Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Infinite Possibilities of Marinara Sauce

I used to eat a lot of jarred pasta sauce. I know, I know! What was wrong with me? I used to be really lazy about food, which, in retrospect, is no excuse, as the amazing and versatile recipe I am sharing today is so easy and quick to prepare. I now see the errors of my former ways, and I redeem myself with my marinara sauce!

Jokes aside, it is easy to be seduced by the convenient aspect of jarred sauces. I'd be lying if I said I didn't agree with the fact that when you are in a hurry, the stuff comes in pretty handy. But then I think of the preservatives, the high salt content, the bland taste… and I think it's worth 20 minutes of my precious time to make "real" sauce.

Marinara is one of the simplest pasta sauces, and you dress it up or down depending on your appetite, or the contents of your fridge. According to folk tales, the sauce was invented by Neapolitain sailors shortly after the tomato was introduced to Europe in the 1600's, and originally contained nothing more than tomato, onion, garlic and a few spices. The high acidity-level of tomatoes made it practical for long voyages at sea, as it kept very well. Hence the name alla marinara - the mariner's way!

The recipe below contains very little fat and very little salt, so it's super-healthy, to boot. I first found it in Isa Chandra Moskowitz's "Appetite for Reduction" and tweaked the spices a bit.... I tried many of her variations (and combinations of variations, because I am outrageous like that), and I was never disappointed. I'll start with the uber-basic, and move on to creative additions.

The quantity of sauce serves about 4 and goes on any type of pasta. Play around with complementary shapes and tastes, and forget about boring pasta-nights! No such thing exists!!

1 teaspoon olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon savory
1 tablespoon thyme
Freshly ground pepper
1 (24 ounce) can of crushed tomato
1/2 teaspoon salt
Red wine vinegar

Preheat a 2-quart pot over medium-high heat. Sauté the garlic in the oil for about a minute. Add the herbs and some pepper and sauté for a minute more, adding a splash of water if necessary. Add the tomatoes, salt, and a splash of red wine vinegar, and stir everything together. Cover the pot, leaving a little gap for steam to escape, and cook for 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if necessary, and serve over al dente pasta.

Once you've made this once, you'll want to try lots of other options. Here are my faves:

Spicy: add 1/2 teaspoon of chili flakes at the same time as the garlic.

Marinara Olivada: add 1/4 cup chopped kalamata olives when you add the garlic.

Mushroom Marinara: after preheating the pot, sauté 16 ounces of finely chopped cremini mushrooms in the oil; add splashes of water if needed; stir in the garlic and proceed with the recipe.

Roasted Red Pepper Marinara: when you add the tomatoes, also add finely chopped roasted red bell pepper.

Sautéed Onion Marinara: before adding the garlic, sauté a small, finely chopped yellow onion for 5 minutes; add splashes of water if necessary; proceed with recipe.

Spicy Cajun Marinara: add 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes along with the garlic, add 1 tablespoon Cajun spice blend along with the tomatoes and add hot sauce at the end, to taste.

From there, you should be able to go nuts with whatever extra ingredient tickles your fancy (eggplants, cauliflower, lentils and peas are great ideas!). And combining those variations can give spectacular results. Pictured here is spicy mushroom and onion marinara, with some fusilli.

Use the basic version in a lasagna, serve it with meatballs (or beanballs!) or over simple pasta like I did here. Jarred sauces will loose all their shine once you get a taste of this fresh and flavorful sauce. Salute!

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