What can I add to my spaghetti?
December 16, 2009 6:47 PM   Subscribe

Help me improve my spaghetti.

I eat a fair amount of spaghetti due to its taste and convenience. Usually I boil it up, add some tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese and that's it.

Sometimes I add some red wine a little before the sauce if there is a bottle open and handy. I've thought about chopping up a hot dog and adding it with the sauce, but never done it.

Do you have any good tips or tricks that won't involve much extra preparation?
posted by pseudonick to Food & Drink (51 answers total) 122 users marked this as a favorite
I'd scratch hot dog and add italian sausage instead.

You could also make a basic meat sauce by quickly browning some ground beef (or sausage) and throwing it in with the tomato sauce.
posted by kylej at 6:52 PM on December 16, 2009

Spaghetti all' amatriciana - tomato sauce + pancetta
Pasta carbonara - eggs, pancetta, cream
Aglio e olio - garlic, olive oil, pepper
Bolognese - tomato sauce, minced meat
posted by leigh1 at 6:58 PM on December 16, 2009

Just chop up some vegetables from the fridge (green/red peppers, onions, garlic, eggplant, mushrooms etc) and meat (sausage or ground beef) and sate it in a pan. Then add sauce. Really you can add anything.

I like adding sausage, green peppers, and mushrooms to any pasta sauce.

There are countless great simple recipes on sites like AllRecipes or Epicurious.
posted by axismundi at 6:58 PM on December 16, 2009

Hot dog? As much as I enjoy a good tube steak now and again it has no place in spaghetti (shudder).

When we want to fancy up a jarred or canned sauce we add ground beef, italian sausage, extra onions, green peppers or some fresh mushrooms (depending on mood or what we find at the farmer's market).
posted by labwench at 6:59 PM on December 16, 2009

Toss in some Walnuts (or pine nuts) and Black Olives.
posted by effigy at 7:01 PM on December 16, 2009

sauteed spinach in with the tomato sauce.
posted by janepanic at 7:01 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

spice up your sauce by sauteing an onion and a couple of roughly chopped garlic cloves in the fat from a roughly chopped italian sausage you've mostly cooked (and left in the pan), then throw your tomato sauce into the mix. once the pasta is almost done, drain it and throw the pasta into the sauce and cook it for a minute. the pasta will soak up the sauce and be super delicious.
posted by memi at 7:04 PM on December 16, 2009

Spaghetti + Eggs

Another standby growing up was pan frying spaghetti with some olive oil and garlic. add salt, pepper, and parm cheese. Yum. (And don't be afraid to let the noodle get a little crunchy, its good.) Sometimes we'd add broccolini if we weren't having a veggie on the side.

If you want to head away from Italian - think Chinese stir fry. Peanut sauce/brown sauce/white sauce + meat and or veggies is usually just as easy.
posted by pghjezebel at 7:07 PM on December 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Add tuna fish to your tomato sauce. Really.
posted by dfan at 7:07 PM on December 16, 2009

The pasta recipes in The Silver Spoon are excellent and simple (to the point of being obvious if you're comfortable with making a variety of pasta. If you can check a copy out at your local library, I'd recommend it.
posted by rxrfrx at 7:07 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

does it have to be tomato sauce every time? there are so many other prepared and easy-to-make options. I really like the "pepperoncini" style (it's common in Japan, at least) with some sliced hot peppers and garlic in olive oil.

if you start exploring, it is also worth making sure you are doing the noodles justice. Take some time to read up on how your cooking method can affect the final noodle, and find a way you like them. For example I always wash my boiled noodles in cold water to keep them from mooshing together after cooking.
posted by whatzit at 7:09 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Get a big bag of frozen meatballs from the grocery store. While your spaghetti is cooking, crab a handful and thaw them in the microwave -- takes a minute, tops. After thawing you can optionally cut them into quarters if you want. Throw them in with the sauce and you're done. It's ridiculously easy and adds meaty tastiness to your pasta.
posted by av123 at 7:10 PM on December 16, 2009

Cook the pasta in the sauce, not in water.
posted by randomstriker at 7:12 PM on December 16, 2009

If you don't mind the extra prep and cooking time, sautee onions and garlic with olive oil (onions first, then add the garlic later so you don't burn it). For a meaty element, sausage or anchovies or ground meat are all fine. (Hot dogs? Not my thing, but to each his own.) Olives and capers are also great instant flavor adders. Fresh herbs are preferred, but if you must use dried, make sure you have good quality stuff, not jars that have been sitting in your cabinet for five years. Veggies are great, such as mushrooms and zucchini, but whatever strikes your fancy. As far as the tomato product itself, I recommend tomato puree, not sauce.

