If tomatoes have souls, murdering them and offering them to the gods of marinara sauce is a totally decent thing to do. What an afterlife, right? Okay. This started weird.
Marinara sauce is one of those sauces that can be as easy to make as you want it to be, but there are also endless modifications you can do to really make it your own. There’s some debate over what a real traditional Italian marinara sauce is, the truth is, no one freakin’ knows. I don’t think Italians even know–there are different traditions in different regions and among different families. The point is, it’s fun to experiment with, and it’s delicious at its bare-bonesiest.
For a marinara sauce, you can add diced onion, or you can not. You can use butter, or not. Oregano, red pepper flakes, wine, black pepper, even, all of it is optional. I like to add a diced shallot more often than not, and I went through a phase where I added ~a dash of cinnamon~ to every marinara I made (this is delicious and festive by the way, give it a try), but I’m going to lay out my recipe for the simplest form of marinara, which includes only the things that I think are the non-negotiables.
An important thing to note when making such a simple sauce is that the quality of the ingredients really matter. I mean, they always matter, but in a sauce so simple, you can taste every single component, so you want to make sure each individual thing is tasty on its own. These are a few ingredients that you should pay special attention to when curating the ingredients for your sauce.
First: olive oil. Olive oil is a little bit like wine–there are shitty ones and nice ones, cheap ones and expensive ones, and ones that land nice and in-between. Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s shitty, and just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s nice. In general, just try to look for an olive oil that is grown, pressed, and bottled in the same region (usually California, Italy, or Spain). Also, take care of your olive oil, because unlike wine, it does not age well. Olive oil usually expires about a year after it’s been bottled, and three months after it’s been opened. To extend its shelf-life, keep it in a dark, cool place. Like a delicious vampire, light and heat are it’s enemies.
Next, the tomatoes. Almost every recipe you see for marinara sauce will call for “San Marzano tomatoes,” which just means that the tomato inside the can was grown in the San Marzano region of Italy. In my opinion, a tomato in a can is just a tomato in a can, but supposedly San Marzano is the best region in the world for tomatoes to grow because of ash in the ground from Mount Vesuvius’s ancient eruption, or something. Witchcraft, probably! But really, the tomato is in a can, how good can it possibly be? Plus, San Marzanos run upwards of $4 a can. To which I say: get the cheaper one. Opt for canned whole tomatoes and crush them with your hands, which will give you a smoother sauce, or buy them diced and cut out a little bit of the work for yourself (your sauce will be a little chunkier if you go diced). Or, if you really want to go for it like a stud, you can use fresh tomatoes. But, turning the ‘matos from fresh to sauce is much more of a process and increases the cooking time, but is actually really great, so I’ll write a post for that later. For now, I want to keep this recipe a simple as possible.
Next, the garlic. This one is simple, but please use fresh garlic that you peel and slice yourself. Don’t use that pre-diced jarred garlic stuff they sell next to the real garlic in grocery stores–there’s vinegar and preservatives and weird stuff in there that really alters the taste of the garlic. And, as we all know, garlic is the best flavor in the world, so keep it pure. Cherish it.
Last, the basil. In my opinion, the sauce is not worth making if you don’t have fresh basil on hand; dried basil will simply not cut it. And I’m not saying this just for the garnish aspect–I hate garnishes, they’re just a waste of food space, am I right? But fresh basil and dried basil have incredibly different flavors, and the essence of fresh basil is absolutely imperative to any success you wish to have in life. Dried basil is simply a weak, impotent, embarrassing excuse for basil and I am offended to even have to think about dried basil right now. Fresh basil, huzzah!
All right, you skippers who skipped the required reading, let’s get to the recipe. All measurements are approximate–eyeball it and taste it as you go, and just have fun!
Traditional (?) Marinara Sauce
1 can tomatoes
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 large fresh basil sprig
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano (optional, but recommended)
In your saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-low. Use about a quarter of a cup of the good stuff, or pour it in for 2-4 loops of the pan, depending on the gushiness of the spout. Dice the garlic or cut it into slivers (I prefer slivers), and sauté for about 30 seconds. Don’t let the garlic burn!
Add the can of tomatoes (crush them in a bowl with your hands beforehand if you’re using whole) and stir. To get the remaining tomato goodness out of the can, fill it about a quarter of the way up with water or red wine, swish it around and add to the sauce. Add salt and oregano. Now, take your luscious, huge sprig of fresh basil and place it on top of the sauce. Let the heat wilt it, then stir it in. Simmer for 10-15 minutes to your desired thickness. Add more water/wine if it is too thick, simmer it longer if it is too thin. Remove the basil sprig and go for it!