Shells with Red Pepper-Tomato Sauce // Also, More Pegboard

shells with tomato-red bell pepper sauce

To say that the move north — from the weeks of packing to the two-day drive to the week of unpacking — has taken a toll on the children’s diet would be an understatement. There has been too much takeout, too many salty snacks, too many drive-thru visits. And I fear there has been irreparable damage: A few days ago when I pointed to a bunch of carrots in one of Graham’s favorite books, he, with complete confidence, identified them as, “hotdogs.”

Oiy. In this season of vegetable bounty, there is no excuse. I immediately set to work making a pasta sauce — sauce counts as a vegetable, right? — I learned years ago from The Tra Vigne Cookbook, a recipe Michael Chiarello learned from Jacques Pèpin. In the book, Chiarello pairs the sauce with stuffed chicken thighs and notes that any leftover sauce can be used to poach fish roulades, no doubt a suggestion made by Pèpin.

But that the sauce can be used for such a preparation gives you an idea of its consistency: it’s watery. And while I have always loved its fresh, clean flavor — there are no onions or garlic or crushed red pepper flakes (all of which I love) — these days I like it better when it’s cooked down even further until nearly all of the water evaporates and the tomatoes and bell peppers and basil reduce into a sweet, summery concentrate.

There are three distinct phases that occur when making this sauce, and once you can identify them, you’ll never need to refer to this recipe again. In phase one, diced tomatoes and peppers simmer with a small amount of water. In phase two, the peppers and tomatoes release their juices and the ratio of liquid to solids increases dramatically. In phase three, the peppers and tomatoes become meltingly tender and begin sticking to the bottom of the pan as the last bit of liquid evaporates.

After this transformation, which takes about 25 minutes, into the blender go the vegetables along with a handful of basil, a dab of butter and a drizzling of olive oil. Whizzed into a light orange purée, the finished sauce can be used on anything from pizza to eggplant involtini to simple shells garnished with shaved Pecorino, a dish adored by picky children and agreeable adults alike.

To me this sauce is the essence of summer, and while I can’t promise it will work miracles on your toddler’s vocabulary, it might help make strides. Last night, when I pointed to a tomato in the same favorite book, Graham exclaimed, “Apple!” I’ve never been so proud.

Finally, I just want to thank you all so much for your kind words in regard to the last post. Also, we, or Ben I should say, added another panel of pegboard to one of our kitchen walls. While it is a relatively simple project, I wrote up a rough how-to guide in case any of you are interested and need a little direction:


tomatoes, basil, bell peppers


four cups total: 2cups tomatoes, 2 cups red bell peppers

Pot filled with 2 cups tomatoes, 2 cups bell peppers, and 1/2 cup water:
into the pot with a small amount of water

After about 25 minutes of simmering, the sauce will start looking like this. It’s almost ready for the blender at this point:
almost there

Now it’s ready:
ready to be blended

into the food processor


sauce in jar

cooked shells

tossing the shells with the red bell pepper-tomato sauce

Red Bell Pepper and Tomato Sauce with Basil

Inspired by a red pepper tomato sauce in The Tra Vigne Cookbook , the book that introduced me to summer squash spaghetti, another favorite recipe this time of year

2 red bell peppers (to yield about 2 cups chopped), stemmed and seeded
2 beefsteak tomatoes (to yield about 2 cups chopped)
water, about 1/2 cup
kosher salt
freshly cracked pepper
fresh basil leaves, (1/4 to 1/2 cup loosely packed)
1 to 2 tablespoons of butter, room temperature
1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil

1. Dice the peppers. Depending on the size, you will have about 2 cups. Place in a medium-sized saucepan or pot. Dice the tomatoes. Again, depending on the size you should have about 2 cups. Add to the pot. Pour in 1/2 cup water and turn heat to high. Season with salt and pepper to taste. I have been using about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt.

2. Bring to a simmer, then turn heat down to medium high. Set a timer for 25 minutes. After about five minutes, the tomatoes and peppers will begin to release their juices, and the whole mixture should be bubbling. Adjust the heat if necessary so that the mixture stays at a constant bubble — medium to medium-high should do it. Stir every five minutes or so to make sure the tomatoes and peppers are not sticking to the bottom of the pan. If they are, add water by the quarter cup.

3. After about 25 minutes or more or less — when the peppers and tomatoes are tender and nearly all of the liquid has evaporated — add the basil to the pot, give it a stir, then transfer the contents of the pot to a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth. Add as much butter and olive oil as you like. I use 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Blend again until smooth. Taste. Adjust seasoning as necessary.


  1. says

    Delicious! I have not had pasta in a while… and I remember the summer squash spaghetti post, I pinned it to make it later and never did! good reminder!

  2. says

    I love when you take a good recipe and put your preference/twist on it — always to our advantage, as readers! Sounds amazing and what a wonderful way to show off summer’s final fling.

    Hope you all are settling in well!

  3. Laurie F says

    What a beautiful color that sauce is! The paint is bought, the floor will go in in about 3 weeks (way too long!) and the space for the pegboard is waiting to be filled in!

  4. says

    I love your pegboard, it looks great. I sent the link to my husband, hint hint, nudge nudge.

    I love shells, it’s one of my favorite pastas so I love that you made this recipe with them! I am definitely making this, pinning now!

