My slowly-but-surely expanding recipe index boasts its fair share of fancy birthday desserts, tales of holiday culinary escapades, newly-discovered vegetables, and the occasional weeknight meal. I realized recently, however, that it’s sorely lacking in the fundamental recipes of my Italo-American kitchen. In an attempt to remedy this situation, I’m getting back to basics.
In this ongoing “series,” I’ll take an occasional breather from new recipes and share some of my old standbys that provide the foundations for lots of other dishes. I hope that these posts (like many of my others) might also demonstrate just how possible it is to cook real food, from scratch on an almost daily basis.
This particular recipe holds a special place in my heart, as it kept my now-husband well fed for many months when he was living in a champagne city on a beer budget. (Spending thirty dollars on groceries every two weeks is a feat anywhere, let alone New York City.) This recipe is also one of the first that I developed on my own, and although it has changed a bit over the years, it’s essentially the same as it was a decade ago.
And now, if I may further extol its virtues: This sauce is inexpensive, easy, quick, incredibly versatile (as is or with any number of small adjustments), and it can easily be doubled or tripled to feed a larger crowd or freeze for future use. It’s worlds better than any store-bought counterpart, making the extra bit of time and effort well worth it.
Yield: 1 quart (about 8 servings).
Keeps in the refrigerator for about a week. Freezes well!
½ medium-large onion
2 small-medium carrots, peeled
1 stalk of celery
2-4 medium cloves of garlic
handful of fresh parsley (6-8 sprigs)
2 tablespoons olive oil
28 ounces (large can or jar) of whole peeled tomatoes*
6 ounces (small can or jar) of tomato paste*
12 ounces (1 ½ cups) water (plus more as needed)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
parmesan cheese, freshly grated
finely chopped basil, thyme, and oregano (fresh or dry)
or 1 teaspoon dried Italian spice blend
2-4 tablespoons heavy cream**
½ cup red wine***
*For the first time, I made this recipe with home-canned tomatoes! In place of the store-bought tomatoes above, I used the following:
- two 17-ounce jars of whole tomatoes canned in water (½ of the water drained)
- 18 ounces passata (tomato puree); omitted the water
Basically, you want a about 46 ounces of “liquid tomatoes” – whether that be 28 ounces whole canned tomatoes and 6 ounces of paste plus 12 ounces water , 46 ounces of of passata, or some other combination of tomatoes.
Pulse in a food processor or finely chop onion, carrot, celery, 2 cloves of garlic, and parsley. Heat olive oil in a 4-quart pot and sauté the chopped veggies for about 10 minutes, until vegetables are soft and onions are translucent.
Add all tomatoes/paste/puree (and water, if using), crushing any whole tomatoes in your hand as you go. (You want the sauce to have enough liquid that it can simmer for a while and not get too dry.)
Bring sauce to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. Let sauce simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add herbs and spices, if using. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
If you’re a garlic-lover, add up to 2 additional cloves of minced or pressed garlic.
For a smooth sauce, remove from heat and puree using an immersion blender or a food processor.
If serving with pasta, about five minutes before sauce is finished, cook pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente. Drain pasta and return to cooking pot. Add desired amount of sauce (about ½ cup sauce per 2-ounce serving of pasta) and stir gently over medium heat for about 2 minutes. You may also add parmesan cheese at this time (reserving some for sprinkling on top).
Serve topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
**Variation 1: Tomato Cream Sauce
Remove sauce from heat and stir in heavy cream to taste (start with a tablespoon, and add more as desired). Serve topped with parmesan cheese.
***Variation 2: Tomato Sauce with red wine
When you add the tomatoes, add ½ cup red wine. Continue cooking as usual.
A few other ideas:
- Tomato cream sauce (recipe above) with a can of tuna and any short, tubular pasta shape. (Brian’s go-to variation when he lived in New York: an inexpensive and tasty way to get some extra protein!)