30-Minute Marinara

Inspired by a marinara recipe in the New York Times which requires two hours of simmering. It’s a wonderful sauce, but sometimes you have two hours, and sometimes you don’t.

One recent Sunday afternoon, I perched at a small, round table in “my” quiet corner of my favorite coffee shop, trying to complete the New York Times Mini Crossword Puzzle in under a minute. My record was 37 seconds. I do the horizontals first, then fill in with verticals as needed. One clue had me stumped: common dis. 9 letters across. Nothing I tried worked with anything else. I finally had to ask for the answer: weaksauce. <Smacks palm to forehead> How on earth did I not know this? Time: 6.56 minutes.

How did I not know this? Next time someone hesitates at a green light, I’ll yell, “Get a move on, you weak sauce, you!”

Spoiler alert: you’ll find anchovies in the ingredients of this sauce. You’re familiar with the concept of umami, right? Here, the pairing of anchovies, well-minced so as to blend right in, and lemon elevate the sauce from average — weak, if you will — to the sublime.


A knife

A cutting board

2 pans — one for the sauce and one to cook the pasta

A grater for the Parmesan


Serves 1 with abundant leftovers, or probably 4

1/2 yellow onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled, minced

2 anchovy fillets, minced

15 ounce can of crushed tomatoes

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/2 cup of the pasta water

Sea or kosher salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, to taste

Angel hair

Parmesan cheese

Italian (flat leaf) parsley for garnish, if you wish

A pan with a broad surface, such as a braising pan or even a deep skillet works well for this sauce. The large area allows flavors to concentrate quickly. The sauce would require a longer cooking time in a deeper pot. I’ve promised you dinner in 30 minutes.

For a suggestion as to how to dice an onion so that it doesn’t get away from you, take a look at this. The same post will explain the benefits of the smash-and-peel method of breaking down garlic.

So, cut the onion into 1/4" dice. Why? If the pieces are small, they’ll sauté relatively quickly, and if they’re generally the same size, they’ll cook at the same speed. This isn’t Oniony Marinara; small pieces ensure that they’ll blend into the sauce well rather than standing out if large or irregular.

Smash, peel, and mince the garlic. Mince the anchovies. Well.

Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into your pan and warm it over medium heat. When the oil shimmers, or “ribbons,” it’s hot enough to add the onion. Also add a pinch of salt. It encourages the onion to give up its water more readily.

When the onion has softened and looks translucent, after about 10 minutes, add the garlic and anchovy, and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, and run a bit of water into the can to rinse it. Pour it into the sauce.

Reduce the heat so that the sauce just maintains a gentle simmer. If it cooks any faster, it can scorch easily. Stir it now and then.

After 15 minutes have elapsed, put a pot of hot, salted water (it should taste like the ocean) on to boil. About 2 quarts.

Hint: a covered pot boils faster than an uncovered one.

I’ve used angel hair here because it cooks so quickly. When the water boils, add half the box of pasta to it. Stir it until the water returns to a boil so that it doesn’t sink to the bottom of the pot and stick together. Check the cook time on the package. It’s probably 3 to 5 minutes. Set a timer for 1 minute less.

I used about 4 ounces of angel hair and 8 ounces, or 1 cup, of sauce, which yielded a happy rainy-night dinner and lunch to take to work the next day. I also had about 12 ounces of sauce remaining, and I froze it in 4-ounce containers.

When the timer goes off, dip some of the pasta water and pour it into the sauce. Its lovely starchiness will help the sauce to stick to the pasta. Also stir the lemon juice into the sauce.

Taste, and season with salt (sparingly because remember, anchovies), pepper, and red pepper flakes.

This is not a weak sauce.

Drain the pasta through a colander, and pour it back into the pot. Return it to the heat and pour the sauce over it. Use tongs to keep everything moving for a minute or so as the pasta finishes its final cooking.

Serve up as many bowls as you need, and grate some Parmesan over it. It’s your pasta. Use as much as you like.

For those of us who are carb-averse, this sauce is wonderful over grilled or roasted vegetables.

Coming next: Christopher Kimball’s divine hummus

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