If you spend even a little time in the kitchen, chances are you know how to make a decent basic tomato sauce from canned tomatoes. But why settle for decent when with a few simple considerations, you can make it great?

Tomato sauce is one of the first things I learned to cook (not surprising, given my name). But over the years, I've noticed that it has improved substantially as I've made various small but significant changes -- from the types of canned tomatoes and olive oil I use to the amount of time I let the garlic brown in the pan to how long I let the sauce simmer.

By paying attention to such elements, I've come up with a basic sauce that can stand on its own, with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese) as its only enhancement. It is also an excellent foundation on which to build other sauces.

A good canned-tomato sauce starts, of course, with good tomatoes. To achieve a sauce that tastes as fresh as possible, I use whole peeled tomatoes in juice, flavored only with basil leaf. Diced, chopped or pureed tomatoes tend to produce a thicker sauce whose flavor is a little too reminiscent of tomato paste for my taste. Look for imported San Marzano tomatoes, a highly regarded variety grown south of Naples that is prized for its sweet and delicate flavor. Having said that, let me break the rule, or at least bend it a little, by throwing in the contents of a small (15-ounce) can of stewed tomatoes. These help to intensify the flavor of a canned-tomato sauce without crossing over into pastiness issues with the texture. (I steer clear of stewed tomatoes flavored with "Italian" spices. Usually this means dried oregano, which does nothing to improve the sauce and makes it taste like it came from a jar.) I don't bother to seed the canned tomatoes, but if you prefer you can easily remove the seeds by poking through the tomato with your thumb and pushing them out.

A splash of good extra-virgin olive oil, a clove or two of smashed garlic, salt and a handful of fresh herbs are the only other ingredients you need for a good basic sauce.

At this time of year, you might run into difficulty finding fresh basil. If the only available kind is hydroponic basil (cultivated in water), my advice would be to skip it; it's expensive and has next to no flavor. Instead, take advantage of fresh fall herbs such as rosemary, thyme or even fresh oregano, which is sweeter and more subtle than its heavy-handed dried counterpart.

The first step is to lightly fry the garlic in the oil, just until it releases its fragrance -- don't let it turn brown or it will become bitter. When the oil is hot and the garlic has done its part, pour in the tomatoes, crush them lightly with a potato masher, add a sprinkle of salt, and if you're using fall herbs, add those as well, finely chopped. (If you're using the more tender basil, wait until the sauce is done before adding it.)

Let the sauce simmer for at least 20 minutes to neutralize the acidity of the tomatoes and bring out their sweetness. When the tomatoes separate from the oil, your sauce is done. Simply turn off the heat. If you are using basil, now is the time to stir in a handful of shredded or torn leaves.

To create variations, choose a central ingredient to add to the sauce -- mushrooms, peppers, potatoes or sausages are all good choices (but don't use them all together or you will end up with stew rather than sauce). Saute your ingredients in a little olive oil to coax their flavors before adding them to the simmering tomatoes and allowing them to finish cooking together. This will produce a more robust sauce, the kind that is particularly welcome as the days grow shorter and cooler.

Don't forget that while these sauces are great tossed with pasta, they have other uses, too. A tomato-mushroom ragu makes an excellent topping for pizza. On a cold fall night, a breaded chicken or veal cutlet simmered in a sauce of tomatoes and sweet peppers is pretty hard to beat.

Basic Canned Tomato Sauce

Makes about 4 cups, more than enough to sauce a pound of pasta

This sauce is perfectly respectable in its own right, and forms the basis for several other sauces; see recipes that follow.

28-ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes in juice, preferably imported San Marzano

14.5-ounce can stewed tomatoes

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

A handful of fresh basil or other herbs, shredded or torn

Pour the whole and stewed tomatoes into a large bowl and use a potato masher or your hands to break them into coarse chunks. Set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil and garlic. When the garlic starts to sizzle and releases its fragrance, carefully add the tomatoes (the oil will splatter). Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the tomatoes to a simmer. Add the salt and reduce the heat to medium. Simmer, uncovered, for 30 to 35 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened and the oil has separated from the tomatoes. (Reduce the heat to medium-low if it is simmering too fiercely.) Turn off the heat and stir in the basil or other herbs.

