Vegetarian Tomato Sauce (with Pasta)

20190122_202628Welcome to my first recipe attempt! Through the writing of this blog I hope to learn how to develop my own recipes (and inspire you to try it yourself!) based on my 5 tenets of recipe development.

I decided to start with a simple pasta and tomato sauce for the following reasons:

  1. I love pasta. A lot. And I make tomato sauce fairly often.
  2. Pasta is cheap and can be vegetarian or vegan (yay environment!)
  3. Tomato sauce follows one of my tenets (CONFINE) pretty well – if all you do is pour tomatoes into a pan and add salt, it will probably turn out ok. That’s an excellent foundation for creativity.
  4. The scariest part of cooking without a recipe is getting to the end and having produced something inedible, or just not great. For that reason, tasting along the way as much as possible will help mitigate some of these risks. Some recipes, such as tomato sauce for pasta, lend themselves to this more than others.

The details:

Jump to recipe

Thought process:

Tomatoes – Let’s start with the base. The selection of tomatoes has a big effect on how your sauce turns out, and there are so many options! The first branch point is fresh or canned – I usually use canned because they are available all year with consistent quality, and they impart more of the long-cooked flavor faster than a fresh tomato. I would use chopped fresh tomatoes in a sauce that was more of a salsa. Some people complain that canned tomatoes taste metallic, but I think that’s actually a result of not using enough salt in the recipe. Of the canned tomatoes, many people recommend San Marzano, which are a different type of tomato than Roma, are mostly produced in Italy, and are slightly sweeter. They are also more expensive, so I only sometimes use them. You can make a decent substitute in flavor by adding a bit of sugar to your tomato sauce. The final choice is what “shape” of canned tomatoes to buy. This is a personal preference. Think about your ideal pasta sauce – does it have noticeable chunks of tomato? Then you want to buy whole peeled tomatoes. Does it have a completely smooth texture like a cream sauce? Then you want tomato sauce. Is it somewhere in between, and slightly grainy? This is the realm of crushed tomatoes. I decided to go half sauce and half crushed, and I always make sure to buy cans without added herbs or salt, because I want to control my own flavor!

Aromatics – The base of any good sauce is aromatics and other vegetables. They are cooked first and create deep flavor, especially when they get a little brown. Options here include things like onions, carrots, celery, bell pepper, and garlic. Again, think about what you want your final sauce to taste like when choosing both the ingredient and the shape you cut it in – do you want it very garlicy? Add a lot of garlic (duh). Do you want it sweet? Carrots and onions will help with that. Do you want it smooth or chunky? Besides the tomatoes, these other vegetables will contribute a lot of the texture of the sauce, so if you want it smooth be sure to cut them very small. I decided I wanted a mostly smooth sauce, so I cut everything as small as possible, except the onions, which I wanted to stand out and therefore sliced thinly.

Spices – Spices are the final key feature of a tomato sauce. They take it from tomato soup

to an Italian delight. There are some classic spices that pretty much every tomato sauce has – namely oregano and basil (and salt, of course). What else you include is a great opportunity to make this your own. When I usually make tomato sauce, I really like it with hot Italian sausage. But I’m trying to reduce my meat consumption, so this time I tried adding all the spices normally found in the sausage directly into the sauce. Hard spices like fennel and red pepper flakes are best added early on in the cooking so they release their flavor, while dried or fresh herbs can be added later so they aren’t completely destroyed by the cooking process.

Make it your own – Other things I like to eat in pasta sauce – mushrooms, kale, olives, capers. You do you!

Balance – This base alone will probably make a pretty good pasta sauce, but to take it to the next level I tried to consider another tenet, BALANCE. So far, it seems like the sauce is

pretty good on sweet and spice. And with my preferred additions of olives and capers it’s probably good on acid and salt. The thing I was most worried about was a certain level of fattiness and umami, that are normally imparted by the sausage but are missing here. To try to rectify that I caramelized the onions in balsamic vinegar (yes I know, more acid), and stirred in a bunch of parmesan cheese at the end.

Final thoughts – So close! Choose your pasta shape based on your sauce – if there are chunks of meat or vegetables, make sure to pick a shape like shells or tubes that can catch those chunks. If it’s very smooth, go for a spaghetti or linguine. And check out my tip for microwaving leftover pasta!

Below, the recipe:


Vegetarian Tomato Sauce with Pasta
Makes enough for 2 pounds of pasta

  • 4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 sweet onion, sliced
  • ¼ cup 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 2 carrots, small dice
  • 2 stalks celery, small dice
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • 1 2 Tbsp fennel seeds, crushed in mortar and pestle
  • 1 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 28 oz canned tomato sauce
  • 14 oz canned crushed tomatoes
  • ¼ 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • ¼ tsp dried thyme
  • 2 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 cup Kalamata olives, rough chop
  • 3 Tbsp capers, rough chop
  • 3 cups packed kale, stemmed and chopped
  • 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 pounds pasta, I used shells
  1. Heat oil in a wide saucepan over medium heat, then add onions and caramelize for ~15 min, stirring often to make sure they brown, not burn
  2. Add balsamic and stir to reduce, ~ 2 min
  3. Stir in carrots and celery to soften, 10 min
  4. Stir in garlic until aromatic but not browned, 1 min
  5. Season with ½ tsp salt
  6. Stir in fennel and red pepper flakes to infuse oil
  7. Pour in tomato sauce and crushed tomatoes and stir to mix
  8. When it comes to a simmer, turn heat down to low and stir in paprika, oregano, basil, thyme, and sugar
  9. Start pasta water to boil and cook pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1 cup cooking water when draining.
  10. When pasta has 5 min left, stir olives, capers, and kale in to sauce
  11. Taste sauce and season with kosher salt to taste. I used 1 tsp.
  12. Stir in parmesan right before serving


3/5 stars.

3 stars

I’ve made better sauces. The carrots and celery were too crunchy, it was too spicy, and lacked some depth of flavor. Disappointing, but I’ll definitely try to make improvements in the future!

Future improvements:

Umami bombs: Tomato paste stirred into aromatics before tomatoes are added. Duh! I usually do this, I just forgot this time. Brown mushrooms with aromatics, or even use reconstituted dried mushrooms. Miso? Soy sauce? Ground nuts?
Eliminate the carrots and celery. I usually find it difficult to get these soft, and this was no exception. Gave a very unpleasant texture.
This was too spicy for me. I don’t know why I always think I can handle more red pepper flake.
Amp up the spices next time. I want to get hit in the face with fennel!

8 thoughts on “Vegetarian Tomato Sauce (with Pasta)

  1. Jarrett!

    Second Comment!

    I needed to make my own pasta sauce just using what I already happen to have in my refrigerator and I came back to this post to figure out how to do it!

    My pasta sauce has almost none of the same things as the recipe, but it was very helpful in understanding why I’d use one ingredient (that I did have) over another.

    Thanks you Risa!


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  4. Jarrett!

    Having tasted aforementioned pasta, I would give it 4/5 stars. Very good.

    Also I’m very excited to learn more about making recipes. Where do I submit my official request for types of dishes to attempt?

    Lastly, and most importantly, I am very excited to try this new pasta microwaving trick.


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