Me and Marinara
The funny thing about me and spaghetti sauce is that I did not grow up in an Italian household. If I had to point at one nationality for our home, I would said “Kansan” which is a lot like Missourian, but we have better college teams. Still, despite the lack of an Italian grandmother who could pass on her famous meatballs the she brought over from the old country, in my house we ate A LOT of Italian food: lasagna, spaghetti, linguine, meatballs, and so on…
Still, despite all that, we do not have a tradition of the slow cooked Sunday gravy that made me drool during so many Sopranos episodes. This is why, as I have come into my culinary own, I have had to strive to figure out to make slow cooked spaghetti sauce like the one to the right. It took a while (and a few wasted cans of tomatoes) before I finally got it right.
San Marzano Plum Tomatoes
I thank Mario Batali for helping me get to the promised land on this one. I have watched enough Molto Mario that I now know when it comes time to make marinara, there’s only one place to turn: San Marzano whole tomatoes. There is nothing wrong with Hunt’s if you cannot find San Marzano, but these premium plum tomatoes that come from Italy have a richer taste and seem to be juicier, which is perfect when making marinara sauce.
Like I said, if you cannot find them (I could not for years until Whole Foods started carrying them and I was not going to pay Dean and Deluca prices for them) go with whole Hunts tomatoes. I find they are the best non-San Marzano brand.
Okay, anyway, recipe time…
Recipe: Elegant Marinara
You will need: (meat ingredients written in orange)
- 2 pounds ground chuck or 2 packages faux hamburger
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 4-6 strips of bacon, cut into rough pieces
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (you will need 4 if cooking with meat)
- 1 large white onion, finely diced
- 6 cloves garlic, finely diced
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flake
- 1 teaspoon salt + more to taste
- 2 teaspoons black pepper + more to taste
- 2 28 oz cans whole plum tomatoes
- 3-4 leaves fresh sage, chopped or 1 tablespoon dried
- 6-8 leaves fresh basil, chopped or 2 tablespoons dried
- 2 tablespoons dried parsely*
* Please use English (not flat leaf) parsely. The parsely is only there to make the sauce look pretty. That’s why I use dried parsely…it brings no flava to the party! Look at the picture above. See the green? That’s parsely…
If you want to make this with meat, preheat a skillet over medium heat. Add the hamburger, break up with a wooden spoon and add the oregano. Cook over medium heat, stirring every few minutes until the meat is thoroughly browned. Wash with water and drain the fat if you are watching your weight.
If you are using faux meat, cook with oregano.
In a good size skillet or pot, heat the olive oil over high heat. Add the bacon and cook until the fat has run out, usually 4-5 minutes. Remove the bacon and discard.
Add two tablespoons of olive oil, even if you are cooking with meat. When the oil is hot, add the onions, garlic, red pepper flake, salt, and pepper. Cook for 4-5 minutes until the onions start to turn clear.
Add the plum tomatoes and their juice. Now, you may notice they are still basically perfect little balls. I highly advise against cooking them that way. They might explode into little red balls of hot liquid, which means you need to burst them before the heat can. You can either prick them with a fork or a knife or you can do the Mario Batali (and Chris Perrin) method of reaching in and squeezing them with your hand. Just beware organic shrapnel!
Once the tomatoes are no longer spheres, bring them and their juice to a boil. This may take up to 10 minutes. Cover partially, leaving a hole for steam to escape (see the picture to the left). Reduce the heat to medium and boil for 15 minutes.
Add the sage, basil and parsely and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes or until the sauce has reached the required thickness.
If you are cooking with meat, add the hamburger back in and stir until warm.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
- The resulting sauce is going to be pretty chunky. There are a couple of ways around this. First, you can use a potato masher or an immersion blender or a regular blender to break up the tomatoes. The choice is yours. Me, I keep things chunky.
- If you are a compulsive stirrer like myself (you know, you can’t let the pot sit on the stove without giving it a stir) this is your recipe! You basically cannot overstir the sauce and frequently stirring will keep the tomatoes and onions from burning on the bottom.
- I intentionally kept this sauce a little bland. It’s a template. Do with it what you want! It’s yours now. Me, I’ll add 2 tablespoons of garlic powder, another 2 teaspoons of red pepper flake, 2 teaspoons of black pepper, and a healthy pinch of salt.