Basic pasta sauce. A misnomer, really. Think of this sauce as your little black dress (or your go-to sport coat.); the versatile number that evolves through the years with your changing tastes. Simple, but not plain. Classic and stylish, you feel pretty (or perhaps studly) when you wear it out. Wear it as is, or accessorize with the bling of your choice (or a manly tie).
Just as my own little black dress is an important member of my wardrobe, my basic pasta sauce is a staple of my kitchen repertoire. This sauce helped me get my feet wet in the kitchen. It started with some innocent dabbling, led to a few failed experiments, and eventually, a delightful sauce recipe that I rely on for a variety of dishes. Once I figured out that I could make a sauce that was infinitely better than the just-okay versions sold at the store, I ditched the jar and never turned back.
I know, I know, lately my head has been in the clouds, dreaming of sunny marmalade and frivolous bread pudding. Alas, bread pudding is an entertainment meant for lazy Sunday afternoons. On other, less-lazy days of the week, after a full day and a long drive home, I dream of different diversions; a mixed greens salad with homemade vinaigrette and a plate of whole wheat spaghetti with a spur of the moment variation on my basic sauce.
What we want to avoid here is the church-potluck version of pasta sauce–you know the kind I’m talking about, a jar of factory-made sauce, always slightly under-seasoned, baked with starchy overcooked pasta. Not necessarily unpleasant, but flat in taste and lacking dimension.
Think of the epitome of a tomato; tangy and sweet, savory and full-bodied. My convictions tell me that a sauce featuring tomatoes should embody all of the same traits. Even the best quality canned tomatoes need a little wake up by a few soon-to-be-not-so-secret ingredients.
All of the usual suspects can be found in this sauce; onions sauteed in olive oil, a little more garlic than you will think you should use (but will be happy you did), tomatoes and herbs. The key is to invest a little time (really, just a little) to interact with your ingredients. Throw everything together carelessly, and you will have quite a bland and lifeless excuse for a sauce that has so much potential (ie, potluck sauce).
The key to your success? Take the time to saute and layer. Season and taste. Season and taste again. Splash in some sweetness and tang at the end to mimic what excites you about a ripe summer tomato. Trust me on the parmesan rind; it adds a savory undertone and “meaty” body not usually present in vegetarian sauces. Make it as is, or add your own spin.
I hope that this “basic” sauce becomes your stylish little black dress (or manly sport-coat!), a faithful member of your cooking repertoire. Just be careful though… Gone will be the days of factory made sauces, and bland frozen pasta bakes. Your efforts will be greatly rewarded when you sit down to enjoy the dinner that you made, from ingredients that you feel good about. Try it on for size, and let me know how you accessorize!
Basic Pasta Sauce
- 1 medium-large yellow onion, finely chopped
- 6 medium cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- A couple glugs of olive oil, about 3 tablespoons
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons good quality mixed italian herbs (like these), or 1/2 tsp each of basil, oregano, thyme, and marjoram
- 1 piece (2-3 inches) natural parmesan rind, preferably parmigiano reggiano* (see note below), plus grated parmesan for topping
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
- 1/4 tsp to 3/4 tsp crushed red pepper
- 1 28-oz can good quality whole peeled tomatoes*
- 1 28-oz can good quality crushed or ground tomatoes*
- Kosher salt to taste (suggested amounts can be found in the process)
- 1 small bunch fresh basil or oregano, torn (Optional)
Heat olive oil over medium-high heat (make sure it’s hot before beginning). When the oil is shimmering, add the onions. If your oil is hot enough, you should hear a satisfying “kshhhh”. Saute, stirring frequently until onion is softened, but not browned (about 6 minutes). Add garlic and cook for another minute, until beginning to soften but not brown.
Herbs, tomatoes, and salt
Add crushed red pepper, 1/4 tsp salt, and dried herbs. Stir to combine. Add tomato paste and stir to coat. Add both cans of tomatoes. Stir and break up the whole tomatoes with a wooden spoon.
Taste your progress
Add 1/2 to 3/4 tsp more salt. Know that kosher salt takes a little longer to dissolve than iodized or sea salt (which is why you’ll want to add it gradually)
Simmer and start the pasta
Add the parmesan rind to sauce and stir (the rind will simmer along with the sauce to add that savory undertone we talked about earlier). Turn heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the parmesan rind and discard. Follow the package directions for your pasta of choice. I am a fan of whole wheat angel hair. Make sure to boil in salted water (more than you would think), and don’t rinse. Try to time cooking your pasta so that the pasta and sauce are done at the same time.
Make it shine
Stir in balsamic vinegar and red wine vinegar. Taste and add more salt if needed. (If you are not sure, remove a small amount of sauce to a small bowl, add a little salt and taste.)
Stir in the fresh herbs if using. Toss with pasta, and top with grated parmesan and more fresh herbs.
•Spend a little extra money to buy good quality tomatoes. I like Muir Glen or Whole Foods’ 365 brand
•A good block of parmesan cheese is a bit of an investment, but will last you a while. It is a staple in my house, and lasts me about 2 months. Costco sells big blocks of good quality parmigiano reggiano for much less than anywhere else.
- Fennel: Add 1 small chopped fennel bulb and saute with the onion
- Italian Sausage: Brown first. Remove from pan and saute onions and garlic. Add meat back in before adding herbs and tomatoes.
- Red Wine: Splash in 1/2 cup red wine after sauteing onions and garlic. Allow to cook down for a minute or so before adding other ingredients.
- Shrimp Arrabiata: Increase crushed red pepper amount. Splash in 1/2 cup dry white wine such as sauvignon blanc and 1/2 c clam juice to pan after sauteing onion and garlic. Allow to cook down for about a minute or so. Continue with remaining ingredients. Stir in 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano at the end. Serve with grilled shrimp.