Marinara goes a long way, and is not too expensive to make. The traditional Italian tomato sauce makes enough to feed a small family, or a couple of famished reporters for a few days. It is a versatile sauce that can be included or featured in a number of other dishes.
My friend Portia Ezell of Eldora’s Books shared a story with me about an army colonel she met. The retired colonel said said that the key ingredient in spaghetti sauce was bourbon. The man told her he would drink about a half-pint as he cooked, and when all was said and done, a number of wonderful and interesting ingredients had gone into the sauce. She wondered if he was too “snockered” to eat the pasta after the sauce was finished though. Marinara is versitile enough for a number of savory ingredients.
My own marinara sauce is pretty straightforward. I begin by seasoning the pot by sautéing about a half a sweet onion, and maybe a heaping teaspoon full of minced garlic in olive oil, with a little oregano, basil, sea salt and cracked pepper until the onions are translucent. Just add a dash of each herb and spice at this point. The main thing is to season the pot. Sweet onions are wonderful things, as they balance the acidity of the tomatoes and tomato sauce, making for a sweet sauce. They caramelize as they cook, adding additional sweetness.
After the onions are done, add 38 ounces of canned tomato sauce and one small can of tomato paste. The tomato paste again is a thickening ingredient. Fresh vegetables are essential for a good sauce. Cut a large green bell pepper into bite-sized cubes, and add eight ounces of fresh, sliced mushrooms. Two large, ripe tomatoes work well cut into large sections. Throw them in as well.
Seasoning is again fairly simple to remember. My three favorite Italian herbs appear in a 3:2:1 ratio. Three tablespoons of parsley, two tablespoons of oregano, and one, to one-and-a-half of basil make it taste authentic. Fresh herbs are scarce in Trigg County, so these proportions are for dried herbs. I also add about a half-teaspoon of crushed red pepper, and fresh-cracked black pepper to taste. One more heaping teaspoon of garlic adds flavor. But, if you are like my mother and detest garlic, skip it entirely. A quarter cup of red wine adds a little more sweetness. Use a Chianti or cabernet sauvignon if possible, or some of the commercial cooking wine available locally. If you use potable wine, then you may need a little sea salt as well. Again, salt and pepper are to taste. Leave it a little under salted for your family or guests to add their own. Drop in two bay leaves, but remember to take them out when the sauce is finished.
Now we add the final starting ingredient, and perhaps the secret of a good sauce, extra-virgin olive oil. Science tells us that olive oil replaces some of the bad cholesterol in our bodies, but I like it because it tastes great, and has a unique effect on the sauce, besides great flavor. A tablespoon-and-a-half gives the sauce a smooth texture. Try it and see.
After an hour or 90 minute simmering with the lid on, add the other half of the onion you seasoned the pot with. Wait another hour, and this is where Portia’s lesson comes in. I’ve experimented with other ingredients such as artichoke hearts, capers, zucchini, or even shrimp and scallops to make the sauce unique. If you add seafood, make sure they are fully cooked before serving, and the added vegetables are tender. You don’t have to add anything, it is a fine sauce as is.
In Italian, “alla marinara” means “by the sailor” and featured seafood. Traditional American marinara is usually without meat, though this would be a good time to add meatballs. Hawkins, who usually eats with me, said he prefers a meaty sauce, though I chided him for being “nontraditional.” If your family prefers a meat sauce, use ground beef or pork, or a healthful alternative, turkey, before you cook. Brown it when you sauté the onions and garlic, then continue cooking. Personally, I like it without meats. Bite-sized pieces of grilled Italian sausage also make for a spicy treat.
I usually pour the sauce over whole wheat pasta, preferring mine “al dente” which means “by teeth,”- tender, but still firm. Hawkins thinks it’s undercooked. Top with freshly grated parmigiana cheese if available, or use the grated cheese in a bag. Try to avoid the stuff in the green can, as it lacks both flavor and texture. Serve with garlic bread and salad with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar a Caesar salad.
Some variations to try with the sauce: top your chicken parmigiana with it, and some mozzarella cheese once the chicken is cooked, give it a quick broil to melt the cheese. Use as a savory pizza sauce. One extra favorite of mine is vodka sauce. Take a single portion size of the marinara, add a half-ounce of vodka then blend with heavy cream until the sauce is the color of an orange peel. Serve over fresh pasta.
A pot of marinara sauce serves four, and features ample amounts of the antioxidant lycopine, which is thought to be good for the heart and could protect against cancer. It should be simmered at least two, and preferably three hours to blend the flavors completely. Good eating to all!