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Quick and easy pasta sauce recipes

A simple marinara sauce takes less time to

A simple marinara sauce takes less time to make than it does for the pasta to cook.  Credit: Timothy Fadek

It occurs to me that I have been preparing for sheltering in place for my whole adult life — at least in this one, narrow sense: I have always relied on an arsenal of simple, quick sauces that can be made expending barely more effort than it takes to open a jar. And all of them rely on ingredients that you probably have on hand: canned tomatoes, olive oil, butter, garlic, nuts.

I’m not going to bother to tell you which sauce goes with which shape. As they say, any pasta in a storm. Buon appetito and salute.

EXTREMELY QUICK TOMATO SAUCE

This is my go-to sauce. It can be completed in the time it takes to bring the pasta water to a boil and cook the pasta. The secret is cooking the sauce in a wide skillet. 

Extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved

3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 sprig fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon of either, dried (optional)

1 (28-ounce) can peeled tomatoes

Salt and pepper

Grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. Film the bottom of a wide skillet (12 to 14 inches across) with oil and add garlic and herbs, if using. Turn heat to medium and cook until garlic just starts to color, but doesn't brown.

2. Add tomatoes and a big pinch of salt. Crush the tomatoes with a potato masher. Bring contents of pot to a brisk simmer and cook until thickened but not dry.

3. Give the sauce a good grinding of pepper and taste for salt. Fish out the garlic and herbs before serving. Makes about 2 cups, enough for 1 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta.

TOMATO SAUCE WITH ONION AND BUTTER

This simple recipe, from Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" (Knopf, $35) is scientifically proven to be the most comforting sauce on earth. If you have some heavy cream around, it can be gilded with a tablespoon or two. 

1 (28-ounce) can peeled tomatoes, crushed, with the juice

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1 large onion, peeled and cut in half through root end (don't discard the root; it will keep the onion intact)

Salt

Chopped parsley (optional)

Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. Put the tomatoes, butter, onion and a pinch of salt in a saucepan and cook, uncovered, at a slow but steady simmer. Stir from time to time, and mash any large pieces of tomato in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon.

2. Cook for about 45 minutes, or until the fat floats free from the tomatoes. Taste and correct for salt.

3. Discard the onion before tossing sauce with pasta, adding some chopped parsley and / or grated cheese if desired. Makes about 2 cups of sauce, enough for 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of pasta.

PESTO

Pesto does not have to be made with basil and pine nuts. Almost any combination of soft herbs (basil, parsley) or small greens (arugula, spinach) and nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, almonds) will work. Amounts are also very flexible — you might like a nuttier pesto or a leafier one or one with more or less oil. But there’s no pesto that likes to be cooked! Toss pesto with pasta off the heat or the vibrant green color will dull to olive.

2 cups fresh green leaves (basil, parsley, arugula, spinach)

¼ cup nuts (pine nuts, almonds, walnuts)

2 cloves garlic

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese or a combination thereof

Salt pepper

1. Combine leaves, nuts and garlic in a blender or food processor and process until very finely minced, but not a purée.

2. With the machine running, slowly dribble in the oil and process until the mixture is smooth. Add the cheese (all at once) and pulse just a few times to combine everything. Add salt and pepper to taste. Makes about 2 cups enough for 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of pasta.

3. To store in refrigerator: spoon into a container and press a sheet of plastic wrap directly onto the surface to protect it from the air. To freeze: spoon into a zip-lock bag, press to expel all the air and lay flat in the freezer until it is frozen solid. Then you can “file” it vertically anywhere in the freezer. You can also portion a full recipe into a few smaller zip-lock bags and defrost each one as needed.

SPAGHETTI AGLIO E OLIO (SPAGHETTI WITH GARLIC AND OIL)

This isn’t even a sauce, rather it’s the most basic pasta dish of them all. This recipe is adapted from Arthur Schwartz’s “What to Cook When You Think There’s Nothing in the House to Eat” (HarperPerennial, 1992).

½ pound spaghetti

Salt

2 to 3 cloves garlic

¼ extra-virgin olive oil

Hot red pepper flakes or freshly ground black pepper

Chopped parsley (optional)

Grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil while you peel and chop the garlic.

2. In a large skillet combine the garlic and olive oil. Set over low heat and let sizzle gently while the spaghetti cooks. The garlic should become pale brown — the color of toasted almonds. When it does, turn off the heat.

3. When the spaghetti is done to taste, drain well.

4. Add the drained spaghetti to the skillet and toss. Season to taste with salt and pepper flakes or ground pepper. Toss again. Serve immediately, with or without parsley and / or grated cheese. Makes 2 to 4 servings. 

BEST PRACTICES

Buy whole tomatoes: Even if I am planning to crush or purée them, I always buy whole tomatoes. I'm guessing that the best specimens are selected for the "whole" cans, while factory seconds can end up in the crushed or puréed cans.

Don't overdo the garlic in tomato sauce: Unless I'm trying to ward off vampires, I just saute a few cloves of peeled and halved garlic in oil, add the tomatoes just as they begin to color, then fish out the cloves when the sauce is done. (I also have a thing against using both garlic and onion in the same sauce, but that's just me. )

Salt the water generously: I can’t overstate the importance of salting the water in which you plan to cook the pasta — and not with a pinch of salt, more like a tablespoon (at least) for a large pot of water. Consider you are not going to be consuming most of that salt, but it will be absorbed by the pasta as it cooks and make it infinitely tastier. If you’ve ever wondered why pasta tastes better in a restaurant than at home, there’s the reason.

Cook the pasta and sauce together in the pot: Here's the way pasta is finished in Italy (as anyone who has watched "Lidia's Italy" on TV knows): Place the minimum amount of sauce you'll need in a wide skillet (it might be the skillet in which you cooked it), then add the pasta. You can transfer spaghetti directly from the cooking pot with tongs, macaroni with a wire strainer. Over high heat, toss pasta and sauce together, adding a little pasta-cooking water if you need to loosen the sauce. Remove from heat and add grated cheese.

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