Can you really make a tasty, nutrient-rich sauce with just five ingredients? We tested 50 recipes and came up with 12 pasta sauces that can’t be topped.

Pasta is a workhorse in the American kitchen. It’s cheap, quick-cooking, and convenient. Even when there’s nothing in the house to eat, most people have a box of pasta tucked away in the pantry. Rich in complex carbohydrates and vitamins, pasta is also quite healthy.

The problem is the sauce. Many American recipe writers have strayed from the simple formulas developed over centuries by Italian home cooks Long ingredient lists and way too much fat have scared off many readers, who now use sauce in a jar. These commercial preparations are convenient, but lack the flavor and nutrition of a real, homemade sauce.

Sauce-making, however, does not have to be complicated or time-consuming. If I could come up with a dozen sauces, all made with five ingredients or less, I figured I could prove my point. Sounds impossible, right? A pasta sauce with five ingredients (not including salt and pepper) that tastes great?

My mother and grandmother are two of the best Italian-American cooks I know, so I have been training for this assignment my whole life. I also have written two books on pasta and have just completed a third on Italian vegetarian cooking. In the course of all this work, I have made hundreds, if not thousands, of pasta recipes.

So I sat down and chose my favorites. I wanted recipes that taste great, but I also wanted to use as many vegetables as possible in order to get a real nutritional punch from dinner. Some were dishes I had enjoyed in Italy. Not from fancy restaurants, but recipes culled from tiny trattorias in the working-class neighborhoods of Florence or Rome. In other words, honest food. Other recipes were dishes my eighty-six-year-old grandmother has been making for decades. Finally, some of the recipes on my initial list were things I had developed in my kitchen over the years.

The list was more than fifty recipes long. I went into the kitchen and started cooking. I was looking for great-tasting recipes as well as shortcuts. Did this recipe really need so many ingredients? Could I make it simpler, quicker? Could I cut the fat?

The twelve recipes that follow are the best of the lot. All are incredibly simple (some contain just three ingredients) and delicious. As any Italian grandmother can tell you, a few well-chosen ingredients often make a better pasta sauce than a whole bag of groceries.

ARUGULA AND BLACK OLIVE-TOMATO SAUCE

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

This potent sauce can be prepared in the time it takes to bring water to a boil and cook the pasta. Raw arugula is tossed with the quick tomato sauce and hot pasta just before serving. Just a few stirs (and no cooking) will wilt the greens. The arugula in this recipe contains at least half the RDA of vitamin C and 100 mg of calcium per serving. Serve with fusilli or penne.

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 12 large black olives (about 2 ounces), pitted and chopped
  • Salt and hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 large bunch arugula (1/3 pound), stemmed, washed, and dried
  1. Heat oil in large skillet. Add garlic and saute over medium heat until it starts to color, 1 to 2 minutes.
  2. Add tomatoes and olives to pan and simmer until sauce thickens a bit, about 10 minutes. Add salt (use sparingly if olives are particularly salty) and pepper flakes to taste.
  3. Toss cooked pasta with tomato sauce and arugula. Stir several times to wilt arugula and serve immediately.

GARLIC AND OLIVE OIL SAUCE WITH LEMON AND PARSLEY

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

Even when there is nothing in the house, most cooks will have some garlic and olive oil on hand to make this Italian classic. The secret is to cook the garlic long enough so that it loses its raw punch without letting it burn and become bitter. Lemon juice adds a nice bite and stops the cooking process once the garlic has become a rich golden color. Make sure the pasta is dripping with cooking water when sauced. Serve with linguine or spaghetti.

  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 10 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  1. Heat oil in skillet large enough to hold cooked pasta. Add garlic and saute over medium-low heat until rich golden color but not browned or burned, about 4 minutes. Stir in lemon juice, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Remove pan from heat.
  2. Add cooked pasta, still dripping, to skillet. Toss and serve immediately.

CHUNKY TOMATO SAUCE WITH FRESH BASIL

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

It’s possible to make your own marinara sauce in the time it takes to boil water and cook pasta. Fresh basil, along with a healthy dose of garlic, gives this sauce its homemade taste. Seeding the tomatoes makes this sauce especially chunky. Serve with spaghetti or linguine.

