Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lets Talk Marinara

We never ate Marinara in my house. Mom always ridiculed any cook's sauce that did not take three hours or more to cook. This is funny because our island traditions do not really lean toward very long cooked sauces. This is more distinctly Sicilian. Northern versions would be like a Bolognese sauce. That does not mean that it does not exist elsewhere, but it is most commonly found in those places. When I describe Mom's sauce, Italian-Americans of southern origin generally say,"Oh, yeah, we call that gravy." Hurray for the Italian-American traditions and names. Grammie did do simple sauces. It is one of those little tragedies that I talk about so often that I was not old enough to remember her cooking on a grand scale. When I was a kid and she lived upstairs from us, she had the little apartment stove, perhaps cooked sauce in tiny portions for herself, but often ate with us. It was not necessary for her to cook sauce that often. I,like a loyal Momma's Boy did not taste her sauce ever, that I remember. (IDIOT)
I have listened to many recipes from friends, read dozens of cookbooks, seen dozens of TV shows and eaten hundreds of pounds of other people's pasta dishes over the years. This is what I have gleaned from those sources, a simple Marinara sauce.
I would love to hear about your variations on this theme. I will include a few suggestions for variations at the end.


Chop one large onion into medium dice

Fry in plenty of olive oil at a very low temperature till the onions clear and then just start to brown.

Just before the caramelizing begins add two or three finely chopped or crushed cloves of garlic.*

Add one tablespoon of sugar(to taste), salt (to taste), black pepper(to taste) and one 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes. I would prefer chopped or diced tomato, but usually these contain Calcium Citrate. The problem with this is that the preservative does not allow the tomatoes to break down as they cook in the way that a fresh tomato would. Italians use mostly canned tomatoes, just as we would. Fresh tomato can be out of season there just as here. San Marzano tomatoes, both fresh and canned, are the best to use. Substitute fresh chopped tomatoes if you prefer, but cherry tomatoes are sublime.**

Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce the temperature so that the sauce just simmers. Simmer for ten minutes or so. Longer cooking will reduce acidity, but may not be traditional.

In the last few minutes of cooking, add a handful of whole, chopped or torn Basil leaves. You may use dried Basil(earlier in the cooking), but this is absolutely inferior. The Basil should cook only enough to release the oils from the leaves.

Serve in any application you like with Parmesan, Ricotta Salata, Grana Padano or Pecorino Romano cheese. This might be a good opportunity to use the grating cheese you often see in the Salumeria with peppercorns all through it. The sauce is so simple, it may show up well.


Melt two anchovy fillets in the oils as the onion finishes cooking.

Add black olives or possibly even green if you are serving the sauce with fish.

Add capers, also particularly good with fish.

Add ground almonds.

Add mushrooms to the sauce as it begins to boil.

Stir in fried or grilled eggplant, Zucchini or other cooked vegetables.

Bake fish fillets or Sardines or Italian Herring under a layer of the sauce or just cook in the sauce as it simmers.

Drop in whole peeled shrimp, mussels or clams in the last few minutes of cooking, but cover tightly to steam.(try grated lemon peel and pepperoncino flakes with it)

Stir in Pepperoncini before you add the tomato.

Dry bread crumbs or fresh, sauteed in oil (with or without pepperoncini) sometimes top the final sauced dish instead of cheese.

Fry cuts of meat, pepperoni or sausage in the pan. Remove the meat, and make the sauce on top of the pan brownings. Scrape the brown bits into the sauce as you cook it. Serve the meat separately, or return it to the sauce during the simmering time. Remove the meat and serve as a secondo. Salami does not make a good meat for sauce unless you find salami Piccante from an Italian grocer. This is actually a pepperoni.

Many of the above or combinations of the above have specific names in Italy such as: Puttanesca, Norma, Arrabiata(mad sauce), Con Sarde, Cacciatore etc.

* Just a note about cooking garlic. Use fresh garlic cloves whenever you can. The longer you hold the garlic, the more likely they are to sprout a bit. If you cut the garlic cloves, you may notice the green sprout in the center of the clove. This sprout will be a little more bitter than a fresher clove. If you must use it, remove the sprout before you cut it any further. You might like the sprout minced very fine, fresh, in a dressing or just to eat. If you do want to cook it, it should be just barely wilted at a very low temperature.

** Prepare your fresh tomatoes by cutting a tiny X in just the skin of the tomatoes at the flower end. Plunge the tomatoes a couple at a time into a pan of rapidly boiling water. The skin will split from the X and loosen slightly from the tomato. Lift the tomato out with a slotted spoon, and plunge into cold water, or pick them up with a fork stuck in the stem end. Peel them with your thumb and the edge of a knife. Put the tomatoes aside to cool in a bowl. When cool enough to handle, cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and clean out the seeds with your finger. You may wish to put them into a soup or stock to be strained out later. If they have not cooked too long in the hot water, you might also spread them out in the sun to dry for planting later. The amount of heat will determine the viability of the seed though.
Now the flesh of the tomatoes may be chopped and used for cooking. Include any juices that can be saved.

I like smooth sauces. I do not like big chunks of slimy tomato in my sauce. I use canned tomato as most Italians do, but I crush the tomato so that the sauce does not have tomato slugs floating around in it.(Stewed tomatoes are the worst! However, if you mash them up they can be OK.) On the other hand, I do not mind the tomato in big chunks if it is not cooked to that slime consistency, and retains some of its fresher tomato character. You must decide for yourself how you like the finished character to be and what you remember from home. I think that the bottom line for me is that if it is on pasta, I like it smooth...if it is on a slice of grilled bread, topping a cutlet, slab of grilled zucchini, eggplant or something like that, chunky is great. I hate eating a plate of spaghetti and finding the chunks of tomato on the bottom because it did not stick. The whole point of the pasta is to make a uniform dish, so how does it work if all the chunky tomato slides off. That is not to say that it is no fun to mop the left over sauce with a piece of of food's greatest pleasures.

So here I am...on a diet...there is a big pot of vegetable stew on the stove. Now, all I can think about is a big plate of spaghetti and a chunk of bread dipped in olive oil and pepperoncino with Parmesan!!!!!!! Now where is my bread recipe?...Maybe I can burn off some caolries if I bake some bread.

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