white sauce

Showing Off Your Fake Culinary Skills: Pasta Sauce

Break open that bottle of red wine, because the weather has turned and we’re going to eat our weight in pasta. Sure, buying a jar of alfredo sauce is super simple, but who wants to fill up on crazy extra ingredients, like disodium phosphate and autolyzed yeast extract? Making your own pasta sauce is easy, healthier and fulfilling. You may not get your own show on The Food Network, but you made your own red sauce, and dammit it, that’s an accomplishment after sleeping in until noon. Now roll up your sleeves, start boiling water for your elk-shaped pasta, and let’s begin.

Red Sauce:

There are a number of different ways to make a successful red sauce while avoiding the jars. The easiest is just a can tomato paste, a can of tomato puree, olive oil, garlic, assorted spices and water. The wonderful people over at How To Adult walk you through the process here. While not significantly healthier than a jar of sauce, there is still something fulfilling in realizing you just made your own pasta sauce (plus, hella cheap). For real. High five.

If you’d like to take a slightly more involved route (you have to do more than just open some cans), you can start with fresh tomatoes. There are a ton of great recipes online for simple red sauces, and if you’re a stickler for measurements, I suggest following one of them. Keep in mind, many are written with bulk batches in mind, so you’ll have to do some math to parse down your measurements.

This is a great recipe if you have two or three leftover tomatoes that you need to use (let’s be serious, I always have leftover tomatoes–I WILL NEVER ACTUALLY EAT THE TOMATOES, WHY DO I BUY THEM, TRADER JOE’S??). I’ve both blanched them (slice a small X in the bottom, boil for about a minute, submerge in cold water, then peel the skins off) and cooked them with the skins on. Since I’m not the biggest tomato fan, I lean more toward the skinless recipe, but both work great. To a decent amount of olive oil on medium heat (about two tablespoons), add the fresh diced tomatoes, any vegetables (onions, peppers) and any other spices you’d like to flavor it (italian seasoning is a good standby, oregano and basil also work great if you’re getting fancy). Hell, why not pour some of the red wine in there? You’re the one who has to eat it after all, why not make it exciting? Let cook on medium heat, anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes until you like the consistency. Keep an eye on your sauce, and stir occasionally to check in–the longer you leave it, the more the tomatoes will break down, thus eliminating chunkiness. Serve with your fancy pasta. Voila! Look at you, you made red sauce! I’m so proud of you.

White Sauce:

One of my favorite things in the cooling weather is pasta with white sauce and sautéed mushrooms. I’ll warn you, I use the term white sauce fairly loosely, so if you’re looking for a true, simple alfredo sauce recipe, start here. Here’s the key though—try not to lock yourself into the recipe. Don’t like (or have) garlic powder? Leave it out! This is your dinner, I promise I won’t call Alton Brown to tattle on you.

For my white sauces, I start with a simple roux. A roux is just equal parts melted butter and flour (based on weight, not volume). Usually I start with one or two tablespoons of butter is a large saucepan over medium heat. Let the butter melt, careful not to let it brown. Add flour is small batches (I’m talking an 1/8 cup here), and keep stirring constantly, until you get a thick, paste consistency. Look at you go, you made a roux! See, you aren’t a complete failure just because you watched an entire season of GoT in one sitting!

To the roux, so we’re closer to the consistency of sauce, I begin adding milk. Again, the key here is to keep stirring, and to just watch your consistencies. I usually start with a 1/4 cup, and go from there. Stir, stir, stir, girlfriend. When it looks like a little waterier than something over pasta, you’re almost there!

Now comes the cheese! WOOOOO!! CHEESE!!

In the past I’ve used almost every kind of cheese in my sauces. For real, it’s pretty difficult to pick the wrong cheese for a white sauce. Soft cheeses work best, like gruyere, goat cheese, and mozzarella. You can even do cheddar or parmesan, but just make sure you grate these first. Add your cheese to your roux (add to taste–maybe a half cup?), continuing to stir. At this point, you might want to reduce the heat, since you’re really only melting the cheese into it. If you think you’re sauce is a bit too soupy, add more flour or cheese. Too thick? Add more milk. See how that works? You can’t screw it up! You just accidentally make more!

Taste it, make sure you’re into it. Maybe add some garlic powder. Keep stirring and tasting. Cooking is weird and awkward, but also fun and rewarding. Pay attention to the fun part, and go nuts. Look through your pantry, add whatever you want. This is your kitchen after all.

Pour this wonderful madness over your pasta, and HELL YES, OMG—instagram that ish. You just cooked yourself a white sauce. The crowd is cheering. You are the gender neutral ruler of the kitchen! Congratulations!

Now reward yourself by starting season three of Game of Thrones.

(For my darling sister, Haley, who is just beginning the journey of cooking for herself. And for my best friend Andrea who taught me just how much fun that journey could be.)