Oh no, Valentine’s Day is almost here and you promised to cook for your significant other, but you aren’t very experienced in the kitchen. Don’t worry—there’s no need to stress. With a few easy cooking hacks, you can spruce up store-bought tomato sauce, pie or pre-prepared meal so you’ll be the only one who knows you didn’t make it all! In cooking, much like in a relationship, it’s the little things that can make all the difference. So, let’s get started:
I love tomato sauce. Coming from an Italian-American family, the smell of tomato sauce, or ‘gravy’ in my family, simmering all day on the Sunday stove brings back fond memories of time spent at home with my loved ones. These days, we are all so busy, finding the time to spend with them is difficult enough, let alone finding time to let sauce simmer for hours! Here are 10 tips for giving a jar of store-bought sauce a taste of home:
- Build the foundation: Everything tastes better with some sautéed garlic and onions. Sauté finely chopped onions and garlic in olive oil until fragrant and golden, then add the sauce and let it simmer so the flavors can meld together.
- Spice it up: Give it a kick by adding crushed red pepper to the sauce.
- Go Green: Add fresh herbs (basil, oregano, rosemary, bay leaf) and let it simmer to give a punch of fresh flavor.
- Veg out: Since many jarred sauces have sugar in them, I lean toward more savory vegetables—think mushrooms, not carrots. Be sure to brown the veggies a bit to help bring out their flavors and then add the sauce.
- Thicken it up: A tablespoon of Hunt’s® tomato paste will thicken the sauce a bit and give it some depth and richness.
- Not all starch is bad: If serving sauce over pasta, save a bit of the salty, starchy water (about 1/4 cup)—it will give body to the sauce and help it coat the pasta.
- Cheese please!: Add the rind from a piece of Parmesan cheese while simmering the sauce to add a bit of nutty, salty flavor. Before serving, grate high-quality Parmesan or Pecorino cheese over dish. Want something heartier? Spoon in a couple tablespoons of ricotta cheese for a rich and creamy tomato sauce.
- Carnivore cravings: Choose your favorite ground meat—I like a mix of beef, veal and pork. Feel free to use lamb or neck bones too! Brown the meat, drain off any excess grease and then add the sauce and let it simmer. While it simmers, skim off any grease that rises to the top.
- Feeling fancy?: Take your favorite vino (I like to use a sangiovese) and deglaze the pan after sautéing meat or vegetables so you can get all the tasty brown bits, known as fond, into your sauce. And pour yourself a glass while you’re at it—I always find cooking more relaxing with some vino in hand!
- Simmer down!: Ok, so I know I said you don’t have to simmer sauce all day, but it should simmer a bit. You can cut the time down, however. A good 20-30 minute simmer will reward you with a much richer, flavorful sauce.
Looking for a satisfying sweet to end your meal? Take a Marie Callender’s® Chocolate Satin Pie. Wash and hull fresh strawberries. Thinly slice the whole strawberry horizontally from stem to tip. The middle pieces will look like little hearts. Use these to decorate the top of the pie, add a bit of Reddi-wip® and grate fresh chocolate over the top and you have a bit of semi-homemade deliciousness in 2 minutes flat.
Have no time at all? Pick up a pre-made dinner and then add some chopped fresh herbs, freshly grated high-quality cheese or some additional spices to make it your own.
Catherine De Orio is a dining show host, chef and national food expert.