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Make Marinara like an Italian Nonna

Posted On March 6, 2020

by Anne Postic

Do you need a quick meal for a crowd? Or are there a bunch of tomatoes you need to use right now? Or maybe you have a few cans of tomatoes in the pantry taking up valuable space. Well, you’re perfectly capable of making delicious, homemade marinara in no time at all, as long as you have enough time for it to simmer. This tomato sauce is so easy you may never buy the (expensive) jarred kind again. Bonus: Your place will smell like a home-cooked meal, cooked con amore by your favorite Italian nonna (or a copycat like me).

Start with the finest of ingredients or, you know, whatever you have on hand. Pull a big pot out of the cupboard and get going. You will need:

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
5-6 cloves chopped garlic
1 onion, chopped
2  28oz. cans (whole, diced, or crushed) tomatoes or 3½ pounds fresh tomatoes (or more, or less)
A couple spoonfuls Italian seasoning
1 tablespoon tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste
2 additional tablespoons olive oil

Heat the butter or olive oil in a tall stockpot over medium heat. Add garlic and onions and cook until fragrant, a few minutes.

Cut the top off of a tomato and squeeze the juices into the pot to deglaze. If using canned tomatoes, pour in a little of their juice. Or open a bottle of wine, pour yourself a glass, and add a splash of that to the pot. White, red, rose, vodka, whatever. (Time for a martini? A splash of vodka and olive juice won’t hurt this dish one little bit.)

Add the rest of the tomatoes, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper, and tomato paste. Simmer on low, covered, for 20 minutes (or as long as a few hours, because it will only get better), until any whole tomatoes have burst open, the sauce has thickened, and it tastes ready to eat. While it simmers, stir occasionally (but if it’s at a low enough heat and you forget, it’ll probably be fine).

Turn off the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil, or more. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve over pasta!

Now that you know the basics, here are a few more tips. In the initial stages, use a long-handled wooden spoon to press any whole tomatoes against the side of the pot to break them open as they cook. Do take care not to look too closely, because sometimes the inside of the tomato will shoot up and burn your face. This is not ideal.

You can use any mix of tomatoes you have on hand—even a mix of fresh and canned. I often make marinara to use up over-ripe tomatoes from the fridge. Got a bell pepper or a couple of carrots just taking up space in your crisper? Chop ‘em up and toss ‘em in the pot. And don’t dare peel those tomatoes. It’s a hassle, and the skin is good for you.

The longer the sauce simmers, the better, so don’t be shy about leaving it on the stove, stirring occasionally, for a few hours. If you’re short on time and the sauce is too crude, hit it with a few pulses of stick blender. Even a cheap stick blender is pretty efficient, so if you’re using one, you don’t even need to chop the garlic.

Make double, triple, or however much will fit in the pot and freeze it for a rainy (or even busier) day. Basic marinara works for all sorts of things, like lasagna, eggplant parmesan, or shakshuka (eggs poached in tomato sauce, for the uninitiated). You can cook meatballs in a tomato sauce. Or stir in some ground meat for a heartier sauce. Looking for the ultimate comfort meal? Thin it with stock and serve it as a soup with a grilled cheese sandwich.

As for the tomato paste, you can use more, or less, or skip it entirely. It adds some depth and color, especially if the tomatoes are a little underripe. My point? Don't go to the store in the rain for this one ingredient.

Marinara is easy, versatile, and comforting. Making your own is a great way to clean out your fridge and it’s not much harder than opening a jar of prepared sauce. So get cooking!

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