You stagger home from a bad day at work – beaten, bedraggled and broke.
The last thing you want to do is put in lots of effort making dinner. But you don’t want to give up entirely and heat up a frozen dinner. After all, you have your pride.
So perhaps your mind starts thinking back to the ultimate comfort food, a favorite dish from childhood that you still enjoy just as much. A dish so delicious that it is even eaten by animated movie dogs.
We are speaking, of course, of spaghetti.
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Spaghetti itself is breathlessly simple to make: Boil water and drop it in (you could make your own spaghetti, but it is a work night and you are tired). At that point, a lot of people will just reach for a jar of their favorite sauce, but doing that feeds only the stomach and not the soul.
There are as many ways to make your own spaghetti sauce at home as there are people who make it. Many of these ways are quite simple and use ingredients you already have in your pantry. They can be put together in an hour or less – often much less. Of course, some of the best sauces take all afternoon to make, simmering slowly to draw the most possible flavor out of a mound of ingredients.
But you’re tired. You’re cranky. You want something fast. But you also want something better than the sauce that comes out of even the best jar.
If you were in Rome, you would just head out to the local pasta joint for a satisfying bowl of spaghetti ajo, ojo, e pepperoncino – or spaghetti with garlic, oil and peppers. It is spaghetti in one of its simplest and purest forms, flavored with nothing but plenty of olive oil, garlic and a sprinkling of pepper flakes and parsley.
You can literally make the sauce in the time it takes the water to boil for the pasta. Simply sauté minced garlic in olive oil over low heat, adding crushed red peppers in the last minute. Cook the spaghetti, and when it is perfectly al dente (a little firm and chewy), toss it in the garlicky oil. Sprinkle with salt and parsley – the parsley is optional – and serve. A shower of Parmesan would only make it better.
An even easier sauce for spaghetti is my fresh sauce, though it does take more chopping. As the name implies, it is not cooked; it is warmed only by the heat of the spaghetti. That makes the taste especially pure and delicious.
The better the tomatoes, the better it will taste. That is particularly the case in this sauce (it is more of a salsa) because it is primarily made out of chopped, fresh tomatoes.
To these, you just add finely minced garlic – if the pieces are larger, that is all you will taste – thinly shredded basil, olive oil, salt and pepper. That’s all. Toss it, add it to the spaghetti as soon as it has drained, and dig in. Culinary hipsters would call it a deconstructed sauce, but you will think of it instead as pure joy on a plate.
If you have a little more time and ambition, you can make the restaurant classic spaghetti al tonno – spaghetti with tuna – at home with spectacular results.
This sauce only takes about a half-hour to cook, yet it is bursting with flavor because of the surprisingly well-balanced combination of tomatoes and canned tuna. Don’t be tempted to make it fancier by using fresh tuna; the fresh fish does not have the same flavor punch as the stuff in the cans, so it cannot stand up to the assertiveness of the tomatoes.
Naturally, olive oil, garlic and parsley come into play, and you can swirl in butter at the end to make the sauce richer, though it doesn’t really need it. Even without the butter, it has a brilliant, bright flavor.
More subdued and simpler, though it takes longer to cook, is a tomato sauce from the great Marcella Hazan, who died recently. Hazan essentially introduced fine Italian home cooking to America. She simply called it Tomato Sauce II, and I like it better than her Tomato Sauce I because it is a little subtler and fresher.
This sauce uses the slightly sweet depth of mirepoix – chopped carrots, celery and onions – to enhance the flavor of tomatoes. It does not even use garlic, just a bit of salt, a light sprinkling of sugar and the ever-present olive oil. “It is an excellent, all-purpose sauce for every kind of pasta,” she wrote.
For a more sophisticated version of essentially the same sauce, all you need to do is add a touch of cream. What was hearty becomes almost delicate, what was rustic becomes refined.
Even so, it only takes an hour to cook. It is just the right way to treat yourself and your family when you stagger home from a long day at work.