Marinara is an Italian tomato sauce made with tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and onions and exists in many variations through the addition of other ingredients such as capers, olives, and spices. It is easy to prepare at home and tastes immeasurably better than its supermarket counterpart. So the next time you find yourself in a supermarket standing before a jar of sugar-spiked tomato sauce, consider this: If you have twenty minutes, you can easily cook this dish. Here is how:
How to prepare marinara sauce in 20 minutes
- Finely chop your garlic. Let the size of your cloves and how much you like the flavor of garlic be your guide.
- Locally grown tomatoes are a better option, but you can also opt for store-brought variety. If your tomatoes are thick-skinned, give them a quick blanch in boiling water before peeling and dicing them.
- If using canned tomatoes, splurge on an excellent brand, preferably with little or no salt and no added herbs, packed in their own juices (not tomato sauce).Drain canned tomatoes and reserve the liquid, so as to avoid an overly watery sauce. If you are using whole tomatoes, squeeze with your hands to create small chunks. Warning: this can turn out to be messy because tomatoes will squirt, so make sure you have your apron on. Diced canned tomatoes can be used as is.
- Coat your pan with olive oil and sauté the garlic over low heat. (If you are serving pasta, now is the time to put your salted water on to boil.) When the garlic is soft and fragrant, add prepped tomatoes to your pan.
- Turn up the heat and let the tomatoes reduce and thicken slightly. Add in some fresh herbs such as basil and parsley, and let them poach in the sauce.
- If your marinara is looking too thick, add some reserved tomato water or pasta water. Add salt and a grind or two of black pepper until flavors taste balanced. Remove herb stalks and leaves from sauce. Your marinara sauce is now ready to serve.
How to use it
If you have a basic marinara in your pantry, you have the building blocks for many delicious dinners. You can use it to top homemade pizza, stuff calzones, and to make fantastic chicken and eggplant parmigiana. A spoonful or two transforms risotto into something special. But it is pretty delicious just on its own, served with pasta (fresh or dried), frozen ravioli, or even cooked farro. If you are serving with pasta or farro, combine preferably in a skillet over medium heat, so that sauce and pasta can marry together.
Marinara has a beautiful simplicity, but when a straight marinara just will not do, there are some easy ways to fancy it up.
Make a quick puttanesca: If you have any anchovies, chop one or two up and add them to your sautéed garlic before you begin reducing your tomatoes. Add a spoonful of chopped capers and a handful of chopped, pitted olives to the sauce during the last five minutes of cooking.
Make a vegetable ragu: Sauté half of your minced garlic along with a chopped onion or leek. Add whatever vegetables you have in your fridge, cut into bite-sized pieces, such as fennel, asparagus stalks, tender chard stems, blanched fava beans, or mushrooms. When vegetables are just fork tender, remove from pan and add them back in the last five minutes of cooking. Fresh or frozen peas, asparagus tips, or julienned Swiss chard can also be added at this point.
For the sauce
- 1 kilogram fresh, ripe tomatoes or two cups canned Italian tomatoes cut up with their juice
- 5 tbsp. butter
- 1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
- Salt to taste
Making fresh tomatoes ready for the sauce
If you decide to opt for fresh tomatoes rather than canned ones, here is how to prepare them for the sauce.
The blanching method: Plunge the tomatoes in boiling water for a minute or less. Drain them and, as soon as they are cool enough to handle, skin and cut them into coarse pieces.
The freezing method: Freeze tomatoes on a baking sheet until hard. Thaw again, either on the counter or under running water. Skin and cut them into coarse pieces.
The food mill method: Wash the tomatoes in cold water, cut them lengthwise in half, and put them in a covered saucepan. Turn on the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes. Set a food mill fitted with the disk with the largest holes over a bowl. Transfer the tomatoes with any of their juices to the mill and puree.
Put either the prepared fresh tomatoes or the canned in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow, but steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until it is thickened to your liking and the fat floats free from the tomato.
Stir from time to time, mashing up any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon.
Taste and correct for salt. Before tossing with pasta, you may remove the onion and save for another use. Serve with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese for the table.