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Real Convenience Food: Meals in 15 minutes

May 15, 2009

Every Italian knows that a tomato pasta sauce is easy and quick to make. The prevalence of tomato sauce in a jar is perhaps a sign that we really have lost the plot. It bears no resemblance to a ‘real’ homemade pasta sauce despite feats of manufacturing trickery with thickeners and powdered this and that. Even if we’ve mislaid our tastebuds over the decades, perhaps the high price/profit margins might – in our credit crunched times – make us think twice? I tried 6 sauces in a jar to see if any could come close to a real pasta sauce.


Supermarket Tomato and basil sauce in a jar
(prices are for large-size jars around 500ml)

Worst: Joint winner: Loyd Grossman (£2.10)

grossWhat on earth is Grossman doing endorsing this? Really unpleasant in all ways; sauce appeared to be an a watery slick of oil speckled with tomato juice and enormous lumps of tinned tomatoes. It tasted as though the ingredients had not been cooked in any way?

Smell: vinegar with musty herb top notes!
Taste: Bland, no discernable tomato taste, but with strange acidic aftertaste
Appearance: lumps and watery ‘sauce’, brown herbs, visible oil slicks

Worst: Joint winner: Seeds of Change (mass market organic-owned by Mars) (£2.29)

seedsWhy are the Soil Association endorsing this? The long list of ingredients and fillers (tapioca starch, locust bean gum) surely do not comply with the ethos of organic which aims for as little processing as possible.

Smell: peculiar strong, vinegary aroma
Taste: acidic taste/ cloying texture  which coats mouth unpleasantly and stings slightly. No tomato taste detected. Long list of ingredients competing unsuccessfully with each other.
Appearance: overly orange, visible oil slicks, very thick (because of the fillers not the quality of the sauce)


Best: Morrisons’ ‘Best’ (£1.40)

morrisonsA surprise winner – own-label supermarket brand.

Smell: Slightly tomato-ey
Appearance: most like a home-made sauce – not too thick, not too thin
Taste: Definite taste of tomato – but still a little too herby.





binAll must try (a lot) harder and fix the balance of flavours. Not good value.

Would I eat them again? – No – and my children have begged me not to make them eat them either!




Real (quick) tomato sauce
15 minutes start to finish
40-50p for 4 people

•    1 fine chopped small onion and 1-2 cloves chopped or squashed garlic fried gently in olive oil (no need for extra virgin here) for 5 minutes min.

•    Add pinch of oregano and thyme (dried herbs are fine and add a certain sweetness)

•    Pour in a tin chopped tomatoes (better the quality, better the taste: obvious really. I’d go for Waitrose own label (more tomatoes than other brands). Simmer for as long as you’ve got – about 15-20 minutes is ideal).

•    Add black pepper and pinch salt.

•    Ring the changes by adding a few tablespoons of mascarpone cheese or some mushrooms or red peppers and/ or some fresh basil

That’s it: 5 minutes to get the ingredients chopped and into the pan. 10 minutes to cook. It is ultra convenient: you can heat it up later, leave some for the next day.

Time and motion: While the tomatoes are simmering, put the pasta into a pan of boiling water to cook for 10 minutes. Meanwhile make a quick salad or toss some French beans into boiling water as a healthy accompaniment.

So why doesn’t the UK cook?

Europeans are mystified by the quantity of TV cookery programmes we in the UK watch and the amount of processed foods we eat. The myth that all cooking is just too hard or that in a 24-hour day we can’t spend 15 minutes making a meal has been perpetuated by the self interest of the food industry. With their vast advertising budgets delivering a series of images of stressed out parents and busy-busy ‘professionals’ we have been continuously told over the last 30 years that we are too busy to cook – and the subliminal message is that if we’re not then somehow we are losers; not part of an achieving society.

Of course, it’s not just advertising manipulating generations of refusenik cooks. With increasing numbers being happy to admit they ‘can’t cook, won’t cook’ it’s no wonder that many of us in the UK can’t even boil an egg. We are currently raising generations of children who never see their parents cook and learn that food comes form the supermarket in a tin, jar or cardboard packet. How can we expect children to recognise good food (or see the point in cooking) when they’ve been trained to recognise processed food flavours not real ones?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Joe permalink
    October 22, 2009 10:51 pm

    Lovely! What d’you mean by ‘as long as you’ve got’? Do the tomatoes get sweeter if you go beyond 20 mins? Great blog BTW.

    • fooddigest permalink*
      October 23, 2009 9:09 am

      This is the laid-back school of cookery instruction! The flavour gets more intense if you let it simmer for about 20 minutes – half an hour. Bit like curry tasting better if you leave it a day.

  2. May 15, 2009 8:47 pm

    Great Post! My husband and I are always keen on making pasta at home but hate the bottled sauces and are way too impatient to look good ones up online. Your recipe sounds great and I’ll be trying it for sure!

  3. May 15, 2009 1:15 pm

    2009 May 15
    Fiona Beckett

    I came to the same conclusion myself when I was writing my student cookery books (the Beyond Baked Beans series) though it was interesting to read that you found Morrisons the best bet. My sauce is even easier if anything – slosh of olive oil, gently fry a crushed clove of garlic, tip in a tin of tomatoes, crush down if whole and simmer for 10 minutes. Herbs while nice are not essential. So much cheaper and nicer!

    • fooddigest permalink*
      May 15, 2009 2:10 pm

      Thanks for your even quicker version – reckon at a pinch most of us could knock out most pasta sauces in 5 mins

  4. May 15, 2009 12:48 pm

    always astonished that so many people swallow the supermarkets’ “convenience” con
    pasta sauces are a classic example
    there are so many good fresh simple things that can be stirred into a pan of hot pasta with no more effort than it takes to open a jar or switch on a microwave
    (eg: which, by complete coincidence, I posted last night)

    my all time favourite is the frozen omelette
    it definitely takes more effort to defrost, open the (abundant) packaging and re-heat a factory produced omelette than it does to tip a beaten egg into a hot frying pan

    really simple home cooked food – tastes better – fresher – costs less
    it’s a no-brainer

    • fooddigest permalink*
      May 15, 2009 2:08 pm

      Yuk! Frozen omlette. Remember first time I saw strange ‘convenience’ egg products in US supermarkets in the 90s -where there was no fresh food to be had.

      Like the look of your linguine – also like crab with dash single cream, parsley, garlic and a little red chili

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