  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes packed in juice, drained
  • 12 large fresh basil leaves, cut crosswise into thin strips
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  1. Working over sink, gently open each tomato and push seeds and excess liquid out with fingers. Coarsely chop tomatoes and place in medium saucepan with basil, oil, and garlic.
  2. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes thicken and form chunky sauce, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss with cooked pasta and serve immediately.

SPICY TOMATO SAUCE WITH OLIVES AND CAPERS

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

This recipe is my favorite version of the famed Spaghetti alla Puttanesca, or “whore’s pasta.” The spicy, strong flavors in this sauce have made it a classic. This dish is made with pantry items so it’s perfect for times when there’s nothing in the refrigerator. Serve with spaghetti.

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes packed in juice, drained and chopped
  • 15 large black and/or green olives, pitted and chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon drained capers
  • Salt and hot red pepper flakes
  1. Heat oil in large skillet. Add garlic and saute over medium heat until lightly colored, about 2 minutes.
  2. Add tomatoes, olives, and capers to pan. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes soften and sauce thickens, about 15 minutes. Taste sauce and add salt if needed along with hot red pepper to taste. Toss with cooked pasta and serve immediately.

CAULIFLOWER AND ONION SAUCE WITH SAFFRON

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

Saffron gives the cauliflower and onions a bright yellow color as well as a rich, earthy flavor. Cauliflower is an excellent source of vitamin C and folic acid. Serve with penne or ziti.

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, peeled, halved, and sliced crosswise into thin strips
  • 1 small head cauliflower, florets cut into bite-sized pieces (about 5 cups)
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
  1. Heat oil in large saute pan. Add onions and saute over medium heat unfit light gold in color, about 6 minutes. Add cauliflower and cook, stirring often, until pale gold, about 10 minutes.
  2. While onions and cauliflower are cooking, crumble saffron into small bowl. Add 3/4 cupboiling water and let stand 2 minutes.
  3. Add saffron mixture and salt to taste to pan. Lower heat to medium-low, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until cauliflower is tender and bright yellow, about 10 minutes. Toss with cooked pasta and parsley and serve immediately.

ZUCCHINI SAUCE WITH LEMON AND MINT

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

For this recipe, the zucchini is cut into very thin matchstick-like strips that cook quickly and absorb the flavors of the garlic, lemon, and mint in the sauce. Serve with fettuccine.

  • 4 medium zucchini (about 1 ½ pounds)
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated zest and
  • 2 tablespoons juice from 1 medium lemon
  • 12 large fresh mint leaves, cut crosswise into thin strips
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  1. Trim ends from zucchini and cut them slightly on bias into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Cut rounds into very thin strips that resemble matchsticks. Set zucchini aside.
  2. Heat oil in large skillet. Add garlic and saute over medium heat until it is lightly colored, about 2 minutes. Add lemon zest and zucchini and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, until zucchini is tender and starting to brown, about 8 minutes.
  3. Stir in lemon juice, mint, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring often, until flavors are combined, about 1 minute. Toss with cooked pasta and serve immediately.

TOMATO SAUCE WITH ROSEMARY AND BALSAMIC VINEGAR

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

Rosemary adds a woodsy, resinous flavor to basic tomato sauce. A little balsamic vinegar is added at the end of the cooking time to maximize its sweet-and-sour punch. Serve with penne or ziti.

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes packed in juice, drained and chopped
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  1. Heat oil in large skillet. Add onion and saute over medium heat until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in rosemary end cook for 30 seconds to release its flavor.
  2. Add tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Stir in vinegar and immediately toss with cooked pasta. Serve immediately.

ASPARAGUS SAUCE WITH TOASTED BREAD CRUMBS

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

In southern Italy, cooks often use toasted bread crumbs instead of expensive grated cheese to perk up simple pasta dishes. Leftover bread can be ground in the food processor to make your own crumbs, or use commercial versions. In this recipe, blanched asparagus is flavored with garlic and lemon juice and then tossed with the pasta and toasted crumbs. Besides its great flavor, asparagus is rich in nutrients, especially vitamins A and C and folic acid. In fact, each serving of this recipe contains enough folic acid to exceed the RDA. Serve with linguine or spaghetti.

