AT MY HOUSE, and I suspect at many others, the most common last-minute dinner is pasta with spaghetti sauce. It’s a pantry meal—you literally can cook a package’s worth of pasta, add a jarred sauce and you’ve got dinner. Sadly, like most things you can cook with very little effort, it’s filling but not very interesting.
My solution is to kick up the sauce. In the process, not only does this result in a more flavorful sauce, the whole dish becomes more substantial. The obvious add-in is browned ground beef or sausage, and this makes a very hearty sauce. But it’s not the only way. I can make the sauce seem really fresh with diced vegetables, or boost the protein (the current culinary buzzword) with chickpeas, or go a little Fra Diaviolo with shrimp and red chili flakes. You get the idea—in fact, you probably have a go-to list of your own; but here are a few of my ideas.
Okay, I admit I’m not really into jarred sauces, but I need “quick” too, so when I have time I make a big batch of my own base sauce. I use Pomi-brand strained tomatoes, which comes in an aseptic box you can find at many stores, including Whole Foods and Wegmans. I like Pomi because it is pure tomato—no salt, no seeds, no peel—but canned crushed tomatoes work as well. I sauté some diced onion and garlic, add the strained or crushed tomatoes, dried oregano or a mix of Italian herbs, freshly ground pepper, sugar, salt and red wine. Let it all cook together for 25 or 30 minutes, tasting along the way and adding more sugar, wine or salt to balance the flavor. After the sauce has cooled, I pack it away in the freezer in 2 -cup containers, all ready for the next dinner emergency.
Spaghetti Sauce With Diced Carrots and Zucchini: For every 2 cups of sauce, dice 1 small onion, 2 to 3 medium carrots and 2 medium or 3 small zucchini. Sauté the onion with a little salt in olive oil until it starts to soften. Add the carrots and zucchini and sauté over medium heat until the vegetables are tender, adding salt and pepper as needed. Add the spaghetti sauce, heat until warmed through, and serve.
Spaghetti Sauce With Chickpeas and Sweet Onion: For every 2 cups of sauce, use 1½ cups cooked chickpeas and 1 small onion, diced. Sauté the onion with a little salt in olive oil until it starts to soften. Add the cooked chickpeas, the zest of 1 small lemon, and salt and pepper as needed. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, add the spaghetti sauce, heat until warmed through, and serve.
Spaghetti Sauce With Spicy Shrimp: For every 2 cups of sauce, use 1 pound raw shrimp and 2 to 3 tablespoons minced garlic. Peel and devein the shrimp. If the shrimp are large, cut them in half. I like to cut them down the back, almost like butterflying but cutting all the way through, but you can cut them any way you want. Sauté the garlic over medium-low heat with a little salt in olive oil until it softens. Turn the heat up to medium-high, add the shrimp and a pinch of red hot chili flakes. Cook until the shrimp turn pink, add the spaghetti sauce, heat until warmed through and serve.
—Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
LittleBird “Stephanie Cooks” provides ideas for dinner every Monday. You can see previous dinner columns by clicking here: My Dinner With.