Dressing up Tomato Sauce

Marinara sauce, pomodoro, arrabiata, thick, thin, chunky, which ever way you want to call it, it’s still a tomato based sauce.

Tomatoes contain lots of nutrients.  They are naturally low in fat and calories, plus they are packed with vitamin A and C.  Now let’s not forget about lycopene.  In fact, tomatoes are one food where it pays to process versus raw.  I’m not talked so processed in a factory that you can barely recognized the original tomato or more ingredients than needed, I’m talking processed from it’s original state in nature.  Cooking, that’s what I’m getting at.  The processing of the tomato is known to increase the content of lycopene.  While linked to decreasing the risk of prostate cancer, lycopene in general is an antioxidant and can benefit the health of everyone.  While they are lower in other nutrients, the content of lycopene and vitamin C alone make this a good start for an meal, especially a sauce.

Tomato sauce is easy to make, even without a recipe.  My guidelines here are simply that…guidelines.  I have used recipes before, I have made sauce entirely from scratch, I have used canned products, and in the end most things I do with tomato sauce works.  I will say that making it from scratch can take a little longer because of the skinning and deseeding process.  Honestly, I have no idea if this has to be done, but I do know that we have done this every time we have made sauce from scratch.  Most often I go with canned.  Since we all know sodium is used as a preservative in canned goods, making them a big contributor to dietary sodium, I look for diced tomatoes with NO ADDED SALT.

There are 3 basic tomato selections when it comes to canned goods to use in a tomato sauce.  There is diced, sauce and paste.  The diced are big chunks, while the sauce is a thin and runny tomato product, and the paste is a thick tomato product similar to what you might use on a pizza.  Depending on the consistency I am looking for, I will use 1 small can of paste or sauce and then 2-3 14 oz cans of the diced.  This is by no means a science for me, so my advice is experiment if you haven’t already.

Now that you have the tomato base down, there are so many options to dress up this simple sauce and so many ways to use it, not just on spaghetti.  Let’s start off with some of the basic and classic tomato sauce variations:

-Marinara: A moderately thin tomato sauce, vegetarian (if you are vegetarian, be careful as some restaurants add beef stock/bouillon for flavoring to standard tomato sauce…yes, I have worked at places that have done this)
-Pomodoro: A chunky tomato sauce cooked with garlic, olive oil and basil
-Arrabiata: A spicy marinara sauce
-Meat sauce: A tomato base with ground meat added
-Caponata: tomato sauce with black olives, capers and sometimes with eggplant or added overtop eggplant

But the fun does not stop there.  There are many ways to spice up tomato sauce and make it different each time.  You can create your own signature blend of sauce that shows your personality.  You can add as many veggies as you want.  Here are some of my picks for variations on a classic tomato sauce:

-Sautee yellow squash and zucchini before adding the tomato products and simmering
-Use a variety of fresh or dried herbs to season a marinara sauce
-For meat variations try low fat ground beef or lean ground turkey
-For vegetarians looking to increase protein content, try meatless ground “beef”
-Brown some almond slivers and toss them in for texture
-Sautee eggplant chunks and onion, plus garlic and top with feta cheese for a Mediterranean feel (see below)
-Add chickpeas and curry for an Indian flair, cut back on the thinner tomato products to have a super chunky tomato dish
-Add shrimp to an arrabiata sauce
-Start off with a mirepoix, which is a fancy word for a blend of onions, carrots and celery finely chopped,that are heated first in oil or butter (traditionally) and then all your other sauce ingredients can be added.  Mirepoix is a classic cooking technique that lends big flavor to many sauces and stocks.
-Add roasted red peppers for a nice flavor
-Artichokes are a great addition
-Sauté a variety peppers, all colors, and then add your tomatoes before simmering the sauce
-MUSHROOMS!  Fresh mushrooms sautéed and added to tomato sauce gives not only a nice flavor, but a meaty texture as well.

