Spaghetti With A Hearty Sauce

Spaghetti was one of the first things I learned to cook after I left home for college. Despite having a bunch of Italian relatives, I didn’t know how to cook any pasta dishes, not even spaghetti; I simply ate it at my aunt and uncle’s house. “Pasta and suga” it was called. I had no idea how to make even a simple pasta sauce. I didn’t really learn to cook until after I left home. Then it was a friend of a friend who introduced me to spaghetti from a box. 😯 I can hear everyone going “Oh, NO!” 😆 But it actually wasn’t a bad place to start for someone who didn’t know how to cook. Suddenly making a hearty spaghetti dinner from scratch didn’t seem so intimidating. I mean, it was all in a box…how hard could it be? So I began with a box which had noodles and a flavoring packet and cooking instructions (which included the addition of tomato sauce and meat). Then I started tweaking it. Adding more of this or that seasoning. Adding a chopped onion, fresh garlic, canned mushrooms. Sometimes sauteing fresh mushrooms in olive oil instead of using canned. Within no time spaghetti was my “go to” meal when I cooked for friends (or, even better, with friends). It was the “thanks for help moving” meal, the communal meal. Spaghetti, more than anything, was my confidence builder as a cook. I stopped measuring seasonings and it always came out good. (I did measure for the recipe below, though.)

Over the years my own spaghetti sauce recipe branched into myriad variations. Here’s the most important thing you need to know about making spaghetti sauce: the time and effort it takes to make a good spaghetti sauce from scratch is not substantially greater than if you heat up a jar of sauce. It takes a little bit longer, but quite honestly if you feel you have to use sauce from a jar because sauce takes too long to make, then…umm…maybe you should sit back and rethink your life…because this is not something that takes a lot of effort or time. 🙂

Below is the basic no-frills sauce. After that I’ll tell you various ways to change it up (which makes it even better).

1 pkg Smart Ground or Simple Truth Meatless Crumbles
2 15 oz cans of tomato sauce
1 4 oz can of sliced mushrooms
1 onion, chopped
a few cloves of garlic, depending on how much garlic you like, run through a garlic press or minced
1 Tbls basil
2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp marjoram
2 rounded spoonfuls of brown sugar
1/4 tsp black pepper
olive oil

Saute chopped onions and garlic (minced or preferably run through a garlic press) in olive oil. If using fresh mushrooms (see variations below), saute mushrooms too. Add tomato sauce, canned mushrooms (if not using fresh), meatless crumbles, seasonings and brown sugar. Stir well. Simmer covered over medium to low heat at least 30 minutes. (High enough to simmer, but low enough not to bubble like lava and splatter you.) Stir occasionally. If the consistency of the sauce looks too thin, cook uncovered until about right. If the consistency of the sauce looks too thick, add a small amount of water. Set the table. Throw together a salad. Pour your friends a glass of wine.

I’m not absolutely sure who told me to put a small amount of brown sugar in the spaghetti sauce, but I think it was the friend’s brother’s girlfriend who first introduced me to the spaghetti-in-a-box. Or maybe it was someone else later. It does not make the sauce sweet. What it seems to do is to moderate the sharpness of the herbs. If you stumped your toe when you were adding the oregano, the brown sugar will make it less obvious. At least this is what it seems to me that the brown sugar is doing. I know that if I overdo the seasonings (remember, though I tested and measured for these recipes I usually don’t measure when I make it myself), and if I don’t put a small amount of brown sugar in, I can taste my mistakes more. I think of the brown sugar as my safety net. 😉

misc 007Cook pasta for the amount of time recommended on the package. I add a splash of oil to help avoid boil-overs. It helps but is not fool-proof. Using a big pot is recommended. You can cook spaghetti in a pot that’s too small, but that makes boil-overs unavoidable. Of course, the bigger the pot the greater the volume of water, and the longer it takes to get to a boil. Depending on your stove and the size of pot you use the amount of time to get water boiling will vary. I don’t even want to guess. You should try to time it so that the pasta is not done before the minimum cooking time for the sauce. It won’t hurt the sauce to cook a longer, but the pasta will be a cold gummy mess if it has to wait on the sauce. Drain the pasta in a colander. Do not rinse! Serve immediately heaped with the sauce. 😀

This recipe makes four big hearty servings. With salad, bread, and wine (and the promise of dessert!), it can go 5 servings. Some of the variations below extend the amount of sauce by adding additional ingredients, but if you need to feed 8-10, double the recipe.


