Italian Cooking: Marinara Sauce

I am often asked for the “secret” to good Italian cooking, as if there is some trick involved in getting it just right, and people are surprised to learn that the only secret is to keep it simple and use the freshest, highest quality ingredients you can find. Honestly, that’s all there is to it when it comes to Italian food: simplicity and freshness. Keep that in mind, and you can turn out dishes which are as good as any to be found in Italy itself.

Marinara sauce is one example. It is easy to prepare, uses few ingredients, and the best is always made with fresh tomatoes, garlic, and basil. Of course, you could find a store bought sauce, and it might taste pretty good, and jarred sauce is convenient, but if you want to capture the true essence of Italian flavors, make it yourself. Trust me, your family will thank you for it once they’ve tasted what real Marinara sauce is all about.

Before we get to the recipe itself, I’d like to have a word with you about tomatoes. The absolute best tomato you can possibly use in cooking is one you’ve planted, tended, and harvested yourself.

The tomato you pick yourself, with your own hands, is the freshest tomato you are ever going to find. If that’s not possible, try and find a farmer’s market which sells fresh picked produce from the surrounding area; the closer a tomato-or any produce, for that matter-is to where it’s sold, the fresher it is going to be and the less likely it is to have been subjected to forced ripening. If you absolutely must get your tomatoes from a grocery store, there is nothing wrong with it; just make sure you pick tomatoes which are ripe but still firm enough to be cut easily.

Personally, if I can’t get homegrown tomatoes or tomatoes which were grown and harvested close by, I prefer to use canned. Yes, I know that goes against the idea of “fresh”, but it is in keeping with the concept of “highest quality.”

A tomato which was harvested at the peak of ripeness and then canned as quickly as possible is a lot better in terms of quality than one which was picked while still green and then gassed into ripeness before being sold. Canned tomatoes also hold up better, last longer, and are available year round while high quality fresh tomatoes are not.

Another bonus when it comes to canned tomatoes is the fact that they are likely to be already skinned, cutting out a time consuming step when it comes time to prepare them.

When it comes to variety, I use plum tomatoes in my sauces. The plum variety is fleshier, has less pulp, and for sauces the flavor is hard to beat. If at all possible, try to buy an imported Italian variety of plum tomatoes. Now, on to the recipe, for which you will need the following:

The Dream Kitchen Marinara Sauce Solution

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 lbs fresh or 32 oz canned plum tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced fine
  • 1 medium yellow or Spanish onion, minced
  • Fresh basil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

That’s it. No other ingredients are called for or even necessary, although you can certainly add to the sauce anything your little heart desires, or use it as the base for a more robust, complex sauce.

Heat a large skillet and add the olive oil; heating the skillet first keeps food from sticking. Over a medium heat, cook the garlic and onion until the onion is tender. Do NOT sauté; what you want to do is “sweat” the garlic and onion, cook it slowly over a medium heat. That’s the best way to bring out the natural sugars in the onion, and that’s what you want to taste.

While that’s being taken care of, dice your tomatoes if you’re using fresh, or open the can and crush the tomatoes in a large mixing bowl with your hand (your hand is the most versatile kitchen tool you have). Add them to the skillet (along with any juice from the canned tomatoes, if that’s what you’re using) with the garlic and onion.

Tear in the basil, do not chop it. Chopping will bruise the leaves and change the flavor, so rip them apart with your fingers. Add the salt and pepper to taste, and simmer over a low to medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes or so until it reduces and thickens to the consistency you want.

To serve, I guess you could just pour it over pasta. That works well enough, if that’s your thing. What I do, though, is run my pasta through my pasta maker, cook it until it is almost done - a minute or two before it hits the al dente stage (the only way pasta should be cooked, really)–drain it, then add it to the sauce, tear in some more basil at the last moment, and toss it all together. When you plate it, drizzle a little olive oil onto each serving.

You can make up large batches of this sauce and freeze it easily enough and, as I said earlier, use it as the base for other sauces as well. It is simple, flavorful, and truly captures the taste and essence of what Italian cooking is all about.

Enjoy your food!

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