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Ask Dr. Gourmet

How can I make pasta sauce without tomato sauce?

All I have is one can of diced tomatoes, a can of chili peppers, and ketchup, as well as my spices. How can I make a yummy sauce without the normal sauce itself?

Dr. Gourmet Says...

a small bowl of tomato sauce surrounded by fresh tomatoes

I love canned tomatoes. Plain and simple, these are always in my cabinet and offer quick and versatile dishes at a moment's notice. You can make almost anything with a can of tomatoes - spaghetti sauce, taco filling, or soup. I generally purchase no salt added canned diced tomatoes because that allows me to control the amount of sodium as well as the flavor of my dish.

You don't need tomato sauce to make great sauce. Tomato sauce, after all, comes from tomatoes and beginning with the canned tomatoes works great. I generally start with onions, peppers, garlic, and the like, but you could begin with some of the canned chili peppers minced, sauté them, and then add your spices and simmer for about 30 minutes or so and you have great sauce.

There are a lot of other great ways to keep quick ingredients on hand to make quick dishes beyond the canned tomatoes that you already have on hand. Fresh onions keep well in your crisper but you can also purchase frozen chopped onions (and even peppers). I always have garlic on hand and your spices are a key factor in both flavor but the direction your dish takes. Having dried basil, oregano, marjoram, and tarragon on hand can take this in an Italian direction. Cumin, chili powder, and oregano can take it Mexican or Southwestern, and there are a host of Indian spices such as curry powder, garam masala, cardamom, and cumin that are great to have on hand.

The ketchup is not as useful, in my opinion, although I will keep tomato paste on hand (I purchase the tubes because it keeps well). You might, however, add a tablespoon or two of the ketchup to ramp up the tomato and umami flavors in your dish.

In short, you have all the foundations for a great sauce in those three ingredients.

Thanks for writing.

Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP
Dr. Gourmet