It’s called ‘special’ for a reason: Spicy red sauce

September 22, 2006

Spicy red sauce


Ah, red sauce. This tasty concoction has been a staple in my diet since the hubby started his cooking endeavors. Sure, it’s changed over the years. Sometimes he’ll amp up the spices, sometimes he’ll lift the heat levels, sometimes he ‘ll dash in booze of various types to see what will happen (always a worthy cooking experiment). And, as loving wife and hungry companion, I’ve amiably tried them all. (Not a huge sacrifice in the scheme of marriage, we’ll all agree.)

After these many years of experiments, however, the testing has slowed — and now he seems to have perfected a wonderfully flavored, hearty tomato sauce. It clings happily to pastas of all shapes and sizes, and makes a delicious base for the homemade pizzas that exit our oven. It has a rich — sweet, not acidic — tomato flavor, and a surprising kick that I think goes great with the starchy, buttery vehicles it always sits on. I’ve always referred to this sauce as “special,” and now that my days as guinea pig are over, I know I’ll get a reliable and hearty meal every time I order “special pasta.” Care to try it? Read on for my husband’s explainer…


Over the years that I’ve been cooking, I can safely say there are two staples that I have strived hardest to find the perfect version of: a simple tomato sauce and the ultimate chocolate chip cookie. In my mind, both are so common that they’ve become the culinary equivalent of beige paint — non-offensive and yet essential. So I’ve tried to find recipes for both that make them less like ubiquitous but boring beige, and more like a clean, bright white.

Spicy red sauce
Spicy red sauceSpicy red sauceSpicy red sauceSpicy red sauceSpicy red sauceSpicy red sauceSpicy red sauceSpicy red sauceSpicy red sauceSpicy red sauceIn addition to what I hope is a tasty sauce, this recipe may be a culinary gold mine for those who are short on time.

First, it is a universal sauce. I use it on pizza. I use it on pasta. Basically, I use it when I need a red sauce.

Second, it keeps well. You can make a batch one day for pasta, and use the leftovers a couple days later on pizza. It also freezes well in smaller batches for use in future dining emergencies.

Third, all its ingredients are probably in your panty. The only fresh ingredients are the garlic and onion, and even the garlic can be swapped out for the jarred, minced version they sell in the grocery. In a pinch or when you are low on fresh stuff, you can likely pull this together very easily.

There is only one special piece of equipment I use for this sauce: an immersion blender (a.k.a. stick blender, wand blender, small boat craft engine). They are the best. Ours was my first true kitchen gadget, and it’s still going strong. (I suspect my wife may wish to tell the “smoothie story” about when we bought it. If she doesn’t, I’ll tell it next time I post a recipe using it.)

(Wife: The gist of the story is, he was obsessed with the aforementioned stick blender after buying it. Step 1 was his decision to pulverize all the fruit in our house into smoothie form. Bananas, strawberries, blueberries, yogurt… all fell before the fury of the blender and his obsession. Step 2 was his consumption of the mass quantities of liquefied fruit. Well, the ending is predictable, folks. You can’t eat what must have been several pounds of fruit — whether in smoothie or whole form — without paying the piper. I wouldn’t really have derived as much amusement from his agony if he hadn’t continued to deny that his overconsumption of smoothies was to blame. “I feel sick,” he’d moan. “Maybe you shouldn’t have had so much smoothie,” I’d chide. “No, that’s not it!” he’d protest, clutching his stick blender. Sigh. A hopeless case, really.)

The immersion blender is really much more useful than you’d think. It’s great with all sorts of soups and sauces, and it saves you the trouble of breaking out the blender or food processor for smaller projects. I’ve had the same one now for almost a decade with no problem. It is not an expensive investment, and I’d recommend it.

If you do not have an immersion blender, you can use a food mill, blender, food processor or other device. The sauce can also be served chunky style, though I prefer it blended so it has that familiar consistency (and is more useful as a thin pizza sauce).

So, after many a trial, here it is:

Spicy Tomato Sauce

Three 28 oz. cans of whole peeled tomatoes

1 large onion (diced)

4 cloves garlic (minced or pressed)

3 tbsp. olive oil

3 tbsp. dried basil

2 tbsp. dried oregano

1½ tsp. red pepper flakes

1 bay leaf

2 tbsps. sugar

1 tbsp. vodka (optional)


1. Using a colander and a bowl, strain the tomatoes while catching the extra liquid from the can. Set aside the liquid for later use.

2. It’s time to deseed the tomatoes. This process is very simple. Under cold running water, press your thumb into the flesh of the tomato and pull it open. Brush the insides of the tomato clear of any seeds while the water washes them away. Once they are relatively clean, set aside.

(NOTE: Instead of whole tomatoes, you can use two 28 oz. cans of diced tomatoes. At step 5, simply dump in your diced tomatoes and ignore steps 1 & 2.)
3. In a large pot, add the olive oil over medium-high heat. Once the olive oil shimmers slightly, add the red pepper flakes. Allow the red pepper flakes to start to infuse with the oil for about 90 seconds; the oil will take on an orange hue.

(NOTE: This is the point where you can determine how spicy you want this sauce. I actually use twice the amount I’ve indicated, which makes for a very nice heat. But we eat a good deal of spicy food; for non-spice addicts, I’ve notched it down a bit. Feel free to adjust to your likes.)

4. Add the onions and lightly salt. Let cook for 3 minutes, stirring often.

5. Add the tomatoes and lightly salt. Let cook for 3 minutes. The tomatoes are probably in relatively big pieces right now. As they cook, use your spoon to help break them apart.

6. Add the garlic and very lightly salt. Let cook for about 2 minutes.

7. Add the reserved liquid from the tomatoes. Stir.

8. Add the basil and oregano and turn down the heat to medium low. Let cook for about 6 minutes.

9. At this point you should have a chunky sauce. Remove it from heat and let it cool for 5 minutes. (You’re cooling it in preparation for the immersion blender, which will make this a smooth sauce. If you blended it while the sauce was still hot, it might have bad results since it’s relatively chunky and will splatter. Hot flying red sauce isn’t good for skin or clothes. Think tiny little burns and a shirt that looks the aftermath of a blood bath.)

10. It’s time to break out the immersion blender. The sauce will be hot, but not fiery hot. I typically move the pot to the sink or another low area so that any potential splatter is minimized. I blend until I have relatively smooth sauce, not all that dissimilar in looks from jarred sauces.

11. Return the pot with blended sauce to medium-high heat. Add the vodka, sugar and bay leaf. Once the sauce bubbles slightly, turn down to simmer and let cook for another 10 minutes or until you are ready to serve. Enjoy!

Spicy red sauce


  1. It sure looks good — and easy. I like the idea of “clinging happily” to the pasta.

    I used a Patricia Wells pasta, sausage and sauce recipe a few months back; to ensure the sasuce clings to the pasta, you have to beat an raw egg into it at the last minute. It sounded weird, but it worked wonderfully.

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