A few weeks ago I did a post calculating the astonishing amount of sugar that a five-year-old could consume in a single day by eating typical processed and restaurant food. As a follow-up I said that I would post some recipes for dishes that could be substituted for the more sugary, processed items that populate grocery store shelves. Today’s post, marinara sauce, is the third in that series.
Marinara sauce is one of those kitchen staples I try to always have on hand. It’s the simplest of tomato sauces, consisting of just tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and a few seasonings, simmered together until the sauce has reduced slightly and the flavors have blended. (Depending on whom you ask, it may or may not have onions – my preference is to leave them out.) It’s also extremely versatile, serving as a sauce for not only pasta but vegetables and meat as well.
What could be better? Well, how about the fact that marinara sauce can be made (indeed, for some it should be made) using canned tomatoes. The key is finding the right canned tomatoes. I prefer to use canned whole tomatoes, since they seem have more tomato and less juice than cans of crushed, chopped, or pureed tomatoes. I also avoid like the plague pre-flavored varieties since I want to be able to control the type and amount of flavors that are in my sauce, plus many of pre-flavored varieties have (inexplicably it seems to me) one or more added sweeteners and hydrogenated oils.
Now the really important question – why make your own marinara sauce when it’s so much easier to buy a pre-made version in the supermarket? I’ll be honest – that question is a more difficult one to answer. On the one hand, most store-bought tomato sauces have significant amounts of added sodium plus added sugars and even some hydrogenated oils. My own preference is to avoid products with those ingredients as much as possible, especially because the added salt and sugar mask other flavors in the food while also conditioning our palates to prefer sweeter and saltier foods.
On the other hand, the amount of added sugar and salt in many varieties of jarred pasta sauces isn’t as great as in other processed foods. So, if you’re a busy parent rushing to get dinner on the table and the choice is fast food or spaghetti and a jar of tomato sauce, then by all means go with the spaghetti and sauce. It’s still the better choice.
All of that said, I urge you to try my recipe for marinara sauce if only because it’s amazingly easy. It’s based on one I saw in Fine Cooking more than ten years ago except that I cut back on the oil and salt, choose garlic over the onions, process the tomatoes in a blender (since I like a smoother marinara sauce), and during the winter months substitute dried basil for fresh. (Also, the instructions call for it to be made on the stove over medium heat, but you could also make it in a crock pot. I would just cook the garlic or onions in a small pan on the stove before adding them to the crock pot.) One batch makes about 10 cups, but you can easily double the recipe (which I always do) so you have a good supply that can be stored in the freezer for future use.
Most importantly, my version has no added sugars and hydrogenated oils and only a fraction of the salt of jarred varieties of tomato sauce. And, quite simply, it tastes better.
Next up: My recipe for meatballs, the perfect companion for my marinara sauce.
3 28-ounce cans of whole, peeled tomatoes (preferably low sodium)
2 tablespoons olive oil
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped or put through a garlic press
½ teaspoon of red chile flakes (or ¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper)
1½ teaspoon kosher salt (or 1 teaspoon table salt)
1 tablespoon dried basil
1. Prep the tomatoes: Process the tomatoes in a blender or food processor until they have the consistency you prefer (i.e., less processing for a chunky marinara or more processing for a smoother one).* Set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a large (at least 4-quart) saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring often, until it is softened, about 5-10 minutes. (Be careful not to burn it.) Stir in the red chile flakes (or cayenne) and let them heat for 15 seconds to release their flavor.
3. Add the processed tomatoes with their juices, salt, and dried basil to the pan. Stir to combine. Over medium heat, bring the contents of the pot to a boil, stirring frequently, and then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook for 1 hour. Pools of orange may appear on the surface, which means the sauce is done.
4. Let cool and either use within the next three to four days, or freeze in separate portions that you can use for future meals.
*If you don’t have a food processor or blender, or you do but don’t want to dirty it, then you can cut the tomatoes with kitchen scissors while they are in the can, you can crush them with a potato masher, or you can use your hands to crush them.
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