How to Make Delicious Pasta Sauce with 3 Simple Ingredients

There are times when, at the end of a long day, or upon returning from a weekend trip, I suddenly realize that my refrigerator is not actually “refrigerator-ing” anything. Somehow, the most random of food items end up being the surviving contents of my previously fully-stocked fridge. Unless you are some kind of food magician who can make something edible out of ramen noodles, ketchup, and one celery rib, I  highly recommend you stock up on these three basic, inexpensive ingredients that make up a delicious pasta sauce, even in the most dire of circumstances: canned tomatoes, butter, and onions. It also doesn’t hurt to have a small-ish block of Parmesan cheese sitting around in your fridge either- it can last for a while!

My friend Thuan discovered this recipe in the Marcella Hazan cookbook, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Ms. Hazan is an amazing Italian woman born in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy (where Bologna is!) who wanted to introduce Italian cooking and techniques to American kitchens. This is a great tomato-based pasta sauce for lasagna, baked ziti, or any other kind of pasta dish that calls for red sauce. Depending on the level of severity of your empty fridge, you can also add some other optional ingredients to create any type of red sauce you want, such as sausage, mushrooms, or basil.

Original Recipe

Serves 4 as a main course, about enough sauce to lightly cover a pound of pasta.


– One 28 oz. can of whole, peeled tomatoes (Whole Foods or San Marzano brands, if possible)
– One medium onion
– Five tablespoons of butter
– Salt
– Pepper
– Optional, but highly recommended: Parmesan Cheese

1. Put the entire contents of the canned tomatoes into a saucepan or skillet. Crush the whole tomatoes.

2. Peel and cut the onion in half. Place the two halves, face down into the pan with the tomatoes.

3. Add the butter.

4. Cook the sauce on a slow, steady simmer for approximately 45 minutes.

5. Remove the onions.

6. Add salt and pepper to taste. If at this point, you feel that the sauce is still too acidic for your taste, you can balance it out with a bit of butter.

7. Mix finished sauce with cooked pasta in a separate pan on medium-low heat. This is a step I learned in Italy so that the pasta can properly absorb the sauce.

8. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and additional ground pepper.


I make this sauce, or a variation of it, almost every week in Italy. I recently experimented with some fresh spicy Italian sausage I got from the butcher shop. Rigatoni is great with sausage, because some of the sausage gets trapped in the hollow part of the pasta– making each bite perfect. I think this was one of the greatest ingredient combinations I’ve had so far! Vegetarians, look away! (or ignore the sausage amazing-ness)

This is basically the same recipe as above, just with the addition of meat.

The trinity:

(I used pomodorini, or small tomatoes that resemble cherry tomatoes in the U.S., because they are so good in Italy)

And the sausage:

There is probably half a pound of sausage here, cut into smaller pieces.

I melted the butter in a pot, and browned the sausage.

Added the can of tomatoes, carefully breaking down the whole tomatoes. I also added one half of the onion, since I was only making the recipe for two. Let the sauce simmer on low heat for approximately 45 minutes. At this point, the onion was pretty much translucent, which is a sign that the sauce should be close to done. About twenty minutes before the sauce was done, I started cooking about half a pound of rigatoni.

I removed the onion and added salt and pepper to taste. Then, it was time to cook the al-dente rigatoni and sauce together. I put the pasta and the sauce in a pan on medium-low heat (with some more butter). This helps the pasta absorb more sauce and enhances its flavor. I also added a little bit of garlic powder.

After about five minutes in the pan, the rigatoni is evenly and perfectly covered with sauce.

Sprinkle some freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top… and you’ve got a mouth-watering pasta dish.



Filed under Italy, Recipes, Sauce, Uncategorized

3 responses to “How to Make Delicious Pasta Sauce with 3 Simple Ingredients

  1. Barbara

    Always such a treat to read your postings,Pei. John and I race to see who can read them first!

  2. Josie

    that actually looks really fun and easy to cook. thanks!!

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