Feast Flash: Go-to tomato sauce

Everyone has a trusty go-to recipe – something simple, something delicious, and something for which you always keep the ingredients on hand. For many years, my go-to has been pasta. Pasta is a perfect dish to master when you’re first learning to cook – its flavor profile is instantly recognizable and it allows you to practice basics like boiling water and sautéing.

A jar of pasta sauce is far too much for one serving, so I used to sauté cherry tomatoes, diced onions, and garlic instead. Through the years, I’ve expanded my recipe to include a few more ingredients. I also enjoy being thin but do not enjoy exercising any more than I have to, so recently I’ve traded carb-loaded pasta for protein-packed quinoa. Here’s how it goes:

Making a fresh serving every time is definitely worthwhile.

Making a fresh serving every time is definitely worthwhile.

I recently discovered these small cans of tomato sauce – I can’t believe I had never cooked with them before. They’re just tomato concentrate with minimal seasoning and no added sugar. At 20 calories, they’re the perfect base for a sauce.

I like to pack as many vegetables into my meals as possible, so today I decided to use mushrooms and spinach in my sauce. I started out with a drizzle of olive oil – you really don’t need much – and then added some diced mushrooms and onions. These guys take the longest to cook, so I put them on the heat first and hit them with some salt and pepper. Meanwhile, I put 1/2 cup of quinoa and twice as much water in another pot to come to a boil.

No one likes oily food, so use olive oil sparingly. You can always add a little more if the pan seems too dry.

No one likes oily food, so use olive oil sparingly. You can always add a little more if the pan seems too dry.

Mushrooms and onions take probably 5-7 minutes to soften.

Mushrooms and onions take probably 5-7 minutes to soften.

While the vegetables were cooking and the quinoa was coming to a boil, I turned my attention to my other ingredients. After years of burning garlic, I’ve finally learned to wait before adding it to the pan, so this was the perfect time to take my time mincing a clove.

You'll want small pieces that can diffuse through the sauce.

You’ll want small pieces that can diffuse through the sauce.

Next, I cut the spinach into ribbons. There’s a trick to this: You need to gather all of the spinach together and roll it into a burrito-shape. You don’t need to do this leaf by leaf; just gently shape the handful of spinach so that it looks like this:

DSCN1758

And then run your knife through them. Easy! Another thing about spinach: when it wilts, it shrinks. Use probably three or four times as much as you think you’ll need and you’ll end up with just enough. I usually just fill the pan. Spinach’s dark green color indicates the presence of lots of nutrients, so it’s a great addition to a meal like this.

It seems like a lot of spinach, doesn't it?

It seems like a lot of spinach, doesn’t it?

But it shrinks!

But it shrinks!

You can see in that picture that I added the quinoa to the pan after it finished cooking. Once it boiled, I turned the heat down and let it simmer for another 10 minutes or so. You know quinoa is done with all of the water is absorbed and it’s released little white spirals. Cooking it a little with the vegetables will help to flavor it more. By this point, I’d also added a generous amount of Italian seasoning and a handful of chili flakes my housemate bought at an Asian market. With everything cooked and seasoned, you’re ready to pop open the can of tomato sauce and add it to the pan – but don’t add water or you’ll end up with soup.

Everything simmering away, flavors blending together.

Everything simmering away, flavors blending together.

It may seem like you’re ready to dig in, but this is actually the most important step: Wait. Just let everything meld together for a little while on low heat. (Don’t let it get too hot or everything will splatter!) Taste it after a few minutes. Add some salt or some more spices. In my case, it needed a few more chili flakes and then a little dried basil to balance out the heat.

This is the perfect time to wash your quinoa pot, cutting board, and knife and to pop the rest of your ingredients back where they belong. By the time you’ve put everything away, the meal will be ready and you’ll only have one pan left to wash. It’s a win-win.

Contrary to popular belief, I’m actually not a vegetarian, but I rarely eat red meat. I’d rather use my grocery budget to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables rather than animal proteins. Since this meal is vegetarian, I had some extra calories to play around with and chose to add a generous amount of cheese. I couldn’t decide between mozzarella and parmesan, so I added both.

DSCN1767

Eating this in a bowl will help keep it warm for longer. Plus, who wants to chase quinoa particles around a plate?

As much as I once loved pasta, I really don’t miss it. This meal has all of the flavors I appreciate with no gluten (except maybe in my low-quality cheese) and lots of vegetables. The handful of cheese melts really well, too, so it reminds me of my other love, macaroni and cheese.

This cheese actually couldn't be any more gooey and perfect.

This cheese actually couldn’t be any more gooey and perfect.

I don’t get sick often, and I think my diet has a lot to do with that. With a go-to meal like this, even the stress and busyness of U. Va. can’t wear my immune system down.

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