My #1 Costco Pantry Item Is So Versatile, I Can Make 5 Very Different Family Meals With It

published May 17, 2022
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If I were stranded on a desert island with only a few pantry staples to sustain me, in addition to my tins of fish and bags of rice, I would insist on a case of Rao’s Marinara sauce. It’s a constant item on my grocery order, and when we find ourselves at Costco, we stock up on the big jars to hoard in our basement cupboard. Whenever I have a jar of Rao’s marinara sauce in my pantry (and I always do), I feel confident that I can get a meal on the table without too much fuss.

Of course, there’s the obvious—pasta. Unlike pretty much any other jarred marinara sauce I’ve tried, Rao’s has a fresh, bright flavor. It tastes like summer tomatoes and garlic with a hint of basil, and really, all it needs is a little pasta backdrop to shine like the diamond in the rough of jarred sauce that it is. 

For many, myself included, getting a table at the Harlem institution that is Rao’s flagship restaurant is impossible. After a three-star review in the New York Times in 1977, owner Frank Pellegrino began selling tables to regulars, his most loyal supporters, who held them like savvy New York real estate tycoons, keenly aware of the treasure they possessed. You can call for a reservation (good luck) or snag a seat at the bar and wait (a gambit, but a fun one at least), but otherwise, popping open a jar of Rao’s marinara sauce while listening to Frank Sinatra might be as close as you can hope to get.

We use Rao’s marinara for a lot more than pasta around our house. My oldest daughter, Lily, loves when I fry slices of cooked, cooled polenta until they get crispy and then arrange them on a pool of Rao’s with some shaved parmesan on top. Another frequent move is using Rao’s as the base for creamy tomato soup. All the right flavors are already present in the jarred sauce, so all I have to do is thin it with a splash of chicken or vegetable stock and then add a few glugs of heavy cream. It’s the perfect, three-ingredient tomato soup that pleases grown-ups and kids alike, especially when it’s served with a toasty grilled cheese sandwich.

Credit: Stephanie Ganz

When Rao’s marinara functions as an ingredient, its potential only expands. Take, for example, nachos. I love a loaded sheet tray nacho situation, with tons of cheese, refried beans, and a tomato-chili sauce. To make the sauce, I blend Rao’s and a few chipotles in adobo, smashing the chilies with the back of a fork into the sauce. It’s a reasonable (though, obviously, not traditional) facsimile of a Mexican red sauce, and it comes together in seconds. That’s a win.

Credit: Stephanie Ganz

I’ll even eat my beloved sauce for breakfast. Rao’s is a no-brainer base for shakshuka. For my quick and simple version, I poach a couple eggs and drop them in the warm sauce to continue cooking. Before mingling with the eggs, I add a few squirts of peppery harissa to the sauce to give it the requisite kick. Add a sprinkle of cilantro and some crumbled feta, and it’s good to go. And it’s imperative that I have bread on hand for dipping.

Beyond marinara, Rao’s Homemade, the brand of Rao’s grocery products, offers a selection of sauces, including a rich and creamy Vodka Sauce, an umami-packed Sun Dried Tomato Pesto, and a fiery Arrabbiata, plus dried pastas, jarred soups, and even a line of frozen foods. Though I haven’t sampled them all, the ones I’ve tried live up to exacting standards that Rao’s is known for. As for landing a table at Rao’s, that might not be in the cards, but a girl can dream.