Uncle Olav’s Pasta Sauce Non-Recipe
Pasta sauce is amazingly simple, but for a lot of people seems really scary. There's a reason for this though – there is no recipe.
I mean, I could tell you what I'm making tonight, but it won't be the same as if I made it tomorrow. Pasta sauce is almost the 'mood ring' of cooking. It changes depending on how you're feeling, and what you're cooking. Thankfully it really isn't as scary as it sounds – it's a combination of sight, smell, and texture.
There are a few basic things that matter, though. Your tomatoes, and time (not thyme – that's optional). What you do for tomatoes will play a big part of the outcome, as well as much time you have – ideally the lowest heat for the longest possible time.
So, let's start with time before I get too far. Some people do a crock pot on low all day, which is awesome, but that means you're ,making pasta sauce before you go to work, and you have little chance to adjust seasonings. I've found that 1 to 1-1/2 hours at a simmer do the trick. You do want it to cook down, but you don't want it to get too thick either.
The next trick is tomatoes. There are a lot of variables here. I know a lot of people like straight tomato sauce, and in my formative years combined one can of sauce with one can of diced tomatoes to add a little texture. My general rule there: If you're doing something like tortellini a smooth sauce is good. Spaghetti, or particularly something like penne, some texture in the sauce rules the day. Personally these days, I buy whole tomatoes and gish them by hand to get the texture I want. It sounds messy, but if you gish them with one hand, and shield with the other it's not so bad.
Which brings me to my choice in tomatoes. I'll preface this with saying this is not a sponsored plug or anything, but I've found the perfect canned tomato for sauce is the Cento brand Italian tomatoes. Not the Italian-style. There's a difference. Their Italian tomatoes are packed in tomato sauce, not (basically) water and just out of the can the texture is far superior. I buy mine by the case from Amazon.
So anyway, for starters there needs to be a base to build on. I almost always start with chopping an onion up finely, and sauteing it in some olive oil with a bunch of garlic. For a meat sauce, I add that in at this point too. I like to cook my onions down until they're soft, but not caramelized. While this is going on, I gish up two 28-oz cans of whole tomatoes.
Add the tomatoes in, and if I'm not doing a meat sauce, I like to add a little white truffle oil. It's a bit pricey, but a little goes a long way. Rather than adding mushrooms, it adds a hint of earthiness to the sauce, and provides a bottom for the herbs to play against.
Now it's time to herbify the sauce. Fresh herbs are always best, but seldom practical. What I generally do is use fresh basil when I can (I grow a plant or two in the summer) and use dried herbs for the rest. This allows me to keep a wide variety of things on-hand, and I can make a consistent sauce any time of year. For basil I usually take a little over 1/4c of leaves and chop them, or 2-3 tablespoons of dried. After that, I like the 'Scarborough Fair' of seasonings – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. A tablespoon or two of parsley and pinches of the rest. I also usually add some oregano for spaghetti, but avoid it for things like tortellini. It makes for a heavier sauce. I also like to add a pinch of red pepper flakes to add a subtle bite.
Now, the combination of herbs is what makes the sauce, but the real trick is to not go crazy. Add a pinch at a time, let it cook for a few minutes, taste the sauce, smell your herbs, and decide what to add a pinch of next. Repeat as necessary until the sauce starts to smell good and the taste is 'bright' (and subtle) but roughly what you want. It will mellow as you cook so avoid the temptation to keep adding stuff past this point. You'll overshoot and end up with a red mish-mash of seasonings without any real flavor.
And that's it, really, other than making sure you have the time to let the concotion simmer down to something more mellow. You can simmer agressively for a half hour in a pinch, but an hour to an hour-and-a-half yields much better results.
Oh, and I generally make a large batch (two 28oz cans of tomatoes) suace when we have all three teenagers in the house, it'll all get eaten, and when there's just the two of us we can jar up the leftovers and have an 'easy cook' night later in the week. A large pan is required, and still expect to slop some on the stove.
For pastas – for meat sauces you want something that will hold the meat (like rotini. Spaghetti also works because it knots up around the meat). For non-meat sauces things that can coat, like tortellini, are best. But, there's a lot of overlap so pick your favorite.
Sort-of Shopping List (the kinds of stuff I keep around)
- 2 28-ounce Canned whole, peeled tomatoes
- Olive oil
- Garlic (I've had good results with the minced jar stuff too)
- White truffle oil (optional, but recommended for non-meat sauces)
- Ground beef if you want to go that way
- Basil (fresh or dried)
- Red pepper flakes
- Something to put it on.
That's it, really. There's no one recipe – just a collection of building blocks to put together in a way that's pleasing to your palate.