I could go on for hours coming up with creative combinations, but I think I will stop there.  Starting with tomatoes as a base, you have so many options for a great sauce.  I love adding all kinds of veggies to my sauce.  All these added items increase the nutritional value of the sauce.

Don’t just stick to the tradition of tomato sauce on pasta.  There are plenty more creative ways to utilize a tomato based sauce, especially when it is all dressed up.  When making homemade sauce you are in control, so the consistency and ingredients are entirely up to you.  You can make it thick or thin, spicy or bland.  You are the boss!  Once you have a great idea of a sauce, you can find creative ways to use it.  

Here are some suggestions, other than over good ol’ fashioned spaghetti:

-Try whole wheat pasta instead (I know, not too creative, but I had to toss that in there somewhere)
-Serve over couscous or quinoa
-Serve over fish or chicken
-Serve as a topping for a baked white or sweet potato
-Serve with rice (I often do basmati with a thick and spicy tomato and chick pea sauce on top)
-Serve over baked eggplant
-Make it into tomato soup or salsa dip
-Use it to top off spaghetti squash
-Use it as a flavorful pizza sauce
-Add it on top of steamed broccoli and toss on a little fresh grated parmesan cheese

Again, the possibilities are endless.  I hope by now you have those creative juices flowing and can come up with some ways to dress up your own tomato sauce.  I love to play and experiment in the kitchen, so I am not too worried if something doesn’t work out.  We always learn from our mistakes.  I like to get some tomatoes going in a bug sauce pan and just add what ever I am in the mood for, or often those ingredients are added first to sauté in some olive oil before adding the tomatoes.  Make sure to taste test the sauce during the cooking process and monitor the flavor.  With good herbs and spices you should not have to add any salt, and hopefully will have used NO ADDED SALT products too.

Just before the holidays I asked Ryan what he wanted for dinner the following week.  His response was some kind of sauce, a pasta and some sauce variation.  He gave me full artistic freedom on this one and said any sauce will do.  Many times I use recipes, but other times I just browse them for ideas and then combine.  So, I started to look around for sauce ideas.  I really liked the section on tomato sauce that I found in Mark Bittman’s book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.  Neither of us really care for heavy cream sauces, so I knew tomato based was the way to go.  In his book he offers 25 variations on tomato sauce, some similar to what I mentioned here, but I can honestly say I got so excited and inspired I quickly closed the book and took off in my own direction.  Here is what I came up with:
I started with a nice eggplant.  As a vegetarian, I find that eggplant and mushrooms give a nice “meaty” texture to my meatless meals and adds in some bulk. 
I sautéed the eggplant along with some onions before adding 28 oz of diced tomatoes.  I wound up with a very thick and chunky sauce, and I think I could have done a little more diced tomatoes, but at the same time I liked the thick chunky veggie blend this came out to be.  For a little Mediterranean flair, I topped my linguine and sauce off with some feta cheese.
QUESTIONS:  What is your perfect tomato sauce?  What else do you top with tomato sauce (other than pasta)?


Unknown said...

I love ALL tomato sauce (and ketchup). mmmm...

Nicci said...

Love tomato sauce and love pasta. I've been wanting to make some from scratch. thanks for all the good info.

Simply Life said...

Great ideas- I would put tomato sauce on just about anything if I could :)

chow and chatter said...

home made is so easy not sure why folks use a jar

Gina; The Candid RD said...

LOve all of your ideas! I have never made my own tomato sauce (I'm such a bad Italian) but I especially can't make or buy it anymore because of FODMAPs (they all contain onion or garlic!! It stinks). What I do buy are canned tomatoes, which I use instead of tomato sauce. I love it over spaghetti squash and brown rice (like you said) or quinoa.

I do have a question for oyu. You said that cooking tomatoes INCREASES the lycopene, but I thought it just increased the bioavailability. Is that what you were getting at? I'm truly curious, not calling you out or anything!

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