Ready, set, spaghetti

Sauce from a jar? Don’t you dare

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    Cream is poured into tomato sauce.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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  • Spaghetti with fresh sauce.
    Spaghetti with fresh sauce.

    You stagger home from a bad day at work — beaten, bedraggled, and broke.

    The last thing you want to do is put in lot 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 enjoy just as much as an adult. A dish so delicious that it is even eaten by animated movie dogs.

    We are speaking, of course, of spaghetti.

    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 (or used to be) something of a citywide obsession, and it is easy to see why. 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.

    Spaghetti with garlic oil and peppers.
    Spaghetti with garlic oil and peppers.

    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.

    Now is the time to make this uncooked sauce, while tomatoes are at their peak. 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 by the great Marcella Hazan, who essentially introduced fine Italian home cooking to America. She simply calls it Tomato Sauce II, and I like it better than her Tomato Sauce I because it is a little subtler and fresher.

    Cream is poured into tomato sauce.
    Cream is poured into tomato sauce.

    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 writes.

    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 bad day at work.

    Contact Daniel Neman at: or 419-724-6155.



    • 1 pound spaghetti
    • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced
    • 5 tablespoons olive oil
    • 1½ tablespoons crushed red pepper
    • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, optional
    • Salt, to taste

    Spaghetti with Garlic, Oil, and Peppers

    Cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water. Just minutes before the pasta is ready, sauté the garlic with the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat until it just begins to turn light brown. Add the red pepper flakes. When the pasta is al dente (a little firm), drain it and reserve about ¼ cup of the cooking water. Toss the pasta in a large bowl with the garlic oil and starchy pasta water. Add parsley if desired, and salt to taste.

    Yield: 4 servings; Source: Adapted from Italialicious



    • 2 medium, fully ripe tomatoes
    • 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
    • 1 tablespoon fresh basil, slivered
    • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • Salt and pepper to taste
    • Chop the tomatoes and combine all ingredients. Serve over pasta while it is still hot.
    • Yield: 2-4 servings
    • Source: Daniel Neman
    • Spaghetti with Tuna Sauce
    • ¼ teaspoon finely chopped garlic
    • 5 tablespoons olive oil
    • 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
    • 1½ cups canned Italian tomatoes, coarsely chopped, with their juice
    • 10 ounces tuna packed in oil, drained
    • Salt and pepper
    • 3 tablespoons butter
    • 1 pound spaghetti

    Fresh Sauce

    Cook's note: This sauce may be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated for 1 or 2 days. Add the butter, however, only after it has been reheated. No grated cheese is called for with this sauce.

    In a skillet, sauté the garlic, with all the olive oil, over medium heat until it has colored lightly. Add the chopped parsley, stir, and cook for another half minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and their juice, stir well, lower the heat, and cook at a steady, gentle simmer, uncovered, for about 25 minutes or until the tomatoes separate from the oil.

    While the tomato sauce is simmering, drain the tuna and break it up into small pieces with a fork. When the tomato sauce is done, add the tuna to it, mixing it well into the sauce. Add just a light sprinkling of salt, bearing in mind that the tuna is already salty, add pepper, and cook at a gentle simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Taste and correct for salt, turn off the heat, and swirl in the butter.

    Serve with spaghetti cooked al dente, firm to the bite.

    Yield: 4-5 servings; Source: The Classic Italian Cookbook, by Marcella Hazan





    • 3 tablespoons butter
    • 3 tablespoons finely chopped yellow onion
    • 3 tablespoons finely chopped carrot
    • 3 tablespoons finely chopped celery
    • 2½ cups canned Italian tomatoes, with their juice
    • 2 teaspoons salt, or more if necessary
    • ¼ teaspoon granulated sugar
    • ½ cup heavy cream

    Tomato and Cream Sauce

    Put all the ingredients except the heavy cream in a saucepan and cook at the merest simmer for 1 hour, uncovered. Stir from time to time with a wooden spoon.

    Purée the contents of this pan in a food mill or food processor (you can prepare the sauce up to this point ahead of time, and refrigerate it for a few days or freeze it). Return to a pan and bring to a simmer, stirring with a wooden spoon. Ad the heavy cream and stir-cook for 1 minute more. Taste and correct for salt. Use immediately.

    Yield: 6 servings; Source: The Classic Italian Cookbook, by Marcella Hazan




    • 2 pounds fresh, ripe plum tomatoes
    • 2/​3 cup chopped carrots
    • 2/​3 cup chopped celery
    • 2/​3 cup chopped onions
    • Salt
    • ¼ teaspoon granulated sugar
    • ½ cup olive oil

    Tomato Sauce II

    Cook's note: If using canned tomatoes, use 2 cups and their juice. Do not cook them for 10 minutes first; begin the recipe by adding the carrot, celery, onion, etc.

    Wash the tomatoes in cold water. Cut them in half, lengthwise. Cook in a covered stockpot or saucepan over medium heat for 10 minutes.

    Add the carrot, celery, onion, 2 teaspoons salt, and sugar and cook at a steady simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

    Purée everything through a food mill or in a food processor, return to the pan, add the olive oil, and cook at a steady simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes more. Taste and correct for salt.

    Yield: 6 servings; Source: The Classic Italian Cookbook, by Marcella Hazan