But if you don't want to go through all the trouble or don't have the time to make from scratch, just buy some decent jarred sauce and heat it thoroughly before adding to the spaghetti.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:16 PM on December 16, 2009

I am about to change your life.

Put some olive oil, and minced garlic into a large salad bowl. As soon as you drain the pasta while it IS STILL VERY HOT drop it into the bowl and toss vigorously. You want the pasta to absorb as much of the oil as it can, it must be hot to do that.

Then toss it chopped parsley and parmesan cheese.

That's the basic recipe...spaghetti aglio olio. The thing is, it admits a million variations.


Instead of garlic, use Vietnamese fish sauce or anchovy paste.

Instead of (or in addition to) cheese use bread crumbs.

Add In:

Veined cheeses
Leftover meat or chicken
Canned sardines
canned tuna
canned oysters.
Any vegetable.
Sundried tomatoes

Basically anyting you have lying around the kitchen. Keep spagetti, olive oil and garlic around, plus some canned stuff, and you'll never have to make a "OMG I'm hungry and there's nothing in the house" store run again. And you won't get bored because you can keep changing the ingredients.

And the stuff's delicious!
posted by TigerCrane at 7:21 PM on December 16, 2009 [48 favorites]

Splurge: buy a bottle of olive oil, a head of garlic and chili peppers.

a. while spaghetti are cooking, heat in a small pot on a low fire a spoonful of oil, a peeled and crushed garlic clove and a chili pepper. They should be simmering, not browning. When your spaghetti are cooked, take out chili and garlic, and use the flavored oil to dress the pasta. This is called "aglio, olio e peperoncino". Cheese optional, as well as chopped persil or basil.

b. same as above, but after one minute cooking or so, add tomato sauce to the above oil, a pinch of salt, and cook for a couple minutes. Toss in a couple leaves of basil, if available.

c. same as b., but in a larger pan, and instead of the tomato sauce, toss in the oil whichever diced vegetable is at hand, such as: zucchini, eggplant, or bell pepper, or fresh, ripe tomatoes, steamed cauliflower or broccoli, etc. Add a pinch of salt. Basil or oregano on necessary but welcome.

d. same as b., adding a small tuna can (drain the oil) after the sauce ("spaghetti col tonno" -- the italian student fare, equivalent to ramen noodles)

e. toss with oil, a handful of romano or two, and enough black pepper you're ashamed of it ("cacio e pepe")

f. beat a couple handfuls of parmesan + romano (well, parmigiano, parmesan is an abomination invented to keep you Yanks from the Real Thing) with an egg in a bowl to a cream, cook some diced bacon (it'd be pancetta, or better yet, guanciale: cured, unsmoked jowl) in a pan, drain and toss the piping hot spaghetti into the egg cream, add the bacon, finish wih crushed black pepper. (yes, it's raw egg. Yes, the hot spaghetti will cook it. Yes, if you're still not comfortable with that you can use a pan instead of a bowl, and cook everything a couple minutes more until the egg has set, and yes, you'll make me cry a little on the inside) ("carbonara")

common errors I've seen in american friends when preparing pasta:
1. no olive oil in the boiling pot, just salt to taste (for 1 person, use about 2/3 to a gal water, a small handful of coarse salt).
2. don't overdrain the pasta, it should be glistening
3. don't overcook it: start testing for doneness after 5-6 minutes
4. dress/toss with your sauce/condiment immediately, don't let it sit.
5. don't overdress (well, that goes to taste),
6. keep it simple. Italian/American cooking is a horrible mess of lots of ingredients. Less is more.
posted by _dario at 7:25 PM on December 16, 2009 [29 favorites]

on necessary
not necessary, even.
posted by _dario at 7:26 PM on December 16, 2009

I make fried egg spaghetti sometimes for lunch. It takes the same amount of time as boiling up the noodles. This makes about 4 servings:

1. Put on a large pot of salted water for noodles. Turn on oven to 350.

2. In a small baking dish put in some chopped red bell pepper from a jar (if you have time you can blacken your own on an open flame, peel and cut-up), a little minced garlic, a TB or so of capers, about one cup of bread cubes and drizzle all with a TB of olive oil. Or if this sounds like too much work, skip this step and just use garlic croutons.

3. When the water boils, put your baking dish in the oven (if you are going that route) and add spaghetti to the pot. Set timer for 5 minutes.

4. While you wait for timer to go off, set up your eggs. 4 TB of olive oil in a med to small sized frying pan. Crack open 4 eggs into the oil.

5. When the timer goes off, re-set for 5 minutes more and start eggs. You want a very low flame. In five minutes you want only the whites to cook, not the yolks. If the yolks start cooking, turn off the flame.

