Three years ago, I came to Wesleyan with a single bagful of groceries and a dream. I would cook every week, I told myself. This is the year I learn to be completely independent, to make myself healthy meals and really take control of my life. Then I discovered takeout from Swings, and got pretty comfortable sans culinary independence.
But part of me was consistently bothered by the fact that I wasn’t producing my own meals. After all, I was the kid who told everyone during orientation that my favorite food was sauce, and who bragged about how often I made my own. People called me “sauce boy” for the next two weeks. I didn’t want to be all talk and no action, so I decided to put my money where my mouth was.
Of course, as anyone who has lived in one of Wesleyan’s first-year dorms can tell you, actually using the kitchen consistently is difficult. One stove for hundreds of people is only the first problem; the whole thing becomes an ordeal of carrying ingredients up and down the stairs, and trying not to make a mess of the kitchen or yourself. Not to mention the fact that you need to adjust to a new class schedule, work, whatever else college students have going on nowadays. If you want to cook in your first year, it’s going to have to be simple and efficient. I’m talking tupperware, I’m talking using your hallmate’s microwave, I’m talking big portions with not that many ingredients. I’m talking sauce, baby.
A big pot of sauce in one container and a pound of pasta in another can last you through many a cold night during the Wesleyan winters where you just can’t bring yourself to trek across Andrus for dinner. What follows is a list of my go-to, the sauce I threw together my first year that has been a constant presence in my dietary decisions since. I pass this vital knowledge on to you, dear reader, in the hopes that sauce can become as much a comfort in your life as it is in mine.
1 20-oz can, crushed tomatoes
1 16-oz can, diced tomatoes
4 oz tomato paste
6 oz cream cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 whole yellow onion
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Basil, oregano, salt, pepper, red pepper, thyme to taste
A simple, crowd-pleasing standby. Not much here that’s all that different than what you’ll find online, but the real secret comes with the surprise ingredients: balsamic vinegar and cream cheese. Sauté your onions and garlic, plus the olive oil, salt, pepper, and a little butter, over low heat until the onions are translucent (it takes a while, but it’s worth it). Add some basil and oregano, push your onions to the side, and pour the balsamic into your empty pan, eventually mixing everything back together. This method is called glazing the pan—something you should do anytime you’re making vegetables or meat to get at the paste that forms as your sauté—and the acidity of the vinegar is a perfect counterpart to the sweetness we’re looking for. At this point, you should have a pseudo-paste of (a whole bunch of) onions in your pan. Drain the diced tomatoes and mix them in, letting your vegetables sit for five minutes or so. You can turn up the heat at this point, but keep it at a medium-low throughout to bring out the flavor.
After a little of the excess liquid has cooked out, add the whole can of crushed tomatoes and stir. At this point, you’re essentially done—the sauce just needs to warm up for a bit—but you’re only finished if you’re a fan of thin, acidic marinara (no judgement!) (some judgement). Mixing in your tomato paste will thicken things a bit, and the heavy cream and cream cheese should do the rest. If it’s still a bit too liquid, adding a simple slurry—equal parts flour and water—can solve the issue. At this point, your sauce should be a nice pink, at which point you can add the fresh basil and the remaining spices (thyme, oregano, red pepper if you want a little kick) and let the whole thing simmer for a few minutes. You’ll know it’s done when it tastes good. One of the beautiful things about sauce is that it’s easy to modify if it’s not quite where you want it.
This kind of sauce goes great with anything, but I’m a big fan of pairing it with some grilled eggplant for a creamy eggplant parmesan style dish. Filled pastas? Of course. Roasted vegetables? Sure. Steak? It’ll make it better, because sauce makes everything better. And you can trust me on this. They don’t call me sauce boy for nothing.
Spencer Arnold can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.