ben vandgrift · on living the dream

Ben-Proof Pasta

Or, How To Write About Technology

Take that title in whatever context you like.

Consider this an exercise in writing about a thing, especially a technology. An introduction, a pitch, a rationale, a presentation of the thing and how to use it, then a list of its trade-offs and adjustable elements.


Hungry? You will be.

This pasta sauce recipe produces a very dependable dinner for people who like pasta. It follows in the tradition of Americanized (i.e. tomato-heavy) 'Italian-style' pasta sauces, composed to maximize variety of texture and continuity of flavor.

The recipe itself is also a solid learning recipe: it is not complex, requires no advanced equipment or culinary technique. If you can chop vegetables, shop at a store, and have a clock, a dutch oven and a pasta pot you can make this recipe.

When the basic format has been mastered, its flexibility should satisfy even cooks with some skill.

Will you like it? If you like tomato-based pasta sauces with meat, you will like the recipe as presented. If you don't like or don't eat meat, you can substitute in vegetables and fungus, provided their texture after cooking is moderately firm. Many other adjustments are possible, which will be provided after the main recipe. In short: probably, but if you have doubts, then read the recipe and decide whether or not it's right for your household.


The goals of this recipe were manifold: it should be easy and convenient. It should be adjustable to enough to satisfy the pallete of many audiences, including children. It should require only common tools found in most kitchens. Above all else, it should be delicious.

After much experimentation, the result satisfies the goals. It is delicious, easy, and flexible. Mixed meats, vegetables added in two rounds, and varying textures of tomato brew up a round flavor that's pretty easy to get along with and difficult to really screw up. Given the possible adjustments, it resembles something closer to a sauce protocol than a particular recipe. There are a lot of knobs to adjust to get the sauce you want.


Let's get to it.


Step 1: Flavor Base

In a dutch oven over high heat, add a little olive oil and the mirepoix. Reduce the heat to medium once the vegetable are hot and add in the finely-diced half of the green pepper, the finely-diced half of the mushrooms and the garlic.1 Cook for 5 more minutes, or until the celery starts to soften and the smell of the garlic overpowers the smell of the onions. Stir this occasionally, or the garlic will burn. Add a couple of pinches of salt.2

Step 2: Meat

Add in the meats you've chosen and brown them. Harass them in the pan until they're either as chunky or fine as you like. Drain off most of the fat at this point.

Step 3: Tomatoes

Add the tomatoes, wine,3 tomato paste, and sherry vinegar. Bring all this to a simmer and stir. Walk away for half an hour. If you like pepper, add pepper. Ditto salt.

Step 4: Water

Boil it. Add enough salt to slightly flavor the water. Do not add any oil to the water, no matter what your grandmother told you.

Step 5: Vegetables, Round 2

Add your remaining vegetables just before adding pasta to the boiling water.

Step 6: Pasta

Add the pasta, set the timer according to the box, and prepare accordingly.

Step 7: Herbs

When the pasta water comes back up to a boil, add the herbs to the pasta sauce. Stir them around. Keep simmering.4

Step 8: Combine

When the pasta is done, the sauce will also be done. Drain the pasta and add pasta sauce until it's as saucy as you like it.5 This can be a little or a lot, different folks like different amounts of sauce with their noodles. (Default: use 32oz of pasta sauce for every pound of pasta.)

Step 9: Finish and Eat

I top my pasta with shaved parmesean cheese and red pepper flakes.6 Do what you like. It pairs well with an inexpensive Bordeaux.


It's easy, but it is time-consuming. It's not time-intensive, as most of the time your presence in the kitchen isn't required, however the sauce's total prep and cook time approaches an hour.

Most of the ingredients are easily found if you live near a modern mega-mart. They are not exotic, but you may adjust the meat and vegetation up (or down) in quality if that's what your culinary tastes call for.

This recipe makes a lot of food. Enough for six filling meals by itself, more if you pair it with extras, e.g. bread, soup, or salad. The sauce itself keeps for a week and gets a little better with age. You will need to cook additional pasta as required for the best results. If you don't want to eat this for several days straight, you can freeze the sauce and serve later.