6. When time is up, drain spaghetti. And put in a serving dish. Pour eggs and oil over the top. Use two forks to tear up eggs. Take baking dish out of the oven and dump contents over the eggs and noodles (or just toss in some croutons.) The yokes will cook as they come into contact with the hot noodles. Serve.

Variation: Instead of red bell pepper, bread, or croutons, try using diced jalapenos and grated cheddar cheese with the eggs.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:38 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Spaghetti alla puttanesca is really easy. Olives, capers and anchovies (well, I've usually used tuna, which is also really quick and puts fewer people off).
posted by col_pogo at 7:42 PM on December 16, 2009

Cook the pasta in the sauce, not in water.

Don't do this. Properly cooked pasta should be cooked in well-salted boiling water, then drained. The pasta is going to slough off some starch into the cooking water -- if you put raw pasta into the sauce, all that starch will end up in the sauce, changing the way it tastes. Sometimes you may want to reserve a little of the pasta cooking water to thicken a sauce, but that's about it.

Also, depending on how adventurous you want to get, you might consider making your own sauce instead of buying the pre-jarred variety. It's easy to do. Just buy canned tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) and cook them down together with a little olive oil and salt + pepper to taste. That's your basic sauce -- dress it up with veggies and seasonings as you like. Experiment a little, it's hard to go too wrong (just taste as you go). If you have nice fresh tomatoes you can use those instead, though you'll want to add some concentrated tomato paste for the best flavor.
posted by axiom at 7:46 PM on December 16, 2009

Add crumbled bacon!

Bacon bits made from real bacon are good, too, if you don't want to mess with frying bacon.
posted by jgirl at 7:51 PM on December 16, 2009

Spaghetti is kind of boring to me, try penne, rotini, linguini, or vermicelli. If you don't drink your tap water, don't boil your food in it. Use filtered water and add some salt to it (the amount can vary a ton, so do it to taste, no more than 1 tsp. per lb. of pasta). The water/pasta ratio isn't a precise science The noodles should have plenty of water to swim around in. The packaging will give you advice on how much water to use. I normally use Barilla pasta, it's not the absolute cheapest, but pretty cheap and I can definitely tell the difference between it and the store brand. Wait for the water to reach a rolling boil before adding your pasta (I thought this went without saying before I watched some different people cook). Cook the noodles long enough so that it's al dente, chewy, but with no hardness. Do not overcook your pasta, noodles with no 'bite' to them are kind of gross. Strain your pasta into the sink slowly or else water will back up in your sink washing your strainer and pasta in garbagey drain flavor (again, seems basic, but you'd be surprised). If you're going to consume all of the pasta immediately then there's no need to rinse it. If you're going to save some for later you should give it a few splashes of filtered water and toss it in the strainer otherwise it will continue to cook.

There are tons of sauce recipes and things you can do with your cooked pasta. I find most jarred sauce to be either too salty, sugary, or spicy (too herby). I typically add stewed tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, wine, basil, and vegetables (experiment here). Vodka added to a basic sauce will open up the flavor of the tomatoes. I like to cut my Italian sausage into thirds and broil it in a cast iron skillet before adding it to the sauce (it gives the casings a little 'snap' and the cast iron reacts with the sausage in a favorable way, imo).

Cheese is an important part of the flavor. I'll probably be crucified for saying this, but Kraft Parmesan is actually decent. Romano is also tasty on pasta and is typically blended with Parmesan. I can't normally afford it, but grating a block of Parmesan directly over your pasta is usually fantastic. It has a milder, more subtle flavor, be sure the cheese has been aged at least 12 months. I enjoy Costco/Kirkland's Grana Padano, which is great so long as buying 1.25 lbs. of grated Parmesan at a time seems reasonable (hey, it's an important part of pesto too).
posted by Locobot at 7:55 PM on December 16, 2009

I'm probably just weird, but I love a heaping spoonful or two of cottage cheese stirred into my spaghetti sauce. I buy the small curd, full fat cottage cheese.

Also spinach that's been sauteed with olive oil and garlic.

Either of these are good spaghetti additions and both together are even better.
posted by marsha56 at 7:59 PM on December 16, 2009

Buy a big bottle of not-absolute-dreck but definitely cheapo red wine. Whatever's on sale for 6 bucks. Cook your pasta in at least 2 cups worth, more if you're got it, instead of water.

Pasta turns a gorgeous shade of purpley-brown, and tastes...rich. Something about cooking with red wine makes everything taste decadent. Add salt, throw a pat of butter in.

