Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Red: My Quick Meal

I could not have a red series on the blog without sharing my recipe for tomato sauce with you. First because it is a great quick meal, and is exceptionally adaptable. Second, because this is one of my top three go-to meals when I'm not feeling creative (I always have the ingredients). And third, because if you are eating pre-made sauce you're just missing out.

I am biased, yes, because as I grew up my Mom (who has completely Italian ancestry on both sides) was constantly making sauce and creating some delicious dinner for us with it. Pasta, homemade pizza, calzones, lasagna (the only casserole she made), and even homemade crepe-like manicotti a couple of times. And now that we're not small picky children anymore she's been telling us about eggplant Parmesan, polenta, and rice lasagna.

My first taste of pre-made sauce was at my grandma's house, and my little self didn't know what was wrong with the meal, but I knew something was missing, just like something was up with the bread because the "butter" was actually margarine...
Other than the fact they are not like my Mom's sauce (and they are a little too sweet), my main issue with pre-made sauces are the powered garlic and powdered onion. Both my palette and my intestinal tract have an issue with those...
I realize choice in sauce (just like margarine vs. butter) is an area of tastes and even strong opinions for many people. In our college dinning hall we had a comment card box, and not only did the staff reply to the comment cards, they posted them on a big bulletin board with the responses scrawled beneath. Since there was a pasta bar open almost every day during dinner and lunch (which I avoided for the most part), there was always a comment card battle going on about the sauce. The main issue was the consistency.

One day you would see
"Thank you for the wonderful, fresh tasting pasta sauce offered today. The small pieces of tomato show you're giving us something that hasn't been super processed. Just like my Mom makes it. Great job."

"The sauce today was disgusting! There were huge chunks of tomato and then runny liquid which wouldn't stick to my noodles! Ugh!"

A few days later you would see
"The pasta sauce today was too thick and too sweet. It was like you heated up seasoned tomato paste."
"The sauce was amazing today! Thanks for listening to my comments and cooking up something hearty!"

 And every few days you would see one like this
"The Cheerios this morning captured my heart. In all my travels of the seven seas, never have I found something so perfectly oat-y and which pair so unquestionably with milk of any percentage. Please don't change a thing, keep baking them to perfection. --Pirate Joe"

 Just like the standing-up-breadstick sauce advertisements of the '90's, everyone has their preference. My sauce is a middle ground in terms of consistency, but I will make notes at the end in case you fall on either extreme of the pasta sauce spectrum. I usually make my sauce without any meat, but I'll make a note about that too.

Preparing this sauce usually takes me 20-something minutes, and while taking pictures it took me 30, but once when a friend was having a wedding planning emergency, I whipped this up in less than 15 minutes. Your basic time constraint is how quickly you can chop an onion, and whether your burners heat efficiently.

Grab a thick sauce pan, a sharp knife, and gather your ingredients.

Tomato Sauce  yield ~ 8 cups  (just cut it in half if you want a bit less)
Olive oil (or cannola if necessary)
Two medium onions
3 large garlic cloves, or more small ones
2 28oz cans of crushed tomatoes
Dried parsley
Dried basil
Dried oregano
Sugar (necessary based on the flavor of your tomatoes)
Crushed red pepper
Black pepper
Cayenne pepper
a pinch of ground fennel seed (optional)

Once your ingredients are gathered

Cut each end off your onions and cut them in half them lengthwise. Start heating your sauce pan over medium heat.
Remove the onion skins, and slice onions 1/4 inch thick.

Add 1-2 Tbs of oil to the hot pan. 
Chop the onions (the other direction), so you have rough squares.

When the oil flows freely around the pan (indicating it is hot enough), 
and when all four onion halves are chopped,

add them to the pan to saute.

Cook, stirring every so often (but not constantly) until all of them become translucent, like this.

This is when people (even onion haters) will start walking in and saying,"Whatever you're cooking smells so good." It is also when you will have a very hard time taking pictures because of the steam on your lens.

