit-heavy alfredo and penne dish, it was amazing. Citrus jibes really well with the rich cheese flavor. Grapes also go really well with sun-dried tomatoes.

AmeliaRay (#209,117)

This whole post is based on the premise that there is something inferior about jarred tomato sauce. If you are going to use tomatoes from a can, then you've gotten over the whole "preserved tomato" issue, so why not let someone else do the mixing and adding spices? Buy a jar of Newman's Own Marinara ($3), or, even better, Enrico's Traditional pasta sauce ($5). It's better than what most people (ie, the casual cooks who this post is trying to appeal to) can make on their own in 30 mins. Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about vegetable stock. Now THERE is something that is materially inferior to homemade. Never buy vegetable stock in a can/foil container!! Cut up a few carrots, celery, onions, parsley, thyme, marjoram, and throw it into a pot for 2 hours. Store for weeks if need be. A delicious meal starter with no MSG and jam-packed with flavor.

spanish bombs (#562)

@AmeliaRay I would argue that a basic garlic-onion-tomato pasta sauce made on an oven tastes far better than Newman's, probably reaching $8/jar level sauces for about $2-4, depending on the quality of canned tomatoes, so I think it's more of a bang for buck issue. (Not sure where the author is shopping to be using $2 worth of garlic/onion/oil!)

In the summer, basic tomato sauces just murder store-bought. Another issue is that basically all storebought sauces have sugar or corn syrup, and if you are used to homemade, this will make the storebought sauce taste off. I think the real problem with homemade tomato sauce is having to blend, such a pain to wash.

CaptBackslap (#10,313)

No less an authority than America's Test Kitchen declared that the best jar sauces compare favorably with homemade. I like making my own sauce, but there's no shame in cooking up a jar of Barilla (the mention of Prego makes me think the author hasn't tried the better jarred sauces) with some Italian sausage.

AmeliaRay (#209,117)

@spanish bombs Agreed! Fresh or raw tomato sauce with naturally ripened tomatoes has no equal! And I agree if you're a good cook you can make a quick tomato sauce better and cheaper than Newman's Own–but to me the slight tradeoff for convenience is worth it. I'd rather spend the extra time sauteeing fresh greens to go with the pasta.

Guanciale! OK, but the best recipe for pasta with guanciale — pasta alla gricia — doesn't require a sauce at all.

Annie K. (#3,563)

@Clarence Rosario Yes, please, yes, please what's the recipe for pasta alla gricia? And then, please, what's guanciale? and what can I substitute for it?

growler (#476)

@Annie K. There's a great and simple recipe for it on Serious Eats:http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2009/02/seriously-italian-pasta-alla-gricia-recipe.html

Guanciale is pretty much fancy bacon. Fancy, DELICIOUS bacon. You can substitute pancetta, but I advise you seek out the good shit instead.

jobsapp01 (#209,107)

wow looks like it's great

Flaneur (#998)

What I do is, brown a pound and a half of ground beef, add Worcestershire sauce and red wine, two cloves of garlic with a garlic press, then thyme, basil, oregano and savory, then a small can of tomato paste and three 15-ounce cans of tomato sauce. Simmer for a while. It's perfectly good right then and excellent after refrigeration.

That said, this version sounds great, too.

Bittersweet (#765)

@Flaneur: Ooh, Worcestershire! Never thought of that. Will try it next time. Your sauce sounds fairly similar to mine, except I use diced tomatoes (drained) instead of sauce. Gives it a bit more texture.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

I'm reminded of the Steve Albini food blog. http://mariobatalivoice.blogspot.com/

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

So I made this last night, and while it was good, I was a little disappointed in how little the tomatoes actually broke down, and how soupy the sauce turned out. Advice? (Totally not discounting the idea that I just screwed it up.)

aSaltySalute (#293)

@boyofdestiny Yeah I should have said something about this… there are several levels of soup-to-dryness that can be achieved here. For maximum dry, drain the juice from the can and then squeeze the water out of the tomatoes with your hands, and then chop em up. Medium soupy: just put the fruit in minus the juice. Hope you like it better next time.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@aSaltySalute Oh, it tasted great. It was just more of a pasta-and-tomatoes-and-onions melange than it was a pasta-and-sauce. Thanks for the tips!

@boyofdestiny buy a 2 dollar tomato mill and use it. It's honestly the only really reliable way to remove the seeds. It's fairly gross that the author just processed his tomatoes with seeds in them. Your sauce will always have bits in it. Sort of like sandy bits of tomato seed.

Also, if you have the time to mince an onion and garlic then for the love of god, just mince some carrot and celery and sweat it down too. Then you can process it and put it back on the stove. The carrot/celery/onion is an italian soffrito, and pretty much makes the sauce. Just tomatoes and garlic and onions sounds kind of gross. Although probably not the worst.

Also you can throw a touch of tomato paste into the pan while the oil and veggies are frying. It adds a good sweetness. It's what my Italian mom and grandmother did.

Annie K. (#3,563)

@boyofdestiny I usually cook it a little longer than Salty says, maybe 30 minutes, so it cooks down. Plus, this isn't like what I think of as spaghetti sauce; it's more liquidy and saucy; it doesn't sit on top of the pasta, it gets down in amongst it and coats it. I'm having such longings right now.

SeanP (#4,058)

@boyofdestiny Keep a can of tomato paste around, and if it seems to watery, keep dumping in tomato paste until it's appropriately thickened.

spanish bombs (#562)

@boyofdestiny Unfortunately, you pretty much have to blend. (A tomato mill would be another thing to wash, so I say not worth it.) Also, in general, if things are soupy, there is always the option of cooking longer to evaporate more liquid.

JoshUng (#11,371)

That just sounds…exhausing.

kernelaidin (#209,223)

very nice post

illcommunication (#13,090)

Can we all agree that the pictured plate of fettucine does not have even close to an acceptable amount of sauce on it? Is this the "maybe leftover for lunch" plate?

sharilyn (#4,599)

Yes to bacon. Always. Even the run-of-the-mill unfancy bacon makes this sauce dance, as would a half a chopped red bell pepper. Dried poasta is actually better with this sort of thing – fresh pasta is better with creamy/cheesy/spinachy things. And shrimps.

I made this sauce today. It came out great although it was a little watery! I used a blender to get the tomatoes and onions smoothed out. I will try adding tomato paste next time, and maybe a little red wine.

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