Easy Marinara Sauce
I grew up on cheap canned pasta sauce. Not jarred – canned – and I’m not complaining. Jarred doesn’t taste right. Canned was delicious. Spaghetti was a weekly meal at my house. I would say it’s because we’re Italian, but the truth is it was because spaghetti is cheap. My mom made meatballs out of ground turkey – because that only cost 50 cents a pound. To this day, those are my favorites.
Here’s a Secret:
I don’t make homemade marinara all the time. If I’m planning to serve spaghetti, I usually buy sauce.
See? I’m normal.
This recipe is worth knowing because it’s an easy way to use odds and ends to make something impressive. When the budget is tight, and all we have is pasta and some combination of these ingredients, it wins.
- Crushed canned tomatoes are the cheapest tomato base I’ve found. Aldi and warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club have great prices.
- My favorite hack is using frozen tomatoes – because these were usually free or just tomatoes that would have gone bad had I not intervened.
- Additional veggies – I use whatever is slowly wilting in the crisper drawer (see recipe for suggestions).
- If I don’t have fresh onion or garlic, I use dried minced or powder. I won’t try to convince you it’s as good. But it’s still delicious and frugal.
A Flexible Method
This recipe is gloriously flexible. If you only have canned tomatoes, use those. If you have garlic powder instead of garlic cloves, try that. Here’s what I’ve learned about pasta sauce: You cook tomatoes with garlic, onion, oregano, and basil, you will make delicious healthy sauce.
Fresh tomatoes tend to yield a thinner result, which you can thicken with carrots (who knew?). Tomato paste gives you a stronger tomato flavor. I add a variety of other vegetables to my sauce – because if I can trick my tastebuds into thinking zucchini and spinach taste like garlic, that’s a win. The results are always different, but always delicious. Exactly the way I love homemade food.
- 1 onion, chopped (optional; but awesome)
- 5 large carrots, chopped
- 3 stalks celery, chopped (optional; but awesome)
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 pounds tomatoes (fresh cored and chopped, or two 28-ounce cans diced or crushed)
- 1-2 tbsp tomato paste, to taste*
- 1 tbsp basil, dried
- 1 tbsp oregano, dried
- 1/8 tsp red chile flakes (optional)
- 1 tbsp honey (or sugar)
- Salt, to taste**
- 1-2 zucchini or summer squash, chopped
- 1 cup spinach or other greens, fresh or frozen (this will change the color of the sauce, so don't add too much)
- 1-2 cups great northern beans, canned or cooked
- 1-2 cups ground beef, turkey, or Italian sausage, browned thoroughly (Omit for true Marinara Sauce. Add this just before serving)
OPTION 1: Saute onion, carrots, celery, and garlic in a pan with a little oil or butter. Place that and the rest of the ingredients except honey and salt (and meat, if using) in the slow cooker.
OPTION 2: Place all ingredients except honey and salt (and meat, if using) in the slow cooker.
Cook on high for 3-4 hours, or on low for 6-8 hours, until carrots are soft.
Use an immersion blender to puree the sauce, or blend it in batches in a countertop blender (only fill the blender halfway - hot liquids expand then explode and make a terrible mess. Ask me how I know). You can also leave the sauce as is! Whatever works for you.
Stir in salt and honey. Taste and adjust amounts as needed. If using meat, stir that in as well.
TO FREEZE: Let sauce cool, then pour it into plastic freezer bags, plastic containers with lids, or glass jars. Leave a little space at the top to let the sauce expand in the freezer. Seal, then store in the freezer. Thaw overnight and reheat to serve.
- *In place of tomato paste, I've used half a can of crushed tomatoes, a small jar of marinara sauce (don't judge me; Pioneer Woman said it first), or nothing at all.
- **If you grew up on canned pasta sauce, you will be shocked at how much salt you have to add before it tastes "right". Sometimes I ignore what tastes right and just protect my health. Sometimes I throw caution to the wind.
- This recipe works perfectly with tomatoes frozen the easy way.