Ingredients: tomatoes, onion, garlic, basil, carrot, olive oil, red wine, bay leaf, chili flakes, oregano, salt.
Served with: penne pasta, Grana Padano cheese, HälsansKök vegetarian meatballs, salad (Romaine and iceberg lettuce, red onion, cucumber).
Salad dressing: white wine vinegar, yellow mustard, olive oil, canola oil, shallot powder, honey, Provençal herbs, black pepper, salt.
I have a rather stubborn impression in my head of good tomato sauce. I imagine it as light and fresh, not deep red at all, almost pink in color. The texture is chunky but uniform, like apple sauce, and soft on the tongue. It tastes mellow and salty and fruity-sweet. Somehow it manages to be thin and thick at the same time.
Marinara like that does exist. I’ve had it. Twice. The first time was while on vacation in New Orleans, a long time ago, at a little Italian cafeteria-style eatery called Gino’s that probably doesn’t exist anymore. Everything there was ethereally delicious, if perhaps a little similar (even the iced tea came baked with mozzarella on top). Certainly, what made the food at Gino’s so great was the tomato sauce. It was light and gardeny enough to lift up those heavy curtains of pasta and cheese, making the whole experience actually feel healthy. I fell in love that day, and I’ve been disappointed ever since.
Oh, but didn’t I say I’d had perfect marinara twice? Well, the second time was when I went back to Gino’s later in the week.
In my own kitchen, marinara never comes out that great. It’s always decent, and certainly better than most jar brands, but let’s face it: I am still chasing the Gino’s high. What am I doing wrong? On the matter of the vine fruit themselves, I have always used crushed tomatoes from a can or box. That’s what most recipes call for. However, when I saw the summertime return of beautiful plum tomatoes last week, I decided to take another stab at recreating the perfect marinara. This time I would peel and crush the tomatoes by hand. I was hopeful, because those tomatoes tasted incredible on their own. The result of my labor was, unfortunately, yet another batch of “okay” marinara.
To peel the plum tomatoes, I dipped them 5 at a time into boiling water for 20 seconds, then sat them in an ice-water bath. Peeling off the skin was fairly easy afterward. Then I halved each tomato and scooped out the seeds to be discarded. I roughly chopped the remaining tomato halves, then cleaned up the mess.
I started the sauce with some olive oil and diced garlic, onion, and carrot (which apparently lends extra sweetness and color). After those got a chance to sautée a bit, I added a bay leaf and some chili flakes. Here’s a tip: always get your bay leaf into the oil before you add broth and/or tomato, because the bay leaf’s flavor is not water-soluble. However, you should add oregano and basil toward the end of cooking, because their flavors break down quickly with heat.
The tomatoes then went into the pot, where I let them stew for about 30 minutes total. When the level of moisture seemed to get too low for a calm simmer, I splashed in a bit of red wine. When I felt enough time had passed, I added a couple dashes of oregano, and a small handful of finely chopped fresh basil. I felt that the texture was a little too uneven, so I ran a hand blender in the pot for a couple seconds. That seemed to do the trick.
I served the sauce over penne pasta, accompanied by my favorite brand of vegetarian meatballs, grated Grana Padano (similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano), and a green salad plus vinaigrette. As I said earlier, this turned out okay, but not what I was hoping for.