  • 2 pounds medium asparagus
  • Salt
  • 1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  1. Bring several quarts of water to boil in large saucepan. Trim ends from asparagus and then cut spears in half lengthwise. Cut asparagus on bias into 1-inch pieces. Add asparagus and salt to taste to boiling water and cook until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Drain and set asparagus aside.
  2. Set large skillet over medium heat and add bread crumbs. Toast, shaking pan occasionally, until crumbs are golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer crumbs to plate or bowl.
  3. Add oil and garlic to empty skillet. Saute garlic until golden, about 1 minute. Add lemon juice and asparagus. Mix well and add salt to taste. Toss with cooked pasta, still dripping with liquid, and toasted crumbs and serve immediately.

SUN-DRIED TOMATO AND BLACK OLIVE SAUCE

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

Sun-dried tomatoes and black olives make a rich puree that can be used like pesto to sauce pasta. This sauce is fairly thick, so make sure to thin it out with a little cooking liquid from the pasta. Make a double batch and scrape the extra into an airtight container, cover with a thin film of olive oil, and refrigerate for up to one week. Serve with spaghetti or linguine.

  • 15 sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained (about 2/3 cup)
  • 8 large black olives, pitted
  • 1 medium garlic clove, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  1. Place tomatoes, olives, garlic, and thyme in workbowl of food processor or blender. Pulse, scraping down sides of bowl as needed, until ingredients are coarsely chopped. Pulse in oil to form a smooth but still slightly coarse paste.
  2. Scrape tomato puree into bowl large enough to hold cooked pasta. Add salt to taste. Stir in 1/2 cup cooking liquid from pasta. Toss with cooked pasta, and serve immediately.

TOMATO AND PORCINI MUSHROOM SAUCE

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

This tomato sauce derives its richness from dried porcini mushrooms and the liquid used to rehydrate them. A little dried porcini goes a long way, but there are some brands that taste much better than others. Look for packages with large, thick pieces that are tan or brown but not black. There should be very little dust or crumbled pieces at the bottom. If sold loose, the aroma should be earthy, not musty or stale. Serve with fusilli.

  • 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 1 small carrot, peeled and minced
  • Salt
  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes packed in juice, drained, and chopped
  1. Place mushrooms in small bowl, and cover with 1 cup hot tap water. Soak for 20 minutes. Carefully lift mushrooms from liquid with fork and pick through to remove any foreign debris. Wash mushrooms if they feel gritty. Chop mushrooms. Strain soaking liquid through sieve lined with paper towel. Reserve mushrooms and strained soaking liquid separately.
  2. Heat oil in large saucepan. Add onion and carrot and cook, stirring often, over medium heat until vegetables soften, about 10 minutes. Add chopped porcini and salt to taste and cook for a minute or two to release their flavors.
  3. Add tomatoes and porcini soaking liquid. Simmer until sauce thickens, about 15 minutes. Adjust seasonings. Toss with cooked pasta, and serve immediately.

TOMATO AND CARAMELIZED LEEK SAUCE

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

Sauteing leeks until they start to brown brings out their sweetness. Do not let them burn or they will become bitter. Cleaning the leeks requires some patience, but the rest of this recipe is very simple. And remember leeks are rich in cancer-fighting nutrients (see An Onion a Day). Serve with linguine.

  • 4 medium leeks (about 2 pounds)
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes packed in juice, juice reserved, and tomatoes chopped
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon or thyme leaves
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  1. Trim and discard dark green tops and tough outer leaves from leeks. Remove roots along with very thin slice of nearby white part. Halve leeks lengthwise, and wash under cold, running water. Gently spread apart, to remove all traces of soil, but do not separate inner layers. Slice cleaned leeks crosswise into thin pieces.
  2. Heat oil in large skillet. Add leeks, and saute over medium heat just until they start to brown, 10 to 12 minutes.
  3. Add chopped tomatoes and 1/2 cup of their packing liquid along with tarragon and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer gently until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Adjust seasonings. Toss with cooked pasta, and serve immediately.

SPICY BROCCOLI SAUCE WITH GARLIC

Enough for 1 pound of pasta

This southern Italian sauce is easy to prepare since the broccoli cooks right along with the pasta. After being drained, the broccoli florets and spaghetti are tossed in a large skillet where garlic and hot red pepper flakes have been cooked in olive oil. A little cooking water is reserved to moisten this dish and helps keep the fat content to a minimum. Whole-wheat spaghetti is especially good here.

