Every Sunday my mother made a big pot of matzoh ball soup and another big pot of pasta sauce which was just called “sauce.” I know some people call it “gravy” but not in my old neighborhood. What’s the difference? In Italy, there is sugo which refers to gravies made with meaty pan-drippings, ragus which are meats cooked in sauce for a long time and served over pasta and salsa which is a light sauce that is more of a topping or condiment. It is thought that when immigrant families came to the U.S., some translated their pasta toppings as “sauce” while others, in an attempt to assimilate, called them “gravies” similar to American meat sauces.
This can actually be a passionate argument between people and let’s not even start on macaroni vs. pasta. Anyway, every Sunday Mom made either a meaty sauce or a marinara sauce. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I even tried other kinds of pasta sauces. While tomato sauce is delicious, it’s fun to have variety. Here are some vegan pasta sauces you should definitely try – just don’t call them gravies.
Even though people should definitely try other types of sauces, it’s still important to know how to make a good marinara sauce. Once you make your own, it’s almost impossible to buy jarred sauce ever again. My Mom’s Marinara Sauce is a simple sauce that only takes 20 minutes to make. In a saucepan, heat a teaspoon of olive oil and saute a small diced red onion and 4 minced garlic cloves for a few minutes until they are softened.
Add one 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes and one 14-oz. can of diced tomatoes to the pot. Mix in 1 tsp. dried oregano, 1 tsp. dried basil, ½ tsp. ground fennel and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Season with kosher salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pot and let cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. That’s it! It’s ready to be used in your favorite Italian recipes like Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti or Spaghetti and Tempeh Meatballs. For more marinara recipes, try How to Make Fresh Marinara Sauce and Twenty-Minute Homestyle Marinara.
A variation on tomato sauce is Bolognese sauce. In Italy, it is known as ragu alla Bolognese or ragu which is a meat-based sauce that originated in Bologna, Italy. It is a time-consuming sauce that is different than the Bolognese made outside Italy that we are more familiar with.
It is possible to make a meat-free Bolognese by using vegan “beef” crumbles, tempeh, ground nuts or my preference, lentils. Try my Pasta with Vegan Bolognese Sauce, this Vegan Bolognese Sauce made with tempeh or this Brown Rice Noodles with Vegan Bolognese made with vegan “beef.”
3. Puttanesca Sauce
It’s an unwritten law that one cannot discuss puttanesca sauce without sharing the lore behind its name. It’s believed that this sauce is named after prostitutes who made it because it was quick and easy to make between appointments and that the smell of it cooking would attract men to their bordellos.
Puttanesca is a tomato-based sauce that is spicy, salty and delicious – just like those ladies. Traditional puttanesca uses anchovies, olives and capers for salty flavor and garlic and red pepper flakes for spice. Anchovies are not vegan but that salty, fishy taste can be replicated by adding seaweed, kelp flakes and tamari.
To make Vegan Puttanesca Sauce: heat 1 Tbs. olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute a chopped onion until softened, about 7 minutes. Add 5 or 6 minced garlic cloves and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add 2 Tbs. kelp flakes, 1 Tbs. tamari and ½ tsp. red pepper flakes and stir to coat the onion. Add in 2 Tbs. tomato paste and stir. Add one 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes, ½ cup chopped Kalamata olives and 2 Tbs. drained capers. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pot and cook on low for 30 minutes until the sauce is thick. Turn off the heat and stir in 2 Tbs. chopped basil leaves and the zest of one lemon. Serve over pasta.
4. Garlic and Oil
Let’s move away from tomato sauces and talk about my very favorite pasta sauce. Garlic and oil or aglio e olio comes from Naples. It is a light sauce that is beyond easy to make. It’s simply garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes and fresh parsley for garnish. To make my Pasta Aglio Olio: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Cook 1 lb. pasta according to the package directions. Heat 6 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add 6 minced cloves of garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes to the oil. Cook until the garlic is golden, about 2-3 minutes. Don’t let the garlic burn; it will get bitter. Add kosher salt and black pepper to taste.
Turn off the heat. When the pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the pan with the garlic oil. Turn the heat back on to medium and toss the pasta in the garlic oil until it’s fully coated. Cook until the pasta is hot. Sprinkle with 2 Tbs. fresh chopped parsley. Serve with vegan parmesan, if desired, though it is not used in traditional aglio olio dishes.
