First published in September 2006, this updated pantry ingredient post features new photos, links, and a few tweaks to the recipe. Please enjoy some fun facts about cooking with tomato paste, and the recipe for my "house special" meat sauce. In Rhode Island, we call it gravy, and we make it all year round.
My mother, like many "let's have TV dinners" cooks in the 1960s, made spaghetti sauce with Spatini, which I think was mostly a packet of salt mixed with a few flavor enhancers.
I don't blame her. After all, it was the Age of Convenience Foods, and my mother worked and didn't have a lot of time to cook. Her mother never cooked pasta, or made sauce, either, so my mother really didn't have a role model.
My own spaghetti role model was Patty, my freshman-year Italian-American roommate, who taught me to make her grandmother's sauce with canned tomatoes, onions, peppers, oregano and tomato paste. It was the perfect college meal; pasta was cheap, and the ingredients for sauce were cheap, too. And it was so easy to make the real thing.
Bye bye, Spatini.
Tomato paste is a concentrate made from paste tomatoes that have a high pectin content. When they're cooked down, they're put through a strainer to remove skins and seeds, and reduced further until almost all of the moisture has evaporated. Usually a recipe will call for a tablespoon or two, just enough to enrich a beef stew, for instance, or to deepen the flavor of a sauce made with fresh tomatoes.
For the occasional spoonful, the tomato paste tube is perfect. If you can't find the tube in your grocery store, buy the 6-ounce can. Remove any leftovers and transfer to another container, then store in the fridge or freezer.
When cooking any tomato products or other highly acidic foods, avoid unenameled cast iron and other reactive pots. One time, years ago, I made tomato sauce in an aluminum stock pot. I let it cool in the pot instead of removing it instantly, and — you guessed it — the pot reacted with the tomatoes and turned my sauce into a foul-smelling, bubbly science experiment.
My own meat sauce
Makes enough for two or more pounds of pasta.
1 lb extra lean ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium green pepper, chopped
3-6 cloves garlic, minced
2 boxes Pomi tomatoes (or 64 oz canned tomatoes)
1 4.5-oz tube tomato paste
2 Tbsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried thyme leaf
1 large bay leaf
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1/4 bottle dry red wine
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
Pinch of sugar, if necessary
In a 4-5 quart nonreactive stockpot (I use stainless steel), brown beef thoroughly. Add onion and green pepper, and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes. Drain off the fat. Add all remaining ingredients and cook, partially covered, over lowest heat for 2-1/2 to 3 hours. Stir occasionally.
In an emergency (is there such a thing as a pasta emergency? Sure!) this can be made in the microwave. It will be won't have that long-simmered taste, but it will be fine, especially if you're going to use it in a lasagna or other recipe where it will be cooked again. In a full-size microwave oven, cook meat, pepper and onion for 5-6 minutes on high, until meat is browned. Drain off fat. Add remaining ingredients and cook, covered, for 15 minutes on medium-high power. Stir. Cook 12 minutes more on high, and it will be done.
More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
One-one-one spaghetti sauce
Pasta with clams and vegetable sauce
Linguine with tomato-olive sauce
Whole wheat penne pasta with sausage, fennel, tomato and olives
Other recipes that use these pantry ingredients:
Ann's slow cooker pulled pork, from Andrea Meyers
Braised short ribs, from Cooking On the Side
Pasta with Greek cinnamon-tomato sauce, from Gimme Some Oven
Baked beans in tomato sauce, from Simply Recipes
Pasta with Zinfandel tomato sauce and ricotta, from Evil Shenanigans
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