Let's talk about tomato sauce. Last week in an airplane miles above the expansive plains of the mid-west, in the midst of a flurry of turbulence, it dawned on me that I've never shared with you my all-time favorite tomato sauce recipe. I've included the recipe in one form or another in both of my books, but I've never gone into depth here on the website about why it is the little black dress of my cooking repertoire.
How to Make a Simple and Bright Tomato Sauce
I realize many of you have romantic notions of what a good tomato sauce should be. And I realize it is going to be a tough sell on my part to get you to make a break with some of those hearty, meaty, long-simmering sauces. But, I'm going to encourage you to give this ringer of a tomato sauce recipe a shot. It comes together in five minutes flat, and the only chopping required is a few garlic cloves. It is bright and clean, a vibrant red in color, and exudes the essence of tomatoes, in part because there isn't much to get in the way of the tomato flavor.
Video: How to Make Five Minute Tomato Sauce
A Short Ingredient List
Many of the tomato sauce recipes in this realm (in the U.S. in particular) include all sorts of ingredients. One camp likes to kick things off by browning onions and ground beef for a chunky stew-like sauce, others love to use carrots and celery and all manner of dusty dried herbs and seasonings. This recipe is going to be on the absolute other end of the spectrum - in all the best ways.
You wouldn't wear a wool coat to the beach, right? That's what heavy spaghetti and tomato sauces in warm weather feel like to me. This sauce is a relatively pure expression of tomatoes accented with a bit of edge from crushed red peppers, a hint of garlic, and my secret ingredient - a touch of lemon zest which brings its citrus aroma and a bit of surprise to the party.
So Many Different Uses!
The first time you make this sauce I recommend spooning it over light, fluffy pillows of ricotta-filled ravioli. Beyond that there are many other avenues to explore. It is transcendent in all manner of baked pastas and pasta-based casseroles (don't skimp on the zest). Toss it with good-quality spaghetti noodles, a sprinkle of freshly chopped basil, and a dusting of Parmesan - you've got a beautiful bowl of noodles.
Beyond the pasta realm, I use it on thin-crust pizzas, in my thousand-layer lasagna, as the foundation for stuffed shells, as a base for soups, and as a way to pull together various "grain-bowls". For example, quinoa tossed with a bit of this tomato sauce, your protein of choice, and accents like basil and a bit of cheese is simple and satisfying.
Pictured above on my favorite easy pizza dough, with some mozzarella, and fresh basil. Be sure to to pay attention to the type of crushed tomatoes to buy in the recipe headnotes. I hope you love this sauce as much as I do, and appreciate it for what it is more so than what it isn't. This page also includes an extended list of pizza topping ideas.
A bit richer. There are times when I'll add a splash of cream at the very end, totally changing the character of the sauce - it becomes silky with a bit of richness, while still being bright, and without compromising the tomatoes in the lead role.
Sarah noted in the comments below, "Mmm, I love a nice quick San Marzano tomato sauce — mine’s very similar, though I also toss in a few capers or maybe some black olive paste if I have them on hand." Love this take.
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Favorite Pasta Sauces
Other Favorite Italian Recipes
Five Minute Tomato Sauce Recipe
I'm very particular about the tomatoes I use in this sauce. Look for canned crushed tomatoes, some cans you will come across will say "with added puree" - this is also fine. I avoid diced tomatoes, pass on pureed, and skip whole tomatoes as well. Avoid the crushed tomatoes with added herbs, seasonings, etc. You want pure crushed tomatoes if possible. I also look for organic crushed tomatoes which can be tricky, I often come across with added basil in it - this is actually fine. Any leftover sauce keeps well in the refrigerator for three or four days.
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
- 3 medium cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 28-ounce can crushed red tomatoes
- zest of one lemon
Combine the olive oil, red pepper flakes, sea salt, and garlic in a cold saucepan. Stir while you heat the saucepan over medium-high heat, saute just 45 seconds or so until everything is fragrant - you don't want the garlic to brown.
Stir in the tomatoes and heat to a gentle simmer, this takes just a couple minutes. Remove from heat and carefully take a taste (you don't want to burn your tongue)...If the sauce needs more salt add it now. Stir in the lemon zest reserving a bit to sprinkle on top of your pasta.