Tuesday, September 19, 2017

New take on marinara, time-saving tips and gardening ambivalence

The basics for a grand marinara sauce are right here: Sun Gold, Brandywine and San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, onions and basil. Even a few Romas.
I've been making homemade marinara sauce since we started gardening lo these 40 years ago. If that sounds like a lot of years to you, believe me, it sounds even more unbelievable to me. The years fly by and blah blah blah.

So maybe I've learned a few things? Well. Maybe. If so, among the tidbits is a new revelation; when making marinara fresh from the garden, use the sweetest, ripest and most tasty tomatoes no matter the variety. Duh!

Usually those are not Roma types, which have been the mainstay of ALL previous marinara/tomato seasons. Every single batch! This year, it dawned on me, after searching around for new ideas for marinara, to simply use the tomatoes with the best flavor.

Our generous garden obliged with luscious Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, succulent Brandywines and  the marvelous San Marzanos. The San Marzano is a cherished Italian tomato grown in a specific soil type in a small area. We have three wild San Marzano plants, snaking their indeterminate tendrils in all directions.

Thick, rich, almost creamy marinara made mostly with San Marzano tomatoes. If you don't grow San Marzanos, as we didn't for most of our gardening years, they're also sold in cans and are reportedly excellent for making sauces.
San Marzanos define tomato goodness.They're super sweet when ripe, and meaty, meaning that they don't have a lot of seeds. 
They're not bomb proof like Romas, but they have deeper flavor. 
I was able to make one batch primarily with San Marzanos from the garden. But other batches made with mixed varieties have also been good. My stainless steel fry pan holds five quarts of whirred up tomatoes and estimated quantities of other ingredients are based on starting out with five quarts of liquefied tomatoes.

A typical harvest. Most above are Roma types with a few San Marzanos
in the white box, and small Brandywines peeking out from below.

Guidelines for making fresh-from-the-garden marinara and time-saving tips*

If you're hunting for a recipe with precise measurements, this is not for you. If you're an adventurous cook eager to make it work with what you have, stick around. The idea is to use tomatoes in season and freeze the resulting sauce to produce wow-worthy dishes during the dark days of tasteless expensive supermarket tomatoes. (Isn't it odd that mealy tasteless tomatoes can be found in supermarkets even during tomato season?)

* Do NOT peel the tomatoes!

Well, you can, but I NEVER do when making marinara, and no one has noticed. Peeling is time consuming and unnecessary.

I've had enough of dipping tomatoes into boiling water and "slipping off the skins, ha ha" to last a lifetime. Done with that!

In perusing recipes online I noticed that peeling skins from tomatoes, or not, is a point of contention with purists. Let them contend! Maybe they don't have food processors or good blenders, maybe they have all the time in the world, maybe they like peeling tomatoes. But if you don't have the time or inclination, but have a kitchen device to do the trick, use it!

For years the Cuisinart food processor was my marinara friend, but recently I bought a Vitamix blender, which does an even better job of pulverizing lumps, seeds, and skins. Plus it can handle a greater volume, making for even less work.

What you'll need, more or less
  • Enough dead-ripe tomatoes, preferably heritage, sweet cherry tomatoes, and/or San Marzanos, but also Romas, Celebrities, Big Boys and other varieties, enough to make around five liquid quarts. The tomatoes must be ripe ripe ripe. About 15 pounds of fresh tomatoes.
  • One large or two medium onions, preferably not sweet,  chopped
  • Six to eight large garlic cloves, or more, chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • Generous handful of fresh basil to add late to the party
  • Dried blend of Italian herbs (not herbs that have been languishing in your cupboard for 10 years, but recently purchased or dried by you. The fresher the better.)
  • Olive oil to saute onions, garlic and herbