What would add a bit of pizazz to pasta with beef/tomato sauce?
October 3, 2017 8:25 PM   Subscribe

I'd love to kick an easy and go-to stovetop recipe up a notch, but I don't know with what.

I use store-bought tomato sauce and ground meat, and I'm not interested in making sauce from scratch or making meatballs or anything like that. Sometimes I add extra spices into the meat (oregano, basil). Mushrooms are good but I'm tired of mushrooms. Spinach is OK but doesn't do much for me. Broccoli is good doesn't really go with tomato sauce.

What ingredients can make the classic pasta + tomato sauce + ground meat combo pop? Vegetables, beans, spices, vinegars, any suggestions you've got are welcome!

Please note I don't want alternatives to tomato sauce, like olive oil or white sauce.
posted by cokelessrome to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Tarragon is fantastic twist.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 8:27 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]

Capers, always capers, capers all ways!
posted by lois1950 at 8:27 PM on October 3 [3 favorites]

Italian sausage instead of hamburger!
posted by maurreen at 8:30 PM on October 3 [10 favorites]

Pesto as a condiment (not cooked in). If you ever decide to make your own you can make it with herbs other than basil, like oregano and thyme, which will have more pop to them than the basil kind. Or add some oregano to store-bought basil pesto.

Diced salami can be good too in place of ground meat.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 8:34 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]

Parmesan (the kind you get by the piece and grate yourself) is the ticket.
Fresh basil thrown in right at the end, and more to garnish is always good. Sometimes I throw in a tablespoon of pesto into less than stellar tomato sauce.
Other ideas:
Sauté an onion in olive oil before you add the sauce. Same with eggplant, roasted red peppers, and/or artichokes.
Sliced black olives or capers if you're going for a puttanesca vibe. Oh, and I think broccoli goes super well with tomato sauce, so I say try it before you knock it!
posted by Champagne Supernova at 8:35 PM on October 3 [6 favorites]

Even if I'm using a jarred sauce, I always start by sautéing a diced onion until it's translucent and then throwing in some fresh minced garlic before adding the ground meat.

Sometimes I start by dicing a couple slices of bacon, sautéing those until they start to get crispy, and then throwing in the onions, garlic, and then the ground meat.

You can adjust the flavor profile of a basic jar of marinara sauce (usually the flavors of that are mostly onion and garlic and maybe basil and/or oregano) by adding different spices, like paprika for a goulash vibe or cumin and cayenne for a Mexican touch--taco spaghetti is fun!

A neat trick I learned somewhere is to put a vegetable that doesn't require a ton of cooking, like torn up kale, cubed zucchini/yellow squash, or fresh green beans into the colander before dumping the pasta in to drain. The hot pasta water will blanch the vegetables a bit and save you some extra cooking time.
posted by padraigin at 8:38 PM on October 3 [4 favorites]

Make it into a puttanesca sauce - so deeply delicious! Add capers as mentioned in the comment above, but also olives, garlic and -- for the win -- anchovies to give it that heady salty puttanesca richness.
posted by flourpot at 8:49 PM on October 3 [4 favorites]

Cut up some real Roma tomatoes and add them to the sauce or saute them seperately then toss them in at the end. you can grill them too then add them. And add a lot more spices, even just buying Itlaian Blend will help, those sauces tend to rely on sugar instead of spice for flavor. You can spice up mushrooms by sauteing them in butter or red wine, it takes a bit longer but they're awesome. Add to the sauce just before serving.

And I like to add some smoked paprika or chipolte to the meat. Just a bit. It makes it more interesting tasting.
posted by fshgrl at 8:49 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]

Start with your pasta... long, thin spaghetti... flat noodles... fancy sauce-soaking shells and twirls.
Add sauce, a little or a lot.
Add extras... meats, vegetables, cheeses. Maybe fruit.

Don't forget alternative sauces. Red sauce means Italian, Mexican or BBQ additions. White sauce includes basic white gravy and the long list of cheese sauces. Brown sauce is more robust, with meats (I use mushrooms, also). And there are many Asian-style sauces.

Some veggies taste great chopped and tossed in, but 10-15 minutes in a cast iron skillet is nice, too. Browned onions, mushrooms and red pepper are worth the effort.

Basically spaghetti is pizza toppings on noodles. So which pizza toppings do you crave? Truly, it opens the doors wide for... interesting... combinations.
posted by TrishaU at 8:54 PM on October 3

Fish sauce.
posted by dilaudid at 8:55 PM on October 3 [8 favorites]

Caramelized onions. Adds a really rich flavor.

I do three pounds at a time, cooking them down to about a cup or cup and half volume. They end up pretty dark brown. My next to last batch kept getting interrupted (because I needed to take a nap and I don't leave the stove on while I'm asleep) and I stopped when the onions were not yet dark brown. That batch grew mold after only a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.

Note that at the end you need to be able to turn the heat down really low or check them very frequently. I scorched several batches before I bought a heat diffuser to go between the burner and the pot for the last hour.

I use two to three ounces of fat for three pounds of onions. I have used butter, but I prefer the results when I use lard or bacon grease. With butter it seemed like the onions cooked to mush. With lard, the individual pieces of onion retain their integrity better.

Tips for chopping three pounds of onions without tears: Refrigerate the onions until they are cold all the way through, at least overnight. Use a really, really sharp knife.
posted by Bruce H. at 9:46 PM on October 3

A bit more basic then the other suggestions, but if you're feeling lazy try adding in a glug of red wine.
posted by kylej at 10:02 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]

Traditional Ragu brand sauce
Add a little red pepper flakes
Brown 1/2 hamberger 1/2 Italian sausage with some garlic
Heat those together
Once those have heated stir in something like 1/2 cup heavy cream and some fresh parmesan (off the block - not the Kraft baby vomit from a can).
Ready to serve with additional paramesan on top.
(I make my own sausce occasionally. It takes 3 or 4 hours and doesn't taste appreciably better than Ragu traditional)
Black olive and/or mushrooms make a nice addition.
You can also add a little of the Italian seasoning to the Ragu.
posted by Carbolic at 10:25 PM on October 3

Last week I tried a recipe for tomato sauce that called for sautéing a diced bell pepper and diced onion before adding a can of diced tomatoes and then whizzing the whole thing in the blender (I used a stick blender). It was amazing! Creamy and rich but not heavy, so good.

Fresh Italian parsley is also great in a tomato sauce. Really brightens things up. And minced garlic.
posted by lunasol at 11:05 PM on October 3

If you're not averse to dairy, add some cream. You can cook it in with the meat (add after the meat has started to brown and cook over low heat), or add it in once everything is incorporated and warmed up. It doesn't change the basic tomato sauce-y-ness of the dish but adds a lovely richness. A pat of butter stirred in at the end will do similar.

If you like garlic, sautee some minced garlic with ground beef.

Red pepper flakes bring a nice bit of heat (or a nice lot of heat if you like that).

Cheese cheese cheese. Parmesan is of course traditional but I really like mozzarella or even sharp cheddar on my tomato sauce-covered pasta. I like the contrast between the tart/acidic tomato sauce and the creamy cheese.

And oh yes, capers. Salty umami-y goodness.
posted by rhiannonstone at 11:23 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]

Add a bunch of butter.
posted by bluebird at 12:18 AM on October 4 [3 favorites]

A bit more basic then the other suggestions, but if you're feeling lazy try adding in a glug of red wine.

Well yes, but you can drop that answer in pretty much any Ask.

Also: Bacon.
posted by quinndexter at 1:26 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]

Toss the cooked pasta in olive oil then put the Parmesan or Romano on the pasta and then cover with sauce. You'd be amazed at the difference.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 1:38 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]

I pull out a handful of frozen onion and red, yellow and green pepper strips, like the kind you can use for fajitas. I stick them in a cup with one drop of balsamic vinegar and microwave until soft.
After pouring off the liquid and letting it cool a bit, I cut them up with scissors until they're small bits and add it to sauce. It give a sweet smoky flavor to the peppers.
Feta, chopped spinach and cracked red pepper flakes are also a way to make a sauce fancier and a little different.
posted by stray thoughts at 2:03 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]

I nth capers. Don't put bland california black olives in it, there is really no point. Pitted kalamatas work or any other tangy and firm olive.

Once many years ago I added fresh cutup apricots to a plain jarred chunky red sauce and had it over corn pasta, it tasted pretty good to me but I was camping so the fresh air may have encouraged me...

If ypu want a deeper tomato taste, before you put in the jarred sauce (and after you've sauteed any extra onions you're putting in) make sure there's some oil in the bottom of the pan and add a tablespoon or two of tomato paste (not sauce) and toast it/saute it in the oil for about 30 seconds. Then stir it into the onions and continue with the rest of your recipe.
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 2:12 AM on October 4

Seconding fish sauce. Other things I often use for this, either with or (often) without meat:
  1. Dried shiitake mushrooms. Crumble a few of them them straight into the sauce and let them rehydrate in it as it simmers. You just need a few, since they expand and contribute a lot of flavor and also soak up some of the sauce.
  2. A glug of heavy cream.
  3. Fennel seeds — recreates some of the flavor of Italian sausages if all you have is ground beef.
  4. A few dashes of nutmeg (yes, really), especially if you're also adding spinach and/or cream. Spinach + cream + nutmeg + tomato is an A++ winning combination.

posted by nebulawindphone at 4:21 AM on October 4

Anchovies! Hear me out- they can add a great umami undernote and you don't specifically taste ANCHOVY. You can saute the actual tinned ones in some olive oil until they dissolve, before adding the sauce to the pan; or you can buy tubes of anchovy paste and just squeeze some directly into the sauce.
posted by sarajane at 4:34 AM on October 4 [3 favorites]

Fast and easy: I usually add part of a red pepper, onions, garlic, olive oil; sometimes zucchini. Chop up the vegetables, put them in a bowl with a little water, cover and nuke them until they're soft, a couple of minutes maybe. Add them to the already heated sauce, add the olive oil, cover and simmer for a few minutes. Frozen meatballs are good too.
posted by mareli at 4:54 AM on October 4

Chorizo and bell peppers instead of beef! My shop does diced chorizo which makes this a breeze.

They also sell diced pancetta, which also works a treat.
posted by like_neon at 4:57 AM on October 4

This is what I do on weeknights, the jarred sauce kicked up a notch. And I have a secret that I am going to share with the world now: vermouth. Sweet red vermouth, to be exact. About a 1/4 - 1/2 a cup makes the sauce taste like it's been simmering in your Italian grandma's kitchen all Sunday. I promise.

I also saute about a half of an onion, chopped, and get those nice and soft. Then brown the meat (I don't drain the meat afterward, I just buy really lean beef). Add some minced garlic and stir it around a bit, pour in the tomato sauce and the vermouth. Salt and pepper to taste, let it simmer while you cook the noodles. You could also add some dried basil and/or oregano about 5-7 minutes before you're ready to eat.

But the vermouth, I'm dead serious, changes everything.
posted by cooker girl at 6:05 AM on October 4 [3 favorites]

A glug of Balsamic vinegar!
Sauteed onion, galic, pepper
Hot Peppers!
Good cheese (not the sawdust stuff)
Some fresh (or fresh cooked) tomatoes
Fresh Basil!
posted by jclarkin at 6:19 AM on October 4

I always add at least one can of pizza sauce to my pasta sauces. It'll give it just the 'ZesT' you're looking for.
posted by bricksNmortar at 6:37 AM on October 4

Curry powder.
posted by JulesER at 6:53 AM on October 4

Crisping some sage in a little olive oil right before serving and sprinkling the sage and oil over the pasta before serving is fantastic.
posted by Candleman at 7:09 AM on October 4

Adding a can of tuna to your pasta and sauce is good.
posted by tman99 at 8:12 AM on October 4

Add pepperoni directly to what you have. Adds flavor when cooked, and a treat when eating. I like the standard pizza sliced version. My dad chops his very fine (so it kind of gets lost). I have had larger chucks.

My goto pasta sauce:

2 jars Newmans Own Marinara
2 jars Classico Spicy Red Pepper
1-2 lbs of ground beef - browned with some salt and pepper
8 oz bag of pepperoni

Eat it when it gets to temp, or let it simmer for a couple hours for a more complex flavor.

You can change the amounts, but it freezes/reheats very well.
posted by bonofasitch at 9:06 AM on October 4

Chili flakes for the win.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:19 AM on October 4 [1 favorite]

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