If you want, add whatever leftover veg or protein that needs using if you want. Two nights ago, I picked up some veal sausage that I simmered in a splash of that same wine with water and onions, but the leftover half-breast of chicken chopped up or a few roasted red peppers or marinated artichokes from a jar or kalamata olives or a couple slices of bacon or a tomato or some spinach or just an obscene amount of sauteed garlic or whatever...
posted by desuetude at 8:20 PM on December 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

When I was a little kid, my grandma used to melt about a tablespoon or so of grape jelly into the sauce. Sometimes when I'm eating regular spaghetti now, I think it really needs some grape jelly (although I haven't eaten it that way in several years, just because I don't really eat grape jelly otherwise--I swear it's shockingly tasty).
posted by so_gracefully at 8:22 PM on December 16, 2009

I've never even met an Italian, so buyer beware - I like to fry up 1/2 chorizo and 1/2 hamburger in onions, garlic and green pepper. Add lots of black pepper, salt, oregano, basil, tomato paste and crushed tomatoes. I'm cooking it right now and it smells goooooood!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 8:24 PM on December 16, 2009

Layer the cooked spaghetti and meat sauce in a baking dish, cover with bacon, sausage, veggies, and a thick layer of your favourite Italian cheeses. Bake until the cheese bubbles.
posted by VanCityChica at 8:46 PM on December 16, 2009

Sometimes spaghetti likes to be alone.
posted by MeowForMangoes at 8:55 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Try this...

squash, peel and chop a few cloves of garlic.
chop an onion (dice it tiny if you have the time).
put about 3 tablespoons olive oil in a high sided fry pan (or saute pan) at a lowish heat
throw in some dried pepper flakes, the garlic and the onion
add an anchovy or two and smush it up a bit

put a big pot of water on to boil
wash a handful of Italian parsley (the bigger leafed variety) and chop it up
when the pot boils, add the pasta and give it a stir

when the onions look done (you're trying to get them to be translucent - not brown) add 3/4 cup of dry Italian white wine to the pan and jack the heat a bit to get it to simmer and reduce a little
add most of the parsley to the sauce
drain the pasta and add it to the sauce
add grated cheese, sprinkle with remaining parsley and enjoy.

*this white wine/ Italian parsley recipe is good with mussels too.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:01 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pasta with feta or goat cheese is my go-to dish. Basically boil pasta (with a dash of extra light olive oil), and add feta or goat cheese. Use butter, salt, and pepper according to your preferences. I'm also a big fan of pasta and butter-simple, quick, and cheap. My favorite variation on this is to add fire-roasted (my first choice) or sundried tomatoes with the cheese (usually goat).

For a while, I was boiling my pasta in seasoned water (using things like garlic and onion powder, salt, & white pepper), and it was a nice change of pace. Suddenly, I am incredibly hungry.
posted by katemcd at 9:06 PM on December 16, 2009

lots of good advice in here so this might get lost - but i assure you that i don't give this advice out lightly.

add honey to your tomato sauce. a little or a lot, depending on your preference.

also, somebody in an early reply shot down your hotdog idea, please don't let that person discourage you from trying it. hotdog DEFINITELY belongs in spaghetti. i guess hotdog is not really a classy or gourmet choice, but if you are just looking for a quick and easy way to make your spaghetti sauce more enjoyable (which seems like you are), then i promise you - you cannot go wrong with adding hot dogs. i personally enjoy slicing them up and giving them a quick pan fry (so that they get a bit charred) before throwing them in the sauce. garlic sausage coils are also a tasty choice.

also, google "Filipino style spaghetti"
posted by cheemee at 9:09 PM on December 16, 2009

Grad Student Survival Pasta

1 lb spaghetti
1 2oz can anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained and chopped
4 T extra virgin olive oil
4 T fresh parsley, chopped (or dried in a pinch)
1 tsp pepper

Bring the pasta to a boil. Heat the oil, add the anchovies in the oil until they melt, add pepper, mix well, take off heat. Drain the pasta, throw the anchovy/oil mix over the pasta, and add parsley once it has cooled. More ingredients will help, as in bonobothegreat's recipe, but this is a bare-bones simple and tasty version.
posted by benzenedream at 9:15 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I best answered the ones I printed off onto a list now on my refrigerator. The choice of best answers reflects my tastes and lack of ambition in cooking, there are tons of other good suggestions in here equally worthy of best answer.

I'm on my way to the store for supplies now. Thanks everyone!
posted by pseudonick at 9:23 PM on December 16, 2009

Another really easy one that I think tastes really good:

1. Stick some shredded parmesan cheese (the good stuff in the refrigerated aisle, not the powdered kraft kind) in the freezer, and keep some frozen peas on hand too.

2. When making the noodles, toss in some frozen peas at the same time. It'll take about the same amount of time for both to finish cooking.

2a. Optionally, add a hot dog.

3. Drain, add a couple tablespoons olive oil, and parmesan cheese.

Far better than it should be for such a simple recipe.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 10:08 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding cheemee on how to make your spaghetti with actual hot dogs. My father sauteed them in olive oil with garlic and spices (while making homemade sauce using the recipe he got from his friend Bruno in Italy) and that's still a comfort food for me.
posted by immlass at 10:46 PM on December 16, 2009

I was eating pasta and sauce once a week for a long time and was generally kitchen lazy. But after a while I came to appreciate how much better it was when made with fresh sauteed onion or garlic and then fresh herbs. I bought several little pots each of basil, thyme, and rosemary, and sat them outside. On spaghetti night, I'd go out with my scissors and clip little bunches of one or more of them, bring them in and chop them up, and add them to the sauce. It was the difference between I'm Sick Of This and This Is Really Nice.

If you're going to let the sauce simmer for a while, a bay leaf can add something nice too.

Spinach was super easy to add to it too. I'd get the baby kind in a bag. I'd sautee it lightly in another pan and add to the plate at the end, but you could probably just stir it right into the sauce if you don't mind it being more done.

Sometime spaghetti didn't seem like enough, so I'd slice a zucchini or a yellow squash into rounds and either steam or sautee it with strips of onion. Then I'd plop pasta on the plate, then the veg on that, then the sauce on top.

Fresh white button mushrooms can be nice too if you add them in a few minutes before the end of simmering so they don't go totally squashy. Mushrooms are totally simple to slice and add, even for lazies.

If you can find some tortellini that's not too expensive, that can be a nice substitute for plain noodles when you're bored with them.

Try whole wheat pasta and see if you like it. Just another way to vary things.

Hot dogs in cheapo spaghetti and sauce is basically the same thing as the sliced franks version of Spaghettios that so many of us liked as kids, so it's not completely alien.

My mom always used to make spinach pasta, spinach, and cottage cheese growing up. Boil pasta, sautee a bunch of spinach, put pasta on plate, then spinach on that, then cottage cheese on top.

If you make a big pot of meat sauce all at once (just so you don't have to fool with the meat more than once or risk letting it go bad for lack of use), you can put it in little tupperware things and freeze it. That way you've got quality sauce to heat up anytime you're ready for spaghetti with very little prep.

Parmesan on top always wakes anything up.

For some reason, we always had carrots on the side on spaghetti night growing up, despite that not being quite the norm. Mom just wanted to make sure we got some good veg out of the meal I guess. You could keep a bag of those mini carrots on hand. Easy, healthy, tasty.
posted by Askr at 11:24 PM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm tired, so I just skipped a lot of comments.

But the best vegetarian and yummy recipe ever for a pasta sauce:

- A stick of butter. (Yeah, a whole stick.)
- A healthy splash of olive oil.
- A half of a clove of minced or finely chopped garlic.
- A half of an big onion, regardless of color, diced.
- A half of a big bell pepper, equally non-racist, diced.
- 8 Oz of fresh mushrooms, coarsely chopped.
- Either a can of whole black olives coarsely chopped, or a reasonable-sized can of pieces. You're going to drain the juice. So, I guess it's black olives, chopped, to taste.
- Various fresh or dried herbs -- oregano, basil, thyme, black pepper (anything else from Scarborough Fair song or whatever you have handy, plus salt and pepper).
- Parmesan cheese.

I've also added a chicken breast or two at the beginning (NOT vegetarian, but tasty for those who aren't; make more pasta and/or plan on leftovers) or some diced fresh tomato (totally fair game and a nice addition) at the end.

Melt butter.
Add olive oil.
Add garlic.
Toss in everything else in order of what gets done first, like a stir fry.
Taste sauce.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

Toss with pasta.


Have good garlic bread on hand if the sauce leaves stuff to be sopped up.

Hint: It should leave extra. The extra is good, chunky garlic bread topping or a good starter filling for an omelet.
posted by lilywing13 at 11:55 PM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

The best spaghetti (or pasta in general) is found in Italy and Japan. Very simple ingredients but the taste is incredible. I think the secret is the fish sauce. No, indulge me for a moment and keep reading -- colatura is fantastic. Bon appetit, いただきます!
posted by loquat at 1:23 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am really and truly shocked that no one has described the recipe for proper tomato spaghetti sauce here yet. It's really quite important, and though it's simple, it is one of the essential foods in life, a very, very important ritual which you can carry with you through life. I was taught it by my ex-mother-in-law - a strange relation, I know, but she's Italian-American, and it was a formative experience for me. Real old-world Italians have a genius for combining simple ingredients in a simple but precise way that brings them out perfectly. So I'll try to share it in the same way.