Below are some variations and at the very bottom is my ultimate spaghetti sauce combining variations.

This sauce and the variations below can be used with a variety of pastas. A number of companies make flavored pastas. As flavorful as this sauce is (especially if you do some of the variations below) it may overwhelm the flavor of a mildly flavored pasta or on the other hand the flavor of the pasta may throw the balance of seasonings in the dish off. Flavored pastas are worth experimenting with. I recommend trying them with just a light dressing of olive oil and parmesan cheese to assess the flavor before using them with sauces which have a more complex blend of flavors.

I have sometimes found that I don’t have quite enough tomato sauce on hand which is how I came to substituting a can of diced tomatoes for one of the cans of sauce. The sauce with diced tomatoes seems thin to me so I also add a 6 oz can of tomato paste to thicken it up. Having the tomato chunks in the sauce gives it a nice texture and flavor. If you want to stretch the sauce a bit further you can add a can of diced tomatoes in addition to the 2 cans of tomato sauce. You will need to tweak the seasonings if you add an extra can. If you double the cans of tomato products in the recipe above, add another package of Smart Ground and also adjust the seasonings accordingly.

Fresh mushrooms are a nice addition to the sauce if you have time to clean and chop them. (I don’t buy pre-sliced mushrooms because they’re still dirty and take longer to clean than whole caps.) White button mushrooms, cremini mushrooms or portobellas are all good in spaghetti sauce. Clean, remove stems, coarsely chop, then saute. If you’ve got a big enough skillet or pot, they can be added with the onion and garlic. Mushrooms will cook down quite a bit, but nevertheless, .2 (or less) oz fresh is about the right amount for one batch of sauce unless you’re making a larger amount of sauce. (If you get more than that you can always saute them up and use them another night on pizza or in quesadillas.)

If you’ve got a bottle of wine open to go with the meal, a splash (no more than 1/4 cup) of a “good spaghetti wine” such as Chianti or a Sangiovese (the primary variety of grape used in Chianti) would be good in the sauce—or whatever wine you like with spaghetti. If it goes great with the meal, it will go well in the sauce —or the cook! 😉

Some people like bell pepper in spaghetti sauce. I have added a bit of bell pepper on occasion, but it always seems to me like it doesn’t “fit” the flavor of the sauce somehow. If you like it, then go for it! 🙂

If you want a spicier sauce, something with a zing of heat to it, try adding a bit (1/4 tsp) of Hungarian Hot Paprika. Not all Hungarian paprika is hot, so double check the tin when you buy it. This seasoning is one of my favs for increasing the spiciness of dishes. It’s not as hot as cayenne but far spicier than regular paprika. Definitely worth seeking out and experimenting with.

misc 006Ultimate Spaghetti Sauce

1 pkg Simple Truth Meatless Crumbles (or Smart Ground)
1 15 oz can tomato sauce
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
1 6 oz can tomato paste
1/4 cup Sangiovese wine
.24 oz fresh mushrooms (white button, or your favorite), de-stemmed, coarsely chopped
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, run through garlic press, or minced
1 Tbls basil
2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp marjoram
2 rounded spoonfuls of brown sugar
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp Hungarian hot paprika
olive oil

Saute onions, garlic and mushrooms in olive oil until onions are translucent and mushrooms have mostly changed color. Add tomato products, Smart Ground, wine, seasonings, and brown sugar. (The Hungarian hot paprika will add a slight spiciness but not make the sauce hot. If it’s too mild, increase the amount the next time you make the sauce.) Add a small amount of water until consistency of sauce looks about right. Simmer covered for 30 minutes minimum on low heat, stirring occasionally. Serve over hot, drained spaghetti or pasta of your choice.


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