How To Make Weeknight Pasta Sauce

by Brian Pritchett

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.