Cheap ‘n’ easy: Marinara (or meat) sauce and parmesan polenta

A bunch of my ingredients for Week 29: Salads that don’t suck went bad prematurely, and because I’m on a budget like most everyone else, I chose to postpone the blogging and use my remaining food dollars on meals that I could stretch over a few days.

One of my favorite cheap meals is homemade marinara sauce or meat sauce over parmesan polenta. If you buy grits or polenta once,  you pretty much have grits or polenta in the pantry for a while. Marinara sauce can be made with a couple of cloves of garlic, an onion, tomato paste and tomato sauce.

You can add meat, or pretty it up with fresh parsley or a couple of extra ingredients, but if you need to be cheap about it, you can get outta dodge with a handful of meals-worth of flavorful sauce for about $3, maybe less.

Keep reading to see how easy it is.

Mince up 2-3 cloves of garlic, dice 1 small onion or 1 shallot and 1/2 onion and soften in a bit of olive oil over medium-high heat, about 5-6 minutes. For a little extra nutrition, you can small dice a carrot and cook it along with everything else.

Once the veggies soften add tomato paste. If I’m using a small can of diced tomatoes (fire roasted add great flavor), I’ll use 1/2 can of tomato paste. If I’m using a can of whole tomatoes or a large can of diced tomatoes, I use a whole can of tomato sauce.

Cook the tomato sauce until it browns and starts to stick to the pan. Deglaze the pan with some kind of liquid–white wine, water or stock work best.

When you get the tomato paste off the bottom of the pan, add the can of diced or whole tomatoes. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to low. Cook for 15 minutes. When it’s done, transfer to a blender or food processor and blend to your desired consistency. I like a smooth sauce because I use leftovers for a bunch of different things: baked chicken parm, turkey sausage and peppers, pizza, etc.

To turn your marinara sauce to meat sauce, simply slice open one fresh deli counter sausage (many grocery stores now offer these, mine is a spicy Italian sausage from Sprouts) and take out the meat.

Hit an pan of cooking spray and cook the sausage over medium-high heat, breaking up the meat into small pieces (your choice on how fine, but I prefer mine very fine). If you’re making four (portion-controlled) portions, use 1 cup to 1 1/3 cup of sauce per sausage. I brown the meat and use a wooden spatula to break it up. Reduce heat to low to warm sauce and meat together briefly, then garnish with fresh parsley or basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

You can use this sauce with whole wheat pasta–or for one of my favorite dishes–combine it with this healthy parmesan polenta recipe and dig in. It’s stick-to-your-ribs without the butter, oil or heavy cream that typically come with dishes from an Italian restaurant, and it costs less than a meal out, too.

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