    • says

      We put up pegboard in every apartment we lived in from Philadelphia to California, and it wasn’t until we moved to VA that we stopped. It is the best space saver ever. I love love love my pegboard. I hope your husband gets the hint :)

  5. says

    Sauce definitely counts as a vegetable if you ask me! My mum makes a similar sauce – same ingredients, different method. She roasts the peppers until charred (peels and discards the skins) then combines the roasted peppers with fresh tomatoes, basil, salt, pepper and olive oil in the blender. She simmers the sauce for just a few minutes, to thicken slightly, before stirring through cooked pasta and topping the lot with fresh parmesan. I like your method because it avoids the mess of roasting and peeling the peppers! Thanks for the recipe, and happy new home to you and your family. -Alex

    • says

      Your mum’s sauce sounds delicious! I meant to note this in the recipe and post, but the sauce almost tastes like roasted red peppers, which is part of the reason I love it so much. Something magical happens when making it — I love how with so few ingredients so much flavor is generated.

  6. says

    I wanted a pegboard for my kitchen when we moved into our new place, but being 9 months pregnant, I wasn’t quite up to the DIY task. Instead, I had my husband install hooks and bars from Ikea which ended up being a great storage solution!

    • says

      Good move, Ann :) And I think I had that same bar and hooks from IKEA. I had it hanging above my stove, and I loved it. It’s perfect for utensils, and I love that it doesn’t take up counter space.

    • says

      I’m so happy to hear this. I think if I were still in VA, I probably wouldn’t even be thinking about pasta, but this cooler NY weather is already making me excited for chili and soup and stew.

    • says

      Khurram — I’m not sure I am understanding. Are you wondering if it is OK to remove the seeds from the tomatoes before cooking them? That is totally ok if it is preferable for you because of health issues. Otherwise, there is no need to do that sort of work for this recipe.

  7. Emily P says

    Mom whipped up this sauce for me and we tossed the dressed pasta with feta, spinach, olives, and pine nuts. Yum!

  8. says

    Your apple story reminds me of a story about my brother. We were on a family drive when my little brother looked out of his ca rwindow and saw a herd of cows. He got all excited and started yelling “chickens”! He still hasn’t lived it down. This sauce looks scrumptious by the way!

  9. says

    i will definitely make this tomorrow! i have some fresh basil and tomotoes from my garden, just need to get some peppers :) thanks for the great recipes!

  10. Brenda says

    I only recently discovered your blog/website and love, love, love it! I think I got your link from Food52. Your wonderful pegboard reminds me of Julia Child’s old cooking show many years ago (black and white TV) ….can you guess my age now! She had an entire pegboard wall. Wish I had room in my tiny kitchen. Just made your Vanilla Almond Biscotti today and last week your Honey Wheat Bread. Yummy yum!

    • says

      Brenda, hi, and thank you! I would love a wall of pegboard. And I love Julia’s, too — I watch old episodes of the French chef via Amazon/roku, and I just love looking at that old kitchen. So happy you made both of those recipes — two of my absolute faves! Thanks so much for writing in!

  11. Anne Murphy says

    Made this yesterday and it was FABULOUS. Had a feeling this was going to be delish so I doubled the amount so I could freeze some for later. I also made a batch in which I roasted the red peppers, tomatoes and garlic first but I like this one better. Thanks for the great recipe!

    • says

      Wonderful to hear this! I have a quart in my freezer, too, and per Wendi’s suggestion, I am going to try making soup tomorrow. And thank you for commenting in regard to roasting because I was thinking about doing the same thing. I love how the flavor of this sauce tastes like roasted red peppers without the work, and I couldn’t help but think roasting would be add another layer of flavor, but I’m happy to hear your input. It’s funny how sometimes the simpler we keep things the better they are? Thanks for writing in.

    • says

      Wonderful to hear this! I have a quart in my freezer, too, and per Wendi’s suggestion, I am going to try making soup tomorrow. And thank you for commenting in regard to roasting because I was thinking about doing the same thing. I love how the flavor of this sauce tastes like roasted red peppers without the work, and I couldn’t help but think roasting would be add another layer of flavor, but I’m happy to hear your input. It’s funny how sometimes the simpler we keep things the better they are? Thanks for writing in.

  12. says

    Thanks for another winner. Not only is this a great pasta sauce but if you make a big (like 3x) batch and pass it through a strainer after the food processor, you’ve got soup. Which is why I have 2 quarts of it in my freezer now.

    • says

      Amazing. I need to do the same. It will be so nice to have some of this on hand a month or two down the road. I have a counter full of tomatoes I need to rescue from the fruit flies. Tomorrow = soup making day. Thanks :)

  13. says

    I am making this right now with the bell peppers and tomatoes that I had left from last (!) week. I’m sure my roommate and I are going to looove this. If it’s OK with you, I might feature this recipe on my tiny little blog some time..? Now I’m off to check your other recipes, since I’m new to your blog. Loving it already.

  14. Greg says

    Hi Alexandra,
    I just made this easy delicious recipe because I had a few ripe red peppers on my deck garden along with several with some tomatoes I had to use.
    I just followed your pictures/recipe and it turned out great.
    I’m going to surprise my girl friend by making her dinner tonight.

    • says

      Wonderful to hear this, Greg! This is one of my favorites this time of year, too. We’ve been getting beautiful peppers in our CSA. Hope your girlfriend approved! How nice to have homegrown peppers on hand!

  15. Karen says

    Just made this last night. Fantastic! While it was cooking, hubby asked “what, no garlic?”. We were both surprised at how flavorful it was for so few ingredients. Used one red and one yellow bell pepper because that’s all I had on hand. Did use tomatoes from the garden, but had to buy basil as I’m not having luck with it in the garden this year. I will definitely be making this again (and again). Thanks!

  16. Nivedha says

    I know this is quite an old post, but I tried this today and it came out excellently. Thank you so much for the recipe!

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