Like clockwork, my Italian grandmother made a large pot of tomato sauce twice a week, every week. The sauce made on Sunday morning was served over pasta for our ritual Sunday lunch. Leftover sauce—she always made extra—went into the fridge and became an ingredient in other meals over the next few days. By Wednesday, the sauce was used up and she made a second pot.
Although she lived in a different era, my grandmother’s efficient strategy of cooking makes a lot of sense today. Like her, I’m never without a supply of tomato sauce. It takes less than an hour to whip up a new batch, so it’s easy to make more when I run low. The sauce goes into my soups and stews, it becomes a braising liquid for meats and, with a few added ingredients, it can turn into any of several richly flavored pasta sauces. I use my tomato sauce in place of canned tomatoes, and since it’s already seasoned and reduced, it saves time during cooking. In short, my stash of frozen tomato sauce lets me put delicious homemade meals on the dinner table faster since I don’t have to start from scratch every time.
Use marinara in braises and stews in place of canned tomatoes when you want to save time. Because the sauce is already seasoned and concentrated, the total cooking time is shorter.
In Italian cooking, there are two basic types of tomato sauce: a long-cooking meat sauce known as a ragù, and a meatless sauce, known in my family as a marinara. I prefer the marinara for cooking ahead and using in other dishes, as it’s more versatile and a lot simpler to make.
Tips for a flavorful marinara
Start with a good quality extra-virgin olive oil. I use just enough to cover the bottom of a large saucepan or Dutch oven; the sauce tends to splatter as it simmers, so err on the deeper side when choosing a cooking vessel.
I use onions or garlic, but not both. Few Neopolitans would include both in a marinara, but if you like the combination and there are no Neopolitan nonnas around to give you the evil eye, go ahead.
Tomatoes are the star, and they must be delicious. Good-quality canned plum tomatoes work wonderfully. My first choice is San Marzano tomatoes, which are sold in specialty stores and online (try Todaro Bros Specialty Foods or Salumeria Italiana). Be sure the label says “San Marzano” and not “San Marzano Type,” and also that they’re imported from Italy. I’m also fond of Muir Glen organic brand.
Adding a hefty dash of red chile flakes is a trick I learned from a Calabrian friend; it punches up the tomato flavor.
If you can’t find fresh basil, make the sauce without it and add the herb later, when you’re ready to use the marinara. Dried basil isn’t an acceptable substitute. Many canned Italian tomatoes include basil, which is fine, but you’ll still need to add your own fresh leaves for noticeable basil flavor.
Freeze the sauce in small portions to make thawing fast and easy. Portion the sauce into 1-, 2-, or 3-cup servings and freeze in plastic containers or stand-up freezer bags. Once you thaw a portion of the sauce, it will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days.
Five pasta sauces from one marinara
Once the marinara sauce is already made, these variations on the basic sauce can be pulled together in the time it takes to cook the pasta. These sauces will all coat a pound of pasta to serve four.
Basil Marinara: In a small saucepan, heat 3 Tbs. olive oil or butter. Pour in 3 cups marinara, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Stir in 1/4 to 1/2 cup torn basil leaves. Simmer for 5 min. and toss with 1 lb. warm pasta. Serve with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Arrabbiata Sauce: In a medium saucepan, heat 2 Tbs. olive oil over medium heat. Add 1/4 lb. (3/4 cup) finely diced pancetta or fatty prosciutto, 2 tsp. minced garlic, and a scant 1/2 tsp. chile flakes; cook until the garlic is golden, 3 to 4 min. Add 3 cups marinara and 1/4 cup torn basil leaves and simmer until hot. Toss with 1 lb. warm pasta. Serve with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Mock Bolognese Ragù: In a large sauté pan melt 3 Tbs. butter over medium heat. Add 1 cup finely chopped onion, 2 finely chopped cloves garlic, and 1/4 cup each very finely chopped carrot and celery; cook until softened, about 5 min. Increase the heat to medium high, add 1 lb. ground beef and cook until browned, breaking up the meat with a spoon, 4 to 5 min. Pour in 3/4 cup red wine and boil until reduced to 1 Tbs., 3 to 5 min. Add 3 cups marinara and 1/2 cup cream or milk. Simmer until the sauce has thickened enough to softly mound on a spoon, about 8 min. Toss with 1 lb. warm pasta. Serve with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Pink Sauce: In a large sauté pan over medium heat, melt 4 Tbs. butter. Pour in 1-1/2 cups heavy cream. Raise the heat to medium high, simmer, stirring often, until it has reduced to 3/4 to 1 cup, 8 to 10 min. Stir in 1/2 cup marinara and season with salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg. Smmer until hot. Toss with 1 lb. warm pasta. Serve with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Puttanesca Sauce: In a large sauté pan over medium heat, lightly brown 3 large cloves crushed garlic in 3 Tbs. olive oil, mashing the cloves into the oil with a spoon as the cook. Discard the garlic and mash 5 anchovy fillets (rinsed and patted dry) into the hot oil until they’re dissolved, about 30 seconds. Stir in 2-1/2 Tbs. rinsed capers and 1/4 tsp. chile flakes and cook for 3 min. Add 3 cups marinara, 1/2 cup pitted, quartered black olives, 1-1/2 tsp. dried oregano, and 1/4 cup very roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsely. Simmer until hot. Toss with 1 lb. warm pasta. Serve with freshly grated Romano cheese.