How to make an easy dinner with pasta and canned tomatoes

If you only ever learn to cook one Italian dish, it should be pasta with tomato or pasta al pomodoro. Similar to American spaghetti with jarred tomato sauce or the Italian-American marinara sauce, it is everything that’s great about Italian cooking: It’s simple. It only requires a couple of ingredients, and it’s delicious. I make it at least once or twice a week, usually on my busiest nights when I need something healthy, quick, and easy.

You only need 5 ingredients: 1. pasta, 2. tomatoes, 3. olive oil, 4. parmesan cheese, and 5. salt.

If you stock your kitchen with dry pasta in almost any shape (fusilli, rigatoni, penne, rotini, spaghetti) and keep a couple of cans of tomato on hand (a small 14-ounce can for 2 people and a large 28-ounce for 4 people – whole, crushed, diced, or pureed will do), you can easily make a healthy and delicious dinner in about 30 minutes with just a little olive oil, parmesan cheese, and salt.

Pasta al pomodoro or pasta with canned tomato

Serves 2

  • 1 small can of tomato (about 14 ounces), whole, crushed, diced, or pureed
  • 250 grams of pasta (half a standard grocery store box)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Parmesan cheese (optional)
  1. Cook the canned tomatoes in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a pan or pot large enough to hold the cooked pasta. Add a pinch or two of salt to taste and cook until the sauce is thick.
  2. Meanwhile, cook the pasta al dente in salted water.
  3. Drain and add the cooked pasta to the pan with the tomato and toss. Make sure to save some of the pasta water.
  4. Toss over high heat for about 30 seconds. Add more pasta water if needed. The pasta should move easily about the pan.
  5. Plate the pasta and top with grated parmesan cheese if using, or add in step 4 while tossing.

Get creative with your pasta with tomato

Pasta and tomato is a great building block recipe, as you can add to or swap out many of the ingredients and create something new. Check out my free mini-cookbook with 6 super simple recipes for pasta and tomatoes.

Here are 20 ideas to get you started, but the list doesn’t end here. Experiment with what you like and have on hand.

Herbs and spice

  • Fresh basil is a classic that can either be added to the tomatoes while they reduce or on top of the finished pasta after it is plated and cheesed.
  • I often blonde a clove of garlic in the olive oil before adding the tomatoes. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to a pan, and a whole clove of garlic, crushed without the skin. Cook until it turns a light blonde or golden color. I often leave the garlic in the pan while I reduce the tomatoes, but sometimes I take it out.
  • You can cook a dry red chili pepper in the olive oil before adding the tomato to add some spice.
  • Red chili pepper is a classic Italian spice that gets used quite a bit. A sprinkling of red chili pepper flakes in the tomato and oil will add some heat.
  • This recipe adds orange zest, pepper and marjoram. I’ve never added orange zest to tomato pasta before, but I am definitely going to give it a go one of these days.

Cheese and dairy

  • Some recipes, like this one, add richness by blending in a bit of butter.
  • A couple of spoonfuls of ricotta can be a delicious and creamy addition at the end. Or add some robiolina, one of my favorite creamy Italian cheeses
  • Or maybe toss in some chunks of good old mozzarella at the end.
  • I haven’t tried it yet, but this recipe wildly includes sour cream!
  • Swap out the parmesan for some salty pecorino.

Fish and meat

  1. Instead of adding salt to my tomatoes, I typically use a couple of splashes of colatura di alicior anchovy extract as it adds a bit more complexity and I love it. I put it in just about everything.
  2. You could also add an oil packed anchovy filet or two to the tomato while it is reducing.
  3. Add a protein like canned tuna or mackerel to the tomato after it has been reduced.
  4. Start by cooking chopped guanciale or pancetta and then adding the tomatoes. Or try savory bacon like in this recipe.

Other ideas

  1. My father always used a little sugar in his tomato sauce. Some tomatoes need it to balance out their flavor.
  2. My Italian boyfriend loves to roughly chop up an onion and cook it in the olive oil until it becomes soft before adding the tomatoes.
  3. You can add some complexity to the sauce by beginning with a sofritto before adding the tomatoes. A sofritto is made by finely chopping onion, celery and carrots and cooking it in a little bit of olive oil until it turns a golden color. When you buy vegetables in Italy from a vegetable shop, they often give you the ingredients for sofritto for free and toss it in the top of your shopping bag before you leave. This recipe uses a sofritto.
  4. You could also roast it in the oven. My mother loves this baked recipe as it’s so easy. You just toss everything in a baking dish and throw it in the oven and let it cook itself. It’s also got a lot of flavor with butter, garlic, anchovies and red chili pepper, and roasting the tomatoes deepens their flavor as well. Yum.
  5. Use fresh tomatoes instead of canned or jarred. This adds a few more steps as you need to remove the tomato skins.
  6. In the summer, I like to halve fresh cherry tomatoes and cook them in a frying pan with some chopped garlic, olive oil and a little salt until the tomatoes become soft and begin to fall apart, like in this recipe.

Photo by @tomhermans on Unsplash.

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