First of all, I want to say that if you add chopped hot dog to tomato sauce, I will hunt you down, string you up, and torture you to death. Do not do this. It would be against all standards of taste or decency. Another requirement: do not add red wine to the pasta. That's just crazy. Oil, maybe a small amount of good vinegar - though a very small amount of that - if the pasta's being eaten without sauce, but never if the pasta's being eaten with sauce. Put it in the sauce if it's going on the pasta.

Second, don't put anything in the sauce. Four or five ingredients is perfect. Do not listen to these people who want you do add mushrooms and peppers and chilis and carrots and beef and all this crap. All that is great - if you are making a Ragu (like a Bolognese sauce), in which case you're talking about stewing stuff all day long. And that is a good thing to learn to do. But we're talking about making a tomato sauce for pasta; this tomato sauce should be completed in fifteen minutes, to go with the pasta, so leave all the fancy shit out and pay attention. Remember this: every ingredient. You should be able to taste every ingredient separately. This sauce is about being able to taste the nuances of tomatoes. That is what you want. So don't throw a bunch of crap into it. (I know people get bored with stuff - I do too. But you'll find that you get bored with things a lot more slowly if you slow down and focus intently on the ingredients, enjoying them as best they can be enjoyed.)

As far as ingredients, this is what you need:

— maybe a third of an onion
— maybe a third of a clove of garlic
— one of those little 6-ounce cans of tomato paste
— two or three little Roma tomatoes (y'know, the sort of oblong ones) or an equivalent amount of other tomatoes OR a can of diced tomatoes (none of this "Italian-style! With oregano, pepper, and extra shit added!" - just diced tomatoes)
— basil - fresh basil - the one really fresh ingredient needed, although I admit I use dried sometimes because I'm cheap, may god have mercy on me
— olive oil
— a tiny bit of butter
— salt
— pepper

... and nothing else. No oregano - oregano is for Sicilians. (No offense to Sicilians, but this ain't Puttanesca.) Just get those nine things - onion, garlic, paste, tomatoes, basil, oil, butter, salt, pepper - and put them on the counter in front of you.

Now that you've got these things sitting in front of you, survey them - contemplate them - and recall that this is a ritual, a ceremony which you perform when you make spaghetti with tomato sauce. Then, you may begin.

Here, do this:

(1) Fill your pot with water, and turn the burner up full-blast and set it up to boil. Depending on what altitude you're at, you have around fifteen minutes from this moment until the spaghetti comes out of the pot; so get to it. (I live up in Denver, so I walk away for five minutes at this point and come back a little before the water's going to boil.)

(2) Put a frying pan on the other burner and turn the burner on to medium-low heat.

(3) Cut off that third of the onion and wrap up the rest and refrigerate it. Chop the onion, not into tiny-tiny pieces, but into smallish chunks about a centimeter square. Cut off the third of the clove of garlic and use one of those presses to chop it up tiny.

(4) By now, your water should be at least close to boiling. Even if it isn't boiling yet, turn around and salt the water well - about seven shakes of the shaker should do. Again, you don't need anything but salt. Once the water starts boiling, throw in your pasta and set a time somewhere for about nine minutes. But keep in mind that once you've learned the ritual correctly, you will not need a timer, as events will time themselves.

(5) Into the frying pan add a small piece of butter about the size of a quarter. Brown the butter - this means let it melt and then heat until it becomes only very slightly golden. Then, add the onion. Just after it's stopped being firm and started being very soft the way onion does when you cook it, add the garlic. Cook this until the onion just barely starts to brown itself.

(6) Push the onions to the side of the pan. They will by now have soaked up the lion's share of the butter. If they become dry before you've finished cooking them, add touches of the olive oil, which you will use from here on out. Now, when you've pushed the onions to the side of the pan, add about a dime-sized bit of olive oil and spread it around a bit, letting it heat while you turn around and grab the can of tomato paste. Once you've opened it, spoon it all out into the middle of the pan where the olive oil is. Glop it all down into one spot. And leave it there for a bit.

(7) Turn around and chop the tomatoes. You want to dice them into pieces a bit bigger than the onion - maybe one and a half to two centimeter cubes. (Or, of course, open the can.) When you're done with that, go back to the pan.

(8) Now, this is the most delicate maneuver in the whole process. What you want is to toast the tomato paste, blackening it a tiny, tiny bit and bringing out the sort of smoky undertone of the flavor of the tomatoes. To do this, it's important that you have just the right amount of oil, and that you time things right; it's like cooking a pancake that never actually forms into a solid shape. You'll find that you have to turn it at just the right moments, that it's very easy to burn it. You want to quit cooking a side of it just before that happens. Turn it several times, blackening certain bits of it. You don't want a sticky, black pancake, but you want the paste to be darker now than it was. (At this point, I often add a tiny hint of very good vinegar, but this is a tricky thing as vinegar will make it stick to the pan and increase your chances of burning it. But it seems to enhance the browning process; do this at your discretion.)

