Marinara for WASPs
UH OH! It’s the ethnic food of my youth.
My little corner of the Big Apple — Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn — is actually a small Sicilian village, and many of my neighbors still live in the same brownstones their grandparents bought way back when the waterfront still worked and the streetcars still ran. Despite the hungry gut of gentrification (of which I admit I am part), many of the original Italian bakeries, butchers and delis still stand, providing top drawer, old world specialties, such as homemade mozzarella, sausages and pasta with all the fixings, to old-timers and newcomers alike with imperturbable good humor, or at least without yelling at you, which is about as good as it gets on any given day in New York.
So even after being in Brooklyn for generations, many of my neighbors still consider themselves equal parts Italian and American. And Lord, can they cook. It is truly one of life’s singular pleasures to sit around a big table at the holidays, consuming course after course, liberally washed down with gallons of Sangiovese as the conversation escalates (I like to think of it as participatory listening), arguments break out and people randomly burst into song.
I cannot, however, claim any such history, as upon arrival my people were too busy burning witches and edifying their souls with gruel and woolen underwear to build much in the way of a culinary tradition in this country, unless you count boiled meats and mushy vegetables of course.
All this is by way of sharing my recipe for red sauce with you. It’s not complicated or fancy, and had I not opted to cut way back on salt recently, I probably would never have bothered. Caputo’s deli makes a marinara to die for, but it doesn’t meet Mr. Slattern’s zero salt requirement, so it’s generally off the menu. Their fresh pasta and homemade mozzarella, however, are long-time staples of the weekly meal plan.
Now years back, I was entertaining some of the moms from my daughter’s primary school and happened to be baking beans at the time. The ladies were quite amazed that this could be done in the home, but were not generally enthusiastic about the finished product. A cultural difference one might say. They were equally incredulous when they spied the jars of readymade Classico spaghetti sauce in my cupboard, but we soldiered on and the afternoon passed merrily enough, as it will when five women cluster around a kitchen table while consuming as many bottles of wine.
Several days later I happened to be at the market with one of the gals and inquired as to her recipe for sauce (or gravy as it’s frequently called over this way). Prepared as I was to hear a long involved recitation involving plum tomatoes harvested by the light of a three-quarter moon, garlic minced just so and a list of herbs as long as my arm, I was a bit nonplussed to receive the following.
The purist’s choice
“You see those tomatoes, there? Pastene kitchen ready – the only kind I use. Take two cans and put them in the pot. Add two bay leaves and cook it for about three hours.”
I waited. And waited. “That’s it?! Two cans of tomatoes and some bay leaves, and you dissed my sauce in the jar?” As I said, cultural differences.
Anyway, I’ve come around to the belief that homemade marinara is best, and since it freezes well, why wouldn’t you make a big batch and save half of it for later? My recipe is scarcely more complicated than the aforementioned “authentic” version, but I think it’s a bit more interesting.
All Purpose Red Sauce
Sauté in olive oil until about half cooked:
- 1 large onion, chopped
- Any other vegetables you care to throw in (or none if you don’t), adding them in this order: carrots (oh yes, delicious), bell peppers, mushrooms, summer squash/zucchini
- 1 box Pomi chopped tomatoes (the only kind I use)
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 to 3 cloves minced garlic (I don’t like to sauté garlic generally. I think it holds more flavor when added later.)
- pinch red pepper (optional – if you like the zing)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Simmer for 30 minutes or so, or until the vegetables are cooked as much as you like.
Drizzle with a little olive oil and chopped fresh basil. I often add a knob of butter (a tablespoon or so) at this point as I think it gives the sauce a nice mellow flavor.
Now you can cook meatballs in this, and one of these days I’m going to dig out my recipe for Mrs. Q’s Irish meatballs and share it. But for now, you can use this straight up, add Italian sausages, or throw in some chopped up fresh mozzarella.
That wasn’t hard at all, was it?