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The secret to a bold weeknight pasta sauce? A little anchovy boost.

Quick and easy tomato sauce

Total time:25 minutes

Portions:4 to 6

Total time:25 minutes

Portions:4 to 6


What’s that little container filled with big umami flavor that you keep in the fridge door or pantry? Worcestershire sauce? Miso? Tomato paste? Yes, yes, and yes, but more recently I’ve made sure I never run out of oil-packed anchovy fillets.

I’m a huge fan of the little fish strips, not because I like to eat them on their own (as my husband does), but because they’re a great way to add that little something extra to so many recipes. Most recently, they were an unexpected main ingredient in Claudia Fleming’s flavorful gruyere and onion cocktail biscuits. I’ve added them to rémoulade sauces, salad dressings (and not just for Caesar) and stuffed artichokes, and mashed them into mayonnaise to spread on sandwiches.

Tonight, they can help you whip up a delicious tomato sauce in less than 30 minutes when you make this pantry-friendly recipe from “Simple Pasta” by Odette Williams.

How easy is this? Grab a 28-ounce can of high-quality crushed tomatoes and a can of anchovies, then add olive oil, oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper and bring to a simmer. It’s that easy.

“You’d think this full-bodied sauce had been brewing for hours, not just 20 minutes,” Williams writes in her cookbook.

That flavor comes from those little fish, which can be bought in a variety of ways: filleted and packed in oil, which are usually used for cooking; marinated in vinegar, generally to eat upright; or salt-packed, which must be rinsed, stuffed and filleted.

Don’t hate the little anchovies. Learn to harness its power.

Here we are talking about the oil-rich variety. Williams recommends 4 to 6 fillets in this recipe. As I try to do with most recipes, I made it exactly her way the first time. It was great, but the anchovy flavor was a bit muted for my taste. So next time I ramped it up by adding a few more of the greasy little fish strips. I liked it even more.

I’ve also tried it with fresh oregano and garlic and, for an even more pantry-friendly version, with dried oregano and garlic powder. Both were delicious.

Williams calls the sauce pomodoro in her cookbook because she makes it with canned Italian tomatoes. She says the recipe was given to her by an Italian-American friend, crediting cookbook author Marcella Hazan, famous for her simple, delicious sauces.

Marcella Hazan’s Italian cooking heritage endures under the care of her husband

During this often hectic holiday season, it’s a great little recipe to bookmark because you can use it in so many ways. Spoon it onto pizza dough, toss it with store-bought ravioli, or make a shakshuka. It also freezes well, so make a double batch and freeze it in portions to have on hand for months to come.

Bring your favorite pasta to a boil, let the sauce simmer, and you’ll have time to whip up a light green salad and crack open a bottle of red wine for a lightning fast supper.

If this sauce sounds too ho-hum, check out Williams’ quick-to-make variations for amatriciana, arrabbiata, and puttanesca sauces, too.

Quick and easy tomato sauce

Storage: Refrigerate the sauce for up to 4 days; freeze for up to 3 months.

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  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 to 6 anchovy fillets, packed in oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves or 2 teaspoons dried
  • One (28-ounce) can of San Marzano crushed tomatoes
  • Fine salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
  • 1 pound spaghetti or your favorite pasta, cooked according to package directions
  • Grated Parmesan cheese, to serve (optional)
  • Fresh basil leaves, to serve (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute. Add the anchovies and cook slowly, mashing with a wooden spoon until melted in the oil, about 5 minutes. (Adjust the heat as needed, without letting the oil get too hot, so the anchovies break up rather than fry.)

Add the garlic and oregano and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and let the sauce thicken gently for 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and add more salt or pepper as needed.

Serve over your favorite pasta and with parmesan cheese and fresh basil, if using.

VARIATIONS: To make an amatriciana sauce: Omit the anchovies and add 8 ounces diced pancetta, smoked bacon, or guanciale (skin removed); fry in the oil until crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Omit the garlic and oregano and add 3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes. Add the tomatoes and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and black pepper. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. If you want the sauce a little sweeter, stir in 1 teaspoon of light brown sugar.

To make arrabbiata: Omit the anchovies and double the number of garlic cloves. Add 1 or 2 small seeds and finely chopped fresh red chillies and fry with the garlic. Add 1 teaspoon light brown sugar and an additional 1/2 teaspoon salt and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

To make puttanesca: Prepare the sauce as directed, but before adding the tomatoes, add 3/4 cup chopped olives (black oil-cured, kalamata, or green). Then add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Add 2 tablespoons capers and 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

Per serving (1/2 cup regular sauce, 1 1/3 cups pasta, 1 tablespoon parmesan), based on 6

Calories: 435; Total Fat: 12g; Saturated fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 7mg; Sodium: 354mg; Carbohydrates: 68g; Dietary fiber: 5 g; Sugar: 8g; Protein: 15g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not replace the advice of a dietician or nutritionist.

Adapted from “Simple Pasta” by Odette Williams (Ten Speed ​​Press, 2022).

Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to voracious@washpost.com.

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