Many adjustments can be made, to create a variety of different sauces suitable for different meats, noodles, etc. Make small adjustments, one at a time.


The combination of sausage and beef produces a solid flavor combination and not much fuss when it comes time to shop. You can replace the meat with a wider variety or more exotic meat if you prefer. Turkey works well if you're avoiding red meat. Venison is quite good. Other organ meat may also be used—I've used elk liver + venison in the past with fantastic results. The key here is to use more than one meat if possible. The recipe is keyed to a round flavor, even in the meats.

As a practical measure, avoid strongly-flavored meats (lamb or mutton) as well as delicate and/or expensive meats (no veal or Kobe beef).

Vegetarians may substitute firm, non-starchy vegetables or subtly flavored beans (e.g. cannellini) for the meat. If preparing entirely meatless (and beanless), extra olive oil will be required to give the sauce body.


Green pepper and mushrooms yield an earthy pungency to the sauce. Red peppers would make for a sweeter sauce. Other vegetables in place of the peppers and mushrooms would add their own characteristic flavors, of course. The key to the vegetables is that they be added in two steps—one a fine chop, one rougher. Doing this will ensure that the cooked-down vegetables will give up their flavor to the entire sauce, while the fresher vegetables will retain pockets of flavor and texture in the final product.


Sherry vinegar provides an excellent balance between brightness and sweetness. If you prefer a sweeter sauce, balsamic vinegar may suit your tastes more. If you like a brighter, punchier flavor, try apple cider vinegar, or a mixture of apple cider and lemon juice. Don't go overboard with the vinegar though—its powerful stuff.


Focus on keeping the herb flavors broad and round, and well-suited to the meats. Avoid woody or piney herbs (such as rosemary), bitter herbs, or anything immediately identifiable (star anise, cumin). Within those constraints, feel free to adjust to suit your tastes, using herbs appropriate to the meat and vegetable selection, E.g., adding thyme or sage if using ground turkey.


The recipe calls for both crushed and diced tomatoes. So long as the proportion of tomatoes to the flavor base is maintained, any variety or type of tomatoes may be used: you may use three cans of crushed tomatoes for a smoother sauce, or 5 1/4 lbs of fresh Roma tomatoes for a chunky salad-style sauce. If adding fresh tomatoes, you may find more success in blanching then skinning the fresh fruits before adding to the flavor base, then cooking for 10-20 minutes before adding any meats or finely-chopped vegetables. This will mean browning the meat in a third pan and draining before adding to the tomato/flavor base mixture.

Up to 1/3 of the tomato component may be replaced with a different (mildly-flavored) liquid. 2 cups of cream added with the herbs over lower heat works well for a tomato-cream sauce for service with linguini; chicken broth in place of one can of tomatoes makes for a lighter, thinner sauce suitable for more delicate pastas like farfalle.


As written, the recipe produces a sauce of moderate consistency. It is neither remarkably thick nor thin. For a thicker, more pungent sauce, continue reducing for up to 90 minutes in step 3. This type of sauce would be more appropriate for a heartier noodle (rigatoni) or a gnocchi.

For a thinner consistency, rather than cooking for less time, add additional liquid. Mushroom broth, vegetable broth, or low-sodium chicken broth work well.


Please get in touch if you have questions or suggestions. Thanks.

  1. Adding the finely-chopped peppers and mushrooms at this point will integrate their flavors more completely into the sauce. The remainder are added later to add brighter flavors and additional texture.

  2. The salt will help extract liquid from the flavor-base vegetables.

  3. Even if you don't drink wine normally, inclusion of the wine here is important. There are alcohol-soluble flavor components in tomatoes.

  4. I buy tubes of 'fresh' herbs. They don't keep long, but are super convenient. I have no idea which herbs are in the 'Italian Herbs', but it needs more basil and parsley.

  5. Adding the sauce to the pasta and tossing produces superior coverage when compared to topping the pasta sauce. In this recipe, the sauce serves as a flavor conveyance and provides texture.

  6. My wife-to-be doesn't like spicy food, so I add the pepper flakes as a condiment.

written: Jul 31 2014