Building on a Basic Red Sauce

Unless you're cooking for a special celebration and want to experiment, the easiest way to enjoy success in the kitchen is to rely on dishes that have become familiar to you and that you like serving. Red sauce is one of the most useful basics you can possibly make.

First of all, red sauce--a textured seasoned tomato sauce--appeals to almost everyone, an amazing fact in the food-specific 1990s. More than that, it has many low-fat applications that are full-flavored and delicious. Beyond pasta, red sauce works as the base for soup, meatballs, stew or chili, as a topping for pizza, baked potatoes, rice and other grains in addition to seafood, chicken and turkey.

True, many commercial tomato sauce products can be found on supermarket shelves, but they're expensive and always require some reworking so they'll fit your specific taste and cooking needs.

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The following basic red sauce recipe is one that I have continually refined and improved. Well flavored, it's gutsy enough to ladle over pasta with just a simple garnish of fresh basil and grated Parmesan cheese, or you can use it on a more elaborate dish with seared scallops, served over steamed rice.

The recipe makes 10 cups, probably more than you will need for one meal. Refrigerate or freeze the excess in conveniently sized portions for later use. In addition to the recipe for basic red sauce with a variation for meat sauce, I am including recipes for other hearty dishes that are based on it.

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Here's my final effort at red sauce, vibrantly flavored even though it's made with vegetable broth. This sauce can be pureed after it's cooked if you like a smooth consistency; I prefer it somewhat textured except in the meat sauce variation that follows. The processor makes fast work of mincing the garlic, onions, celery and carrots, but do them in small batches so they won't be ground to mush.

BASIC RED SAUCE

2 teaspoons olive oil

4 large cloves garlic, minced

2 medium onions, minced

1 rib celery, minced

1 medium carrot, minced

2 (28-ounce) cans ground plum tomatoes

2/3 cup dry vermouth or dry white wine

2 cups vegetable broth

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons dried basil

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 teaspoon salt

Red pepper flakes

Heat oil in 4-quart non-reactive pot over medium heat. Add garlic, onions, celery and carrot. Cook, uncovered, until onions are tender, about 6 minutes, stirring often.

Add tomatoes and their liquid to pot along with dry vermouth, vegetable broth, sugar, basil, oregano, salt and red pepper flakes to taste. Simmer, uncovered, 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Can be made several days in advance and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen as long as 3 months. Makes 8 cups sauce.

Each 1/2-cup serving contains about:

57 calories; 504 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.7 gram fiber.

Meat Sauce Variation

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

3 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 1/4 pounds extra-lean ground beef

3 3/4 cups Basic Red Sauce

1 1/4 cups beef broth

3/4 teaspoon dried basil

3/4 teaspoon dried oregano

Heat oil in 4-quart pot over medium-high heat. When hot, add garlic and ground meat. Cook until meat is browned, about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add Basic Red Sauce, beef broth, dried basil and dried oregano. Simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes.

In batches, transfer sauce to food processor fitted with metal blade or blender. Pulse until sauce has fine texture but is not smooth. Can be refrigerated 3 days or frozen as long as 3 months. Makes 5 1/2 cups sauce.

Each 1/2-cup serving contains about:

139 calories; 457 mg sodium; 27 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 0.52 gram fiber.

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Vegetarian pasta dishes aren't difficult to find but this one is especially interesting. It's important to season the spaghetti squash before saucing it.

SPICY TOMATO SAUCE WITH OLIVES AND CAPERS ON GARLICKY SPAGHETTI SQUASH

1 medium spaghetti squash, cooked, shredded with fork

1 large clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups Basic Red Sauce

18 Kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons drained capers

Red pepper flakes

Grated imported Parmesan cheese

Put spaghetti squash in large bowl. Toss with garlic and salt until well mixed. Set aside.

In 2-quart pot, gently heat Basic Red Sauce, olives, capers and red pepper flakes to taste. Can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 3 days.

To serve, gently reheat spaghetti squash in microwave oven and sauce in microwave oven or stove top. When both are hot, toss together in warm serving dish until well combined. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve hot. Pass grated Parmesan cheese separately. Makes 3 servings.

Each serving contains about:

197 calories; 1862 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 3.93 grams fiber.

Note : To cook spaghetti squash in microwave oven, pierce flesh with tines of fork. Cook on HIGH power until very tender, about 10 to 15 minutes, turning once midway through. When cool enough to handle, cut in half. Remove seeds and threads. With tines of fork create long spaghetti-like strands.

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This is an ideal party dish for casual get-togethers; it's colorful, flavorful and relatively inexpensive for a group. More than all of that, it's low in fat without any compromise in flavor. The chicken is easily skinned before it's cooked--just grasp each piece of chicken with a paper towel and pull the skin back with your fingers.

CHICKEN CACCIATORE WITH SAFFRON LINGUINE

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, minced

1/2 large green pepper, minced

2 large cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 (2 1/2-pound) chickens, cut into small serving pieces, skinned, trimmed of all visible fat, rinsed, patted very dry with paper towels

1 to 1 1/4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

2 cups mushrooms, trimmed, thinly sliced

3 1/2 cups Basic Red Sauce

Dash red pepper flakes

Saffron Linguine

Grated imported Parmesan cheese

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch deep skillet over medium heat until hot. Add onion, pepper and garlic. Cook until onion is tender, about 4 minutes, stirring often. Do not let garlic burn. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in same skillet over medium high heat. Meanwhile, put flour, salt and pepper in large plastic food bag. Shake to mix. Add dry chicken pieces to bag. Shake until well coated with flour mixture. In 2 batches, brown chicken on both sides, about 5 minutes total. Set aside first batch with onion mixture. Add remaining oil as necessary to brown second batch.

Return onion mixture and chicken to skillet. Add broth and mushrooms. Bring to boil. Stir in red sauce. Season to taste with red pepper flakes. Cover and carefully shake pan to mix ingredients. Simmer, covered, until chicken is tender, about 30 to 40 minutes, shaking pan occasionally to avoid any sticking. Add remaining liquid as necessary. Sauce should be thick, not too fluid. Adjust seasonings to taste. Slightly undercook if reheating. Can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 3 days or frozen as long as 2 months. Gently reheat until hot before serving.

To serve, arrange hot Saffron Linguine in center of large heated platter. Place chicken over linguine, including sauce. Serve hot. Pass Parmesan cheese separately. Makes 8 servings

Each serving, including Saffron Linguine, contains about:

601 calories; 1,098 mg sodium; 89 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 56 grams carbohydrates; 32 grams protein; 1.14 grams fiber.

Saffron Linguine

1 pound linguine

1/2 to 1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/4 teaspoon crushed saffron threads

1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

Cook linguine in boiling, salted water until al dente. Meanwhile, bring 1/2 cup broth, oil, saffron threads, salt and pepper to taste to boil in microwave oven or stove top. Stir mixture until saffron is dissolved.

Drain linguine. Transfer to warm bowl. Toss with broth mixture. Serve hot with chicken cacciatore. Can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 2 days. Gently reheat in microwave oven or stove top, adding remaining broth as needed to moisten pasta. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

288 calories; 246 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 57 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 0.23 gram fiber.

* Carved wooden doors and plate from Architectural Detail antique shop, South Pasadena.

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