Grad student eating in style: Super simple marinara sauce

Edit, 25 October 2010, 0845: Added an omitted word or several in the directions.

One of the ways I’ve managed to keep my sanity through six years of graduate school is cooking. Working in the kitchen uses some of the same organizational skills as working in the lab, but at the same time it’s a nice mental break from thinking about abstract things like ecological opportunity and the grades my mammalogy lab students are likely to receive on their midterm. And I get to eat the results!

Scicurious’s ongoing series of cheap and easy recipe posts, Grad Student Eating in Style, is a tribute to the other benefit of cooking in grad school: savings. I known I’m spending less on breakfast since I started baking a batch of her amazing scones (or a loaf of banana bread) every week. When Sci invited contributions for a carnival of student-budget-friendly recipes, I knew I had to contribute. I thought I’d go with a recipe that really is a staple in my diet: a nice, basic, marinara sauce.

I like a little pasta with my sauce. Photo by jby.

The recipe

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Two (2) small onions,
  • One (1) bell pepper in whatever color you prefer,
  • At least two (2) cloves of garlic,
  • About one (1) tablespoon of olive oil,
  • Two (2) 28-ounce cans of diced tomatoes in sauce,
  • A few pinches of allspice,
  • Salt and pepper to taste, and
  • About half of one (1) bundle (bouquet? nosegay?) of fresh basil.

Chop up the onions and pepper, mince the garlic, and sauté them all together in the olive oil using a saucepan big enough to handle all the ingredients. When the veggies are nicely sautéed, add the diced tomatoes, and stir it all together. Bring everything to a low boil, and then turn down the heat to keep it simmering. Stir in the salt and pepper, and add the allspice. (The allspice is something of a secret ingredient; lots of people use sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes, but allspice will do the trick just as well.) Let the sauce simmer uncovered until it cooks down to a consistency you like—usually, I let it simmer until my pasta finishes cooking. A few minutes before you take the sauce off the heat, chop up the fresh basil leaves and stir them in.

The main ingredients. Photo by jby.

I like the sauce over whole wheat pasta, with a little fresh-grated Parmesan cheese, as pictured above. The recipe makes 6-8 servings of sauce, depending on how much you like on your pasta (I like a lot).

Running the numbers

The cost of the whole recipe, if you’re shopping at the discount grocery store I patronize in north Idaho, is as follows: $0.68 for the pepper; $0.26 for the onions (about 1/6 of a 3-pound bag costing $1.58); $0.12 for the garlic (less than 1/4 of a bulb costing $0.48); $0.23 for the olive oil (1/24 of a 24-ounce bottle costing $5.46); $1.90 for the tomatoes ($0.95 per 28-ounce can), and $1.49 for the basil. (The cost for the salt, pepper, and allspice is negligible on a per-pinch basis.) Total: $4.68, or $0.69 per serving.

But wait, I hear you saying, at that same north Idaho discount grocery store I can buy a jar of Newman’s Own tomato sauce, containing five servings, for a mere $1.98, or $0.40 per serving. True enough, Dear Reader. But those five servings are half a cup apiece. Who eats only half a cup of tomato sauce on a bowl of pasta? That’s just sad. If my idea of a serving is more like one cup, that’s $0.79 per serving. And, with all due respect to Mr. Newman, his sauce doesn’t contain fresh basil.

If you add in the cost of that whole wheat pasta ($1.38 for a box containing seven servings, or $0.20 per serving), that’s $0.89 for a hearty bowlful of tomato sauce and pasta. Not too shabby! A full recipe of this sauce will refrigerate nicely for a week or so—or you can freeze it in plastic bags for long-term storage.


The great thing about this sauce is that it’s a good starting point for improvisation. Add oregano and parsley, and you’ve got a good basic pizza sauce. Throw in a handful of chopped olives and a few capers, and you’ve got puttanesca. You can also substitute something a little stronger for the bell pepper—when they’re in season at the local farmer’s market, I love to throw in spicier heirloom peppers. Or try adding cubed, sautéed eggplant to give the dish a little more heft. Or, of course, you can use a couple cups to make Sci’s Scicuriously Lazy Healthy Stuffed Cabbage even more budget-friendly and delicious.