At some point, you will cook at home. It is unavoidable. My greatest skill and background is in Italian cooking. No real surprise there if you look at my last name. I will share with you today, my basic red sauce recipe which I have derived & culled from various sources and experiments over the past 15+ years. It is on the rustic or chunky side, but I usually blitz at least half of the sauce anyway.
First, assemble your mis-en-place (french for stuff in place):
- 1 small carrot
- 1 medium or 2 small cloves of garlic
- 1 small white onion or ½ of a small white onion
- 1 28oz can of (preferably) Italian tomatoes – Whole is best, but work with what you have. Fresh tomatoes would be even better, but I can keep a stack of tomato cans in my pantry for a lot longer. I used a can of “crushed” this time.
- Tomato Paste, at least 1 tsp. This is what is called “conserva” in Italian cooking. I use paste from a tube because it is safe to store the unused portion without changing it’s holding location. And it is tastier.
- Red Wine or red wine vinegar.
- oregano, dried or fresh
- Fresh herbs for garnish
- Olive Oil – Pure will be just fine. There is no need to waste the expense and flavor of extra-virgin olive oil for what we will be doing here.
- I assume you have some salt at home.
Step 1) Place about 2 tablespoons of oil in a large pan, not a pot, and place the pan on medium heat to warm up.
Step 2) Dice or roughly chop the carrot, onion, and garlic. This combination is often called a saffrito in Italian cooking and is like the french mire poix or cajun trinity – it starts 80% of all the dishes.
Step 3) It should have taken a few minutes to do the knife work and the oil, swirled around the pan should be nicely shimmering. Add the saffrito you chopped or diced to the pan, sprinkle with a little bit of salt and make sure it is one layer in the pan, spreading it out with a wooden spoon.
Step 4) After approximately 3 minutes, you should have a wonderfully fragrant saffrito that is nicely sizzling but not burning. If so, add the tomatoes. If the canned tomatoes are whole, crush them with your hands! Get your hands dirty and crush them!! Add a little more olive oil as well.
Step 4A) Over a separate burner, in a large pot place a gallon of water over high heat and bring to a boil. You are making pasta! When it reaches a boil, add a generous pinch or two of salt and let it return to a boil. This will all be happening during steps 4 and 5. Add the pasta I neglected to mention earlier to the water. We’ll come back to it.
Step 5) Reduce the heat to medium low on the sauce and let it bubble and simmer for approximately 10 minutes while you fiddle with Step 4A above.
Step 6) The sauce should have released some water and begun to thicken in the intervening time. Stir the sauce with that wooden spoon and taste it! Add the red wine or red wine vinegar, the conserva, and the dried herbs (if using). Now this is also the place where you would add a shot of vodka if you were making penne a la vodka. Alcohol acts to dissolve and activate certian flavor compounds in the tomatoes that are usually only activated by roasting. This is a way to cheat and get around that. Stir. Taste again. Adjust seasonings to taste. I actually used half red wine vinegar and half dry vermouth here. Yummy.
Step 7) Using the back of the spoon, crush the larger chunks of tomato that do not want to break down. Just push them against the bottom or side of the pan to make them into mush and keep cooking!
Step 8: Letting the sauce bubble for another 10 minutes, occasionally strring, should let it thicken and develop tasty flavors. The oil that you added should have just a little bit on top of the sauce in the pan and should be tinged nicely red. Yum. If you are using fresh herbs, add them here. The pasta should be about ready (check your box for whatever kind you are using. And remember that you are pulling it a minute or two before the box thinks it is ready. When in doubt take a piece out and taste it to see if it is done)
Step 8A) A minute or two before the pasta is cooked to al dente according to the instructions or your taste test, turn off the burner and add 1 cup of cold water to stop the cooking!
Step 8B) Drain the pasta, but DO NOT RINSE IT!
Step 9) Add the drained pasta to the pan with the reduced and flavorful sauce. Now you see why we are using a big pan for the sauce, right? Stir the pasta in the sauce to coat it and continue cooking. Spring loaded tongs are highly recommended. They are the best tool in the kitchen after your hands. And maybe your sharp sharp knife.
Step 10) There should be enough sauce to coat the pasta with a little bit left over. I usually use rigatoni, penne, or a similar tube for this sauce as it is. I used whole wheat penne for the pictures here. After another minute or two in the sauce, remove to a serving platter or individual plates. Add a generous shredding of parmagiano-reggiano, the undisputed king of cheese, and a small piece or two of fresh herbage, oregano here but basil is also fantastic, to make it pretty and have the colors of the Italian flag!
You can make this sauce ahead of time, and then refrigerate it for the week to use for various purposes. It is also easily adapted or other purposes. If you are making pizza, take some of the sauce and cook it down a little bit more to let the water evaporate (unless you have an 800 degree pizza oven; in which case where do you live and may I come over?). If you want it smoother, get out the immersion blender and give it a whirl.
I like my purple one. If you want an Italian-American meat sauce, start by browning the meat or sausage (removed from the casings) in the pan and use the fat that renders out as the start of the saffrito instead of the olive oil. Otherwise follow along. You can change the herbs and acid to change the whole flavor of the dish. I like to use dry vermouth as my acid & alcohol content, add red pepper flakes and crushed fennel seeds, and maybe a bit of paprika for my signature version. Split the fat between olive oil and butter to create a more roman flavor for the dish. It is easy, tasty, and a good way to spend half an hour.