(9) Once the tomato paste is just browned enough, stir it up completely and stir back in the onions. Then turn around and grab your tomatoes. If you're working with fresh tomatoes, you can add them to the pan but will also need to add some water; if canned, then dump the can of tomatoes, water and all, into the mix. Now stir it all together and add about four leaves of the basil. Mix it well, and then make sure the sauce has just a little too much water in it, adding some if it's about the right consistency for eating - you'll be cooking the sauce longer and letting the water boil out of it to let the flavors mesh nicely. At this point, you can also a bit of salt and pepper.

(10) Now look up - how much time do you have left before the pasta's done? Two or three minutes? Good - try to time it so that the sauce reduces to just the right consistency right after you take the pasta out of the water. When the pasta is done, drain it and throw it in a bowl; combine the completed sauce with it there, if you like. I'm a decadent soul, so I like to add a bit of butter to both the finished pasta and the finished sauce just before combining them, but it's up to you.

A liberal amount of Parmesan cheese on top, and you have it - the perfect tomato sauce for spaghetti.

Again, there are other sauces, and you can learn to make Ragus and such if you like, but I urge you to keep things as simple as possible and experiment with hints and touches rather than globs and handfuls. One of the best ways to enjoy a life filled with simple single meals such as you and I seem to partake in is to learn to do particular dishes superbly. I've been on a risotto kick recently - hell, I've made the stuff four times this week, and it's not even Friday - and I never stop being amazed at what is possible with butter, onions, broth, and rice. I think pasta is one thing which is far too often mixed with all kinds of ridiculous junk when a very small number of ingredients can be astoundingly good.

posted by koeselitz at 4:45 AM on December 17, 2009 [79 favorites]

- And, by the way, the absolute best thing about that sauce is that it's done in 15 minutes, about the same time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta. It has some nuance, but it's not a slave-all-day-cooking kind of recipe - it has an elegant brevity to it. I can throw this stuff together in no time flat while I'm doing dishes, and have dinner for a bunch of people in a quarter-hour that's really worth eating - I really like that about it.
posted by koeselitz at 4:50 AM on December 17, 2009

Thank you, loquat. I've been adding thai fish sauce to my Ragù Bolognese for ages, but had never heard of garum colatura. Must buy now! Umami! Umami!
posted by Siberian Mist at 5:43 AM on December 17, 2009

I eat spaghetti with garlic and soy sauce all the time. It's just noodles.
posted by Eideteker at 6:42 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try making your own sauce. It's surprisingly easy.

Brown a pound of ground beef. Pam works, but olive oil is best.
Dice some onion. I like a whole onion, but half is usually enough for most people. Throw that in with the beef.
Pour on some cooking wine. I usually go with about a cup.
Add in 1 can diced tomatos and 1 can tomato paste. Whatever brand is cheapest. Refill one of those cans with water and pour that in.
Add lots of garlic and basil and a bit of oregano.
Add salt to taste. The salt will bring out all the other flavor, but once you add too much the whole thing will just taste salty.
Simmer until sauce is thick.

Optionally you can add some peppers or mushrooms. Sometimes I put in a little bit of sugar too. You can swap out the beef for pork or turkey. Sausages work too, though they take a bit more time if you poach them first. I also really like poaching a chicken breast and mashing it into pulp and using that in the sauce. It's a bit unorthodox though. Obviously poaching a chicken or sausage will take a bit longer but it's worth it if you have time.
posted by valadil at 7:23 AM on December 17, 2009

I eat so much spaghetti that I have a callous on my fork twirling knuckle. For truly simple nothing compares with Marcella Hazen's Sauce #3. Tomatoes, butter and whole onion halves. Heat. Then throw out the onion.
posted by okbye at 7:25 AM on December 17, 2009 [4 favorites]

Here's an idea: if you have a food processor, slap chopper, or are handy with a knife, grate up some carrots, onions, and celery, brown the veggies with some oil, then add and brown roughly half as much (by weight) beef as you have pasta in the same skillet. This is called mire poix, and the vegetables contribute to flavor and browning. Pour in the tomato sauce. A simple marinara or putanesca will work well. This is like a lazy-man's ragu (the Italian meat sauce, not the awful supermarket brand). If you have mushrooms on hand, go ahead and slice those in, too. White wine or vodka's alcohol will bind to tomato flavorings, so if you have enough to spare, add roughly one or two drinks' worth of alcohol to the pan for better flavor.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:40 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the fancy name for drunken spaghetti is Spaghetti dell Ubriacone. I simplified the recipe for you, if you google it you'll see versions with a bunch more steps. Some of the extra steps do make the dish better, but you can work up to improving your dish once you make it a few times and it feels intuitive.

koeslitz, for someone who urges keeping it as simple as possible, you sure do make a basic tomato sauce sound complicated, especially as pseudonick is kind of a novice. And really, dried basil? What on earth is the point of dried basil? It's not as if it tastes like basil.

pseudonick, I've gotta nix the hotdog idea. Not because it will be inedible, but because hotdogs are sort of flavorless and a little sweet compared to other sausages, and will taste even more like nothing in tomato sauce. Now, you go get yourself some Italian sausage, supermarket stuff is fine, and we'll talk.