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • Salt and hot red pepper flakes
  • 2 pounds broccoli florets cut into bite-sized pieces (about 5 cups)
  1. Heat oil in skillet large enough to hold cooked pasta and broccoli. Add garlic, and saute over medium heat until golden, about 2 minutes. Turn off heat, and stir in salt and pepper flakes to taste.
  2. Add broccoli to pot with pasta about 2 minutes before it is al dente. Drain pasta and broccoli, reserving 1/2 cup cooking liquid. Add pasta and broccoli to skillet, and toss over medium heat, adding most, if not all, of cooking liquid to moisten noodles. Serve immediately.

KEEP ON HAND

The Pasta Lover’s Pantry

You need to keep a few basics on hand for spur-of-the-moment pasta sauces. The following is a list of essentials. Add fresh vegetables and the possibilities are endless.

* GARLIC AND ONIONS No Italian cook worth her salt (or pepper) could live without these flavoring agents. Sauteing alliums, which are rich in cancer-fighting nutrients (see An Onion a Day), brings out their sweetness and mellows out that sharp punch.

* FRESH HERBS Dried herbs may be fine for soups and stews, but when making quick-cooking pasta sauces you need the oomph that only fresh can deliver. Better to use a different fresh herb (try thyme instead of oregano, parsley or mint instead of basil, and so on) than the dried form.

* HOT RED PEPPER FLAKES Italian food is never incendiary, but there are times when a little heat can make a big difference. The level of intensity varies from brand to brand (and flakes lose some of their power with age) so go slowly and taste as you shake hot pepper into your favorite sauces.

* OLIVE OIL Inferior or tasteless oils may not stand out in a recipe that contains twelve ingredients. However, when there are only four ingredients in a dish, every one of them has to add something. That’s why I use extra-virgin olive oil in my pasta sauces. A little goes a long way so don’t worry about the cost, it’s only pennies per recipe.

* CANNED TOMATOES I don’t generally recommend canned vegetables, but canned tomatoes are usually better than fresh. In any case, they certainly are more convenient. Crushed tomatoes make smooth sauces ready in minutes. Whole, peeled tomatoes are better for chunkier sauces. Don’t throw out the juice that whole tomatoes are packed in. I often add some to sauces to give them a little more body and moisture. Look for organic canned tomatoes. Most supermarkets carry them, and they generally cost only a few dimes more than standard brands.

PERFECT PASTA

Five Tips for Better Boiling

If you can boil water, you can cook pasta. But there are some tricks of the trade.

* USE PLENTY OF WATER. If pasta sticks together, you probably aren’t using enough water. Pasta needs room to swell. Use at least 4 quarts of water per pound of pasta.

* FORGET THE OIL. Many Americans add oil to the cooking water to prevent sticking. If you use enough water, this is not necessary. Oil also tends to make pasta slick and prevents the sauce from adhering properly.

* DON’T SKIMP ON SALT. No matter how salty the sauce, pasta cooked without salt will be bland. My advice: go light on salt in the sauce and use a freer hand in the cooking water. After all, most of the salt in the pasta pot goes back down the drain with the cooking water, while salt in the sauce pot goes into your stomach.

* TASTE, TASTE, TASTE. The only way to know when pasta is done is to taste it. After it has boiled for five minutes, start fishing out strands of pasta. Do this until the pasta is just a little resistant in the center. Drain, sauce, and serve immediately to prevent pasta from softening further or cooling off.

* DON’T SHAKE, SHAKE, SHAKE. Many American cooks have an unnatural fear of cooking water on their pasta. Bad memories of pasta swimming in a watery red sauce have led many cooks to shake the colander until the pasta is bone-dry. Don’t do it! Cooking liquid can help spread the sauce over the noodles. This is especially important for oil-based sauces that contain large chunks of vegetables but no tomatoes or cream, both of which provide moisture. In fact, many recipes call for a little pasta cooking water to be reserved and then mixed in while the noodles are tossed with the sauce. Add as much as is needed to get noodles sauced and moist, but never soupy or soggy.

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