Per serving: 152 calories, 3 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 11 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 322 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Tomato and Tri-Color Pepper Sauce

Makes 5 to 6 cups, enough to sauce 2 pounds of pasta

This recipe works well over pasta or breaded chicken or veal cutlets. I also like to fry eggs in it as sort of an Italian version of huevos rancheros.

Basic Canned Tomato Sauce (basil omitted; see recipe above)

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium red onion, peeled, halved and sliced (about 2 cups)

3 bell peppers (1 each red, orange and yellow), seeded and cut into thin strips

Pinch ground cayenne pepper (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Start making the Basic Canned Tomato Sauce.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, warm the garlic in the oil until it releases its fragrance. Add the onion and saute for 5 minutes, until it just begins to become translucent. Add the peppers and, if desired, cayenne pepper, stir to coat well and cook, stirring from time to time, until tender, about 20 minutes.

When the peppers are tender, stir them into the sauce and continue to cook until the Basic Canned Tomato Sauce has simmered for the full amount of time, about 10 more minutes. Remove from the heat and remove and discard the garlic cloves. Stir in the parsley.

Per serving: 248 calories, 4 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 325 mg sodium, 6 gm dietary fiber

Mushroom Ragu

Makes about 5 cups, enough to dress

11/2 pounds of pasta

This robust sauce can be served over fettuccine or polenta, sprinkled liberally with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Basic Canned Tomato Sauce (basil omitted; see recipe above)

1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms

1 cup boiling water

1 pound mixed mushrooms (such as cremini, baby bellas, portobellos and oyster mushrooms)

1 large clove garlic, sliced paper-thin

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

1 sprig fresh thyme

1/2 cup dry white wine

Start making the Basic Canned Tomato Sauce.

Place the porcini mushrooms in a small bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Set aside.

Clean the fresh mushrooms with a damp paper towel. Slice off the ends of the stems and slice the caps. If using oyster mushrooms, break the clumps into individual mushrooms but leave the mushrooms whole.

In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the garlic in the oil and butter for about 5 minutes, until the garlic is softened but not browned. Add the fresh mushrooms, salt, pepper and thyme. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, tossing occasionally, until the liquid released by the mushrooms has evaporated and the mushrooms are tender, about 12 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the slices. Add the wine and continue to cook until the wine has evaporated, about 3 minutes.

Stir the sauteed mushrooms into the sauce. Drain the porcini mushrooms, chop them coarsely and add them to the sauce. Continue to simmer until the sauce has absorbed the flavors of the mushrooms, about 13 minutes (or as long as it takes for some pasta to cook).

Per serving: 346 calories, 9 gm protein, 38 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 623 mg sodium, 7 gm dietary fiber

Sweet Sausage and Tomato Sauce

Makes about 4 cups, more than enough to sauce a pound of pasta

Adding crumbled Italian sausage to a basic tomato sauce gives you a hearty meat sauce in much less time than it takes to make a traditional, long-simmered ragu. Use this sauce to dress pasta or as a topping for homemade pizza.

Basic Canned Tomato Sauce (see preceding recipe)

1 pound sweet Italian sausage (about 4 links)

1/2 cup dry white wine

Start making Basic Canned Tomato Sauce (do not add the basil at this point). While the sauce simmers, remove the sausage from its casings and crumble into a large skillet. Place the skillet over medium-high heat and cook, using a wooden spoon to break up the large clumps, until the sausage is just browned, about 15 minutes. Add the wine and saute for 2 to 3 minutes longer, until almost all the wine is evaporated and the liquid that remains is syrupy.

When the sausage is browned, stir it and the syrupy liquid into the sauce and continue to simmer until the flavors come together, about 20 more minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the basil or herbs from the recipe for the Basic Canned Tomato Sauce.

Per serving: 565 calories, 19 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 47 gm fat, 86 mg cholesterol, 14 gm saturated fat, 1153 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Domenica Marchetti last wrote for Food about sour cherries.