5. Alfredo Sauce
On the other end of the spectrum from garlic and oil is Alfredo sauce. Traditional Alfredo Sauce is made with lots of butter and Parmesan cheese that melts to coat the pasta in a rich, thick sauce. Alfredo sauce is incredible but it is also not healthy. Luckily, we can make vegan Alfredo sauce that is not only healthier but also compassionate. There are a lot of ways to make it and it can be rich and decadent or decidedly lighter. I like to use raw cashews and coconut milk to make a sauce that is rich, smooth, creamy and decadent. Although you might think fettuccine when you hear Alfredo, I prefer spiral pasta because the shape allows it to hold more sauce than a long noodle where most of the sauce just drips off.
See my Creamy Rotini Alfredo with Asparagus and Peas for the full recipe or try this other cashew-based Alfredo sauce. Alfredo sauce can also be made using other nuts and seeds like this Creamy Pumpkin Seed Alfredo with Kale and Sweet Peas. When I make my Spicy Alfredo with Greens, I use a combination of vegan butter, coconut milk, and vegan grated parmesan to make an incredibly delicious sauce with added greens for color and flavor. I make a lighter version of this by using lite coconut milk and fresh lemon juice similar to this Lemon-Butter Fettuccine with Parsley and Pine Nuts.
Creamy Alfredo-type sauces can be even healthier when made with cauliflower. Try this Fettuccine Alfredo with Zucchini Pasta & Cauliflower Sauce, Vegetable Rigatoni with Creamy Cauliflower Sauce, and Spaghetti Squash With Basil and Creamy Cauliflower Alfredo Sauce.
6. Pesto Sauce
The first time I tried pasta with pesto sauce, I absolutely loved it. The next time I had it at another restaurant, I didn’t like it at all. Then I learned to make my own pesto sauce but I don’t play by the rules. I have never made pesto with pine nuts. I prefer walnuts which are less expensive and have more flavor.
You can use any kind of nut you like including peanuts, cashews and even pumpkin seeds. While I often use basil for my pesto, I like to change it up now and then by using other leaves such as parsley, cilantro, spinach, and kale. I even made a delicious pesto using radish greens.
My Basil-Walnut Pesto is easy to make: in a food processor, combine 4 cups of basil, ½ cup of walnuts, 4 cloves garlic, 2 teaspoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast or vegan grated parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste. Process the ingredients while streaming 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil in, until the pesto is smooth. A trick that will less you use less or no oil is to add in ½ an avocado for a healthy fat alternative. Loosen the pesto up with some of the starchy cooking water from the pasta to make an incredible pasta sauce.
For bright, fresh pasta dishes with pesto sauce, try this Zucchini Pasta with Pesto Sauce, 5 Minute Basil Pesto Raw Zucchini Pasta, Ramp and Spinach Pesto Pasta, and Carrot Beet Angel Hair Pasta with Spicy Pine Nut and Pistachio Pesto.
7. Vegetable Sauces
One way to have your pasta but also make sure you get your veggies is to make pasta sauce out of the veggies. My favorite recipe like this is my Spicy Pumpkin Penne with Vegan Feta and Hazelnuts. The pumpkin puree makes a rich, creamy sauce and without any added cream so it’s figure-friendly. That means you can eat even more pasta…I think.
Cook 1 lb. penne in a large pot of salted boiling water according to package directions. Drain the penne when al dente. Reserve up to ½ cup of the starchy cooking water in case you need to loosen the sauce later. Melt 3 Tbs. vegan butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Let the butter get slightly brown and nutty, about 3 minutes. Add 1 minced shallot and 2 minced garlic cloves and sauté about 2 minutes. Do not let them burn. Add ½ tsp. red pepper flakes and 1 Tbs. fresh sage (or 1 tsp. dried sage). Cook for another minute. Stir in 2 cups pumpkin puree. Whisk in 2 cups vegetable broth until you have a looser sauce. Season with salt and pepper, to your taste. Add the drained penne to the saucepan.
Toss to coat it with the pumpkin sauce. Toss the penne with 2 more Tbs. fresh sage, 6 oz. vegan feta and 1/3 cup chopped hazelnuts (reserve some of each for garnish). Add 3 Tbs. chopped parsley to the penne. If the sauce is too thick, add some of the reserved starchy cooking water to loosen it but you may not need to. Garnish with the remaining vegan feta and hazelnuts. Serve while hot.
For other pasta sauces made with veggies, try this Pumpkin Sage Pasta, Rigatoni with Roasted Garlic Butternut Squash Sauce, Succulent Tortellini With a Nut Cream and Wild Mushroom Sauce, and Raw Zucchini Pasta with Creamy Avocado-Cucumber Sauce.
These are 7 ways to make amazing sauces for your pasta dishes and there are so many more variations, it may take a second article. In the meantime, all this talk of pasta has made me hungry. I wonder which type of pasta sauce I should make…
Lead Image Source: Spicy Pumpkin Penne by Rhea Parsons