While waiting for the onion magic, peel your garlic and either chop finely, or crush in a garlic press, into the pan.

Then stir, and turn the heat down a smidge to keep the garlic from browning too much on the bottom of the pan. Cook for a minute or two,

while you find some of your favorite crushed tomatoes,

and open the cans. Now, remember the crushed tomato inside should be red and beautiful and appealing. One time we opened a can someone had given us and the tomatoes inside were chocolate brown, and it wasn't even mole, just crushed tomatoes. Not good. 
Even inexpensive canned tomatoes should be from the prime of the season!

Add the crushed tomatoes slowly to the pan and to deglaze the pan. You know that sizzling noise as the liquid hits the hot pan? Use this liquid to scrape the slightly browned garlic off the pan bottom. Yum.
Turn up the heat to medium-high, and once the tomatoes are fairly warm, grab a spoon and taste what you have. If your tomatoes are fairly tart, add between 1/4 and 1/2tsp of sugar. This isn't cheating, it's adjusting for the variety and ripeness of tomatoes you ended up with. My Italian Mom nearly always adds a bit of sugar to bring out the tomatoes. (And if you don't even like the flavor, buy a different brand of tomatoes next time, and spice it up good this time.)

Once your tomatoes reach simmering (small bubbles), add herbs to your taste. I usually add about a Tablespoon of parsley,

about a teaspoon of basil

and about a teaspoon and a half of oregano. If your dried herbs are crushed more (which isn't preferable), you should use less, and if you are using fresh you will need 2 to 3 times the amount.

Nathanael teases me that I use 5 "peppers" in everything. In this I usually only use three, crushed red pepper (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon), black pepper (1/4 tsp), and cayenne (a pinch to 1/4tsp).   Add these, mix well, then taste again and adjust your herbs and spices to  your liking.
Bring to a low boil for a minute or two,

then turn off the heat and serve over pasta!

Once cooled, store the remainder in a glass jar in the refrigerator. If you use plastic, you may flavor it like garlic, and if you use metal, the acid in the tomatoes may react with it (so I've heard).


Celiac options-- Tomato sauce makes a great meal over cheese covered pollenta, rice noodles (either the ones sold as "gluten free" or an asian variety), eggplant or chicken Parmesan, and rice lasagna (with or without spinach).

Chunky--Instead of using two cans of crushed tomatoes, exchange one can for diced or petite diced  tomatoes.

Thicker sauce--Well, I've never been big on super thick sauce, but you have a couple of options. 1. Cook the sauce for a long time, which will make it sweeter, but get rid of some of the freshness. Be sure not to burn it if you go with this option. 2. Add a can of tomato paste. Typically tomato paste is added to sauce with the addition of a can or two of water, adjust to your consistency preference, and then cook for a few more minutes.

Meat lovers-- Some people love hamburger sauce, and I can't stop them, but I prefer my ground beef in chili and my sauce free flowing. Pork, on the other hand, goes wonderfully with tomato sauce. My favorite is hot Italian sausage (not breakfast sausage), cooked in another pan, and added in 1 inch pieces. Let the sauce cook simmer for 10+ minutes to allow the flavor to permeate. 
Bacon is also delectable. Instead of adding your onions to oil, cook 4 pieces of bacon in the pan first and remove once cooked, but not crispy. Make the sauce as normal, then add the bacon at the end (cut into 1/4 inch pieces), and simmer for 10+ minutes to flavor sauce. Wonderfully tasty, this is a simple pasta carbonara.

Something different--Once, when Nathanael and I were watching a few kids (some of whom didn't even like sauce), Nathanael added some white vinegar to the sauce. Everyone loved it, and it was a neat change.


  1. I'm always looking for a good recipe for pasta sauce. I'll have to try this one.

  2. Homemade recipes passed down from previous generations are the best. I'm jealous that you've had homemade calzone:)

    Thank you for your comment on my blog.

  3. This is my favorite too :) You have a very nice way to express these Food Recipes


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