Good-quality canned tomatoes are a godsend. Muir Glen is way better than the more famous brands, but quite widely available. You can make a really simple pasta dish easily by just upending that can into a big pan, adding a glug of good olive oil, some minced garlic, and whatever herbs you've got handy. I heartily recommend a chopped shallot, too, which cooks more quickly than an onion and has a more delicate flavor. Cook on medium-high for a few minutes until everything is sizzling, add a little white wine if you've got it, combine with pasta. For this sort of dish where I'm not simmering the tomatoes long enough to bring out the deeper flavors, I'll often add chicken stock to my pasta as it boils. This is the sort of thing I make in the early summer, when I want something that feels very fresh and won't heat up the kitchen too much, but my tomatoes are not yet ripe.
posted by desuetude at 8:16 AM on December 17, 2009

Oops, koeselitz, sorry I spelled your name wrong, above.
posted by desuetude at 8:22 AM on December 17, 2009

What you want is to toast the tomato paste...

Did you miss the "not too much extra preparation" part? There are a few ways you can add some good tastes to spaghetti if you really don't want to do a lot of work. Basically you can see spaghetti sort of like a salad and add things that taste good over vegetables.

- fry up two slices of bacon. sautee garlic in bacon grease, mix with 1 Tb olive oil and toss over spaghetti
- get better cheeses, hard cheese you grate yourself do a neat melty thing that supermarket shaker cheese doesn't do.
- fresh basil and parsley and olive oil are good on pasta
- pesto! [a variant on the above basically]
- chopped walnuts
- I add a little brown sugar and/or maple syrup to a tomato sauce that is otherwise pretty tangy and I think it makes the flavor more subtle
- making a bit pot of sauce and freezing it into smaller servings and reheating them and adding different fresh ingredients is a recipe for more interesting pasta dishes
- red paper flakes or hot sesame oil or other spicy flavors can go great with pasta.
posted by jessamyn at 9:46 AM on December 17, 2009

I drop a can or two of tomato paste into any generic spaghetti sauce I have around; it makes the sauce nice and thick so it actually sticks to the noodles instead of being in a watery puddle in the bottom of the bowl.
posted by wiretap at 6:18 PM on December 17, 2009

Cacio e pepe is just cracked pepper and Parmesan. Yummy.

Fry a ton of garlic and anchovies in hot hot oil until the anchovies melt into nothing. Proceed as normal...

The tuna trick mentioned above comes from my favorite easy sauce ever, puttanesca (whore's pasta!). To ramp up the flavor without too much fuss, put the tuna in a bowl with some fresh lemon juice, a couple glugs of olive oil, salt, pepper, and smashed fresh basil and let it "stew" in its juices while you prep the other stuff.

Fagioli is just beans with pasta. Yum.

If you find your pasta a little dry or the sauce isn't sticking, make sure you're not rinsing your pasta when you drain it, and reserve a little of the leftover cooking water to moisten the pasta if needed.
posted by ifjuly at 10:59 AM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, I just remembered one we had last night for dinner. It might be too involved for you, but maybe not--it takes about 20 minutes, not much longer than the time it takes for your pasta to cook anyway. It's not "best ever" stuff--it resembles, to be honest, manwich or chili lo mein, if you can picture that. But for an easy change of pace it works...

1 or 1 1/2 pounds ground pork (as in, pork sausage)
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup tomato-based chili sauce
1/3 cup water
4 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons vinegar (your choice which kind; original recipe called for a specific type I didn't have, but I don't think it matters all that much)
Freshly ground black pepper
Thin spaghetti/angel hair/vermicelli
Green onions, chopped (garnish)

Get your pasta pot going. Meanwhile, brown and break up the pork into bits in a large skillet over medium-high heat (should take 10 minutes or less). Add the onion and garlic, cook for 3 minutes or so, then add the chili sauce, water, soy sauce, vinegar, and pepper to the pan. Cook uncovered for 8 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta as you like, drain, and coat the strands with your pan sauce. Top with green onions and serve immediately.
posted by ifjuly at 11:09 AM on December 18, 2009

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