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Fear Conquered: Tomato Sauce without Cans
Really good Italian marinara sauce starts with really good tomatoes. And the best tomatoes are San Marzano tomatoes. And San Marzano tomatoes only come from the Valle del Sarno of Italy. Which means, here in the US, San Marzano tomatoes only come in cans. Thus, really good Italian marinara sauce requires canned tomatoes.
Let me bust through this red haze of San Marzano tomato authenticity. No one should have to rely on cans riddled with chemicals like BPA in order to make a delicious and authentic Italian marinara sauce. No one.
The great thing about marinara sauce is that like so many foods of Italian origin, there are hundreds of variations and no one correct way to make the sauce. Everyone has their own special version of marinara: a pinch of oregano, a sprig of thyme, a mince of parsley, a glug of wine, a grate of parmesan cheese, a pinch of sugar, etc. Every sauce unique, yet every sauce still paying homage to marinara.
So is there just one authentic version? I think not. Yet I believe there could be such a thing as authentic flavors. For me, marinara is all about fresh tomatoes tasting like tomatoes, without the overwhelming acidity that leads inexorably to heartburn. I want robust onion and garlic depth of flavor layered behind the tomato, with just a hint of herby brightness.
If I could get my hands on fresh San Marzano tomatoes free from processing chemicals, I would absolutely use them for my sauce. But I can't. So I don't. And guess what? My marinara sauce is still delicious, despite the glaring absence of that special variety of tomato.
Rather than focusing on what wasn't in my sauce, I focused two non-negotiables for this recipe:
- All the ingredients have to be fresh
- It has to be delicious year-round - even when the freshest tomatoes are clearly frostbitten after a wintry trip up from Mexico
I believe the roasted grape/cherry tomatoes are the key to any fresh tomato sauce, especially during cold winter months. In the depth of winter, buried under a blanket of snow with the closest tomato plants managing pitiful pinkish fruit, these little grape and cherry varieties still pack a flavorful punch. The Romas are simply a nice, cheap tomato filler with a higher flesh to juice ratio. If you do have access to sun-ripened, garden-fresh San Marzano tomatoes, use them instead - the sauce will only taste better.
I don't bother blanching and peeling the tomatoes for this recipe. First, it's not necessary. Second, the tomato skins are a great source of nutrition. So I use a food processor to help break up the skins before cooking. If you don't own a food processor or if you feel compelled to remove the skins, see the tips that follow the recipe for blanching.
This marinara sauce is all about fresh ingredients. Fresh tomatoes, fresh roasted red pepper, fresh herbs. So when you make this recipe, ditch the cans, jars and bottles. I demand you use only fresh ingredients. Make it from scratch or don't make this version at all. Period.
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|Start with 4 pints of cherry or grape tomatoes.|
|Wash the grape tomatoes.|
|Add grape tomatoes to a large non-metal roasting pan.|
|Roast at 450F for 35 minutes until tomatoes begin to burst.|
|While the tomatoes roast, you can prep and saute the other ingredients. Heat 1 Tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in a medium stock pot over medium heat.|
|Finely chop 1 small yellow onion.|
|Peel 2 medium carrots.|
|Finely dice the carrots.|
|Add the diced onion and carrot to the stock pot and saute for 8 minutes.|
|While the onion and carrot sautes, finely dice 2 stalks of celery.|
|Add celery to the stock pot and saute for another 10 minutes.|
|While celery sautes, finely chop 1/2 cup of homemade roasted red peppers.|
|You will need 1/2 cup of chopped roasted red pepper in total.|
|Rinse 15 Roma tomatoes.|
|Hull Roma tomatoes.|
|Quarter Roma tomatoes.|
|Mince 4 garlic cloves.|
|Add roasted red pepper and minced garlic to the stock pot and saute for 2 minutes until fragrant.|
|Working in batches, add tomato quarters to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade.|
|Pulse the tomato quarters until chopped.|
|Add the chopped tomatoes to the stock pot.|
|Add roasted grape tomatoes to the bowl of the food processor fitted with the steel blade.|
|Puree grape tomatoes.|
|Add puree to the marinara sauce.|
|Measure seasonings. I use 3 bay leaves, 2 teaspoons of sea salt and 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper.|
|You will need 4 Tablespoons of cold unsalted butter.|
|Peel and halve 1 medium yellow onion.|
|Add onion halves, butter and seasonings to sauce.|
|Stir to combine everything and bring to the boil.|
|Reduce heat to medium and simmer sauce for 2 to 3 hours or until sauce had reduced by half. Remove onion halves and bay leaves.|
|For a smooth sauce, add the marinara to a blender and puree until smooth.|
|You may need to work in batches depending on the size of your blender.|
|Tear a large handful of basil into pieces.|
|Add the basil pieces to the hot marinara sauce and stir through.|
|Allow marinara sauce to cool to room temperature before storing. You can refrigerate sauce for up to 2 weeks for freeze for up to 6 months.|
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Fresh Homemade Marinara Sauce
Prep Time: 1 hr
Cook Time: 3 hrs
Ingredients (makes 3 quarts)
- 4 pints grape or cherry tomatoes
- 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion, finely diced
- 2 medium carrots, finely diced
- 2 celery stalks, finely diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced (or pressed)
- 1/2 cup roasted red pepper, finely diced
- 3 1/2 pounds fresh Roma or plum tomatoes, hulled and quartered
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
- 2 teaspoon sea salt
- 3 dried bay leaves
- 1 medium onion, peeled and halved
- 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 bunch basil leaves, torn
- Preheat the oven to 450℉
- Pour the grape tomatoes into a large, non-metal roasting pan and roast for 35 minutes until the tomatoes begin to burst; set aside
- Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a stock pot over medium heat; add minced onion and carrot and sauté for 8 minutes, then add the celery and sauté for 10 minutes; add the garlic and roasted red pepper and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes
- Working in batches, add the quartered Roma tomatoes to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade and pulse the tomatoes until chunky; empty each batch of chunky tomatoes into the pot
- Using the food processor fitted with the steel blade, puree the roasted grape tomatoes and add to the pot
- Add the bay leaves, salt, pepper, onion halves and butter; stir everything together and bring the sauce to the boil
- Reduce the heat to medium and simmer the sauce uncovered for 2 to 3 hours or until the sauce has reduced by at least half, stirring every 30 minutes
- Off the heat, remove the onion halves and bay leaves; stir through the shredded basil and allow the sauce to cool to room temperature before transferring to storage containers; refrigerate for up to 2 weeks and freeze for up to 6 months
An original recipe by Javelin Warrior. © 2011 Javelin Warrior. All rights reserved.
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Hungry for Tips?
- The halved onion and the butter are important elements of this sauce: the butter lends silkiness to the sauce and the onion halves slowly release flavor without an overpowering end result. I first read about this technique in Marcela Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking and it's foolproof every time.
- If you don't own a food processor, finely dice the Roma tomatoes or blend briefly in small batches in the blender. You can also puree with roasted grape tomatoes in the blender.
- If you detest rolled-up skins and prefer a smooth sauce, puree the final marinara (as I do) or blanch the Romas. Read my technique for blanched tomatoes.
- I use homemade roasted red peppers - they're so easy to make, you can roast them up along side the cherry tomatoes. Read my technique for homemade roasted red peppers.
- This sauce is delicious on it's own, but it's also a fantastic base for other flavors so feel free to customize with different herbs. In fact, I use this sauce for all of my recipes that start with a tomato base.
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