Hearty Tomato Sauce
Makes about 5 cups of sauce
1 large yellow onion, diced
1/2 package of mushrooms, sliced (about 1 cup sliced)
1 red pepper (or orange or yellow), diced (I really like the roasted red peppers from Trader Joe's)
3 medium-sized cloves garlic, minced
28 oz can of diced tomatoes with the juices
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 cup pasta cooking water
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 pound pasta
Optional extra spices: 1 bay leaf, 1 whole star anise, 2 teaspoons smoked paprika, pinch of red pepper flakes
Optional meaty extras: 2 diced sausage links, hamburger, 3-4 slices diced bacon or pancetta, 1 cup pulled pork
Optional veggie extras: zucchini, celery, carrots
salt and pepper to taste
Heat one teaspoon oil over medium-high heat in a dutch oven or sauce pan. Add the meat (if using) and cook until browned and golden. Lift the meat out with a slotted spoon and let it drain on a plate lined with a paper towel. Pour off all but a teaspoon of the oil in the pan.
Add the onion and a big pinch of salt, and cook until the onion is softened, translucent, and starting to turn brown. Add the mushrooms and another big pinch of salt. Cook until all the mushroom liquid has released and evaporated, and the mushrooms are turning golden brown. Add the pepper and any other extra veggies and cook until softened. Clear a little space in the middle of the pan and saute the garlic just until it starts to smell great (about 30 seconds).
If a brown burnt-looking crust starts forming on the bottom of the pan, that's ok. If it starts to actually SMELL like something is burning, add a teaspoon of water and turn the heat down to medium.
Pour in the diced tomatoes with their juices. Scrape the bottom of the pan to lift up that brown crust (which is actually caramelized juices. They'll dissolve into the sauce - delicious!). Sprinkle the oregano and any extra spices over the sauce and stir in the reserved cooked meat. Turn the heat down to to medium and simmer the sauce while you cook the pasta.
Right before you drain the pasta, dip out a half cup of the pasta cooking water and add this to the tomato sauce. This will help thicken the sauce and make it silky. Remove the star anise and bay leaf (if using), stir in the balsamic vinegar, and taste. If the flavors taste bitter, add a healthy pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar. If they're flat, add a squeeze of lemon.
Serve over the pasta!
(Image: Emma Christensen)