Boot Camp is a back-to-basics series focusing on some classic easy-cooking staples. If you would describe your cooking ability as “my-easy mac-is-on-fire,” then this is a great place to start, and if you’re more of a veteran, we hope you’ll pick up on some new ideas and add advice of your own as a comment. If you’re only interested in how to sous vide heirloom romanesco, you might want to move on.
I don’t think I need to proselytize about the beauty that is a simple pasta in red sauce. Simple, cheap, easy, filling, with leftovers to boot. There’s a reason that it’s the first thing a lot of people learn to cook.
Yet I’m astounded at how many people open a jar of Ragu every time and never think that there might be a better way. Don’t get me wrong, jarred pasta sauce has its place, and there are plenty of excellent varieties out there. Sometime boiling pasta is all I can manage, and it’s nice to have something that requires zero attention.
But more often, when I’m feeling a little (and I mean really, really little) more ambitious, I make my own sauce. If boiling pasta is a 1 of 10 on the cooking difficulty scale, a simple tomato sauce is a 2. It requires ingredients that you can easily (and should probably) always have on had, can be made in the time it take to heat water and boil pasta, and costs less then half the price of the bottled stuff.
The Heart of the Matter
It all starts with canned tomatoes, preferably plum ones such as Roma, whole and peeled. (Yes, great sauce can be made from fresh tomatoes, but no, I don’t really know much about it. It’s on my list for next summer, so stay tuned.)
You’ll read recipes and tirades that will tell you that you should only ever use imported San Marzano. Whatever. San Marzano tomatoes are great, but so are the organic ones I buy at Trader Joe’s, which are half the price, and a quarter of the carbon footprint. I’m all about good ingredients, but I feel like it’s the recipes that say “you must get this and only this specific brand of xyz” are what leaves people at the checkout line trying to figure out how their simple dinner just cost them $38 and swearing never to cook again. Buy decent-loooking canned tomatoes and you’ll be fine, I promise. Send the San Marzano snobs to me, and I’ll set them straight.
If you have canned tomatoes, you have sauce. The basic process is to simmer a can of tomatoes over medium-low heat until they break down and become, in the insightful words of Mark Bittman, “saucy.” The one trick here is to keep the heat on the lower side. The tomatoes can be bubbling, but not raucously so. My first tomato sauce was an unmitigated disaster as I inattentively boiled the whole thing into a paste. Not a “good thing,” to misquote Martha Stewart. Most (all really) recipes – mine included – add a pre-step and a post-step to this, but the truth is that just heating up canned tomatoes until they break down would be pretty darn good and inarguably easy.
Pre- and Post-
The pre-step (Is this even a word? Whetever. It works.) is to saute what we gourmands call your “aromatics” – onions and garlic – in a bit of olive oil. One medium onion and two or three cloves of garlic should be about right for a standard quart can of tomatoes, but you can double triple, or quadruple the garlic to taste. Saute until soft but not brown, and then add the tomatoes, but BE CAREFUL.
As we all learned in science class, adding water to hot oil makes the invisible gnomes very angry and makes them spray hot oil at you. Or something like that. My high school’s science program was pretty weak. But regardless of why the gnomes are so unhappy, it’s a good idea to lower the heat or turn it off for 30 seconds before adding the tomatoes to prevent the splattering and the scalding.
And after the tomatoes have broken down, it’s seasonin’ time. Salt and pepper, of course are good ideas, and oregano, marjoram, and basil are all classics. Bay leaves are also, but should be added earlier along with the tomatoes and removed before serving. Cinnamon and nutmeg are surprisingly great in small amounts, and a bit of sugar can help if your tomatoes aren’t that sweet on their own.
And that’s it. It probably takes 15 minutes soup to nuts and can easily be done while you’re making the pasta. After you’ve drained the pasta, put it back in the cooking pot and dress it with the sauce. It’s a good idea when you drain the pasta to reserve a little bit of the pasta water and add it back to the dressed pasta. It helps smooth things out a bit and the starch in the water helps bind the sauce together. Either that or it’s the gnomes. We’ll never know.
Unsurprisingly, there are about a million tomato-based sauces out there. Here are some classics and a few hybrids that I really like:
- Arrabiata – “Angry” sauce. My personal favorite and the one depicted above and below. Saute 1-2 teaspoons of crushed red pepper flakes along with the garlic and onion. Proceed with caution, though, as it’s surprisingly easy to make sauce that’s nearly inedibly hot.
- Puttanesca – Saute 3 or 4 anchovy fillets withe the garlic and onion. This will give the sauce a sort of unidentifiable heartiness, but won’t make it taste like fish, I promise. After the tomatoes break down add capers and chopped kalamata olives.
- All’Amatriciana – Triple the amount of onion and add pepper flakes as with Arrabiata, though maybe not quite as many. While the tomatoes are simmering, fry some pancetta until lightly browned, then add them to the sauce.
- “Primavera” – For a heartier sauce, add bell peppers, carrots, and/or celery to the garlic and onions at the beginning and saute until soft. And for even more vegetable bang for your buck, add frozen peas and/or sliced mushrooms to the sauce as it’s simmering.
- Booze in your food – I find a little bit of alcohol does great things to tomato sauce. It can be added to the aromatics right before adding the tomatoes or to the sauce as it’s simmering. Wine (I prefer white, but red would be fine) and dry vermouth are good options, but I actually really like
- Sausage and peppers – my favorite meat sauce. Remove the casings from about a pound of spicy or sweet Italian sausage and brown in a non-stick skillet. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. Proceed as outlined above, but using the sausage drippings instead of oil and adding bell peppers to the garlic and onions. Reintroduce the meat shortly before you’re ready to serve.
And yours? Come on guys, read the manifesto. This is supposed to be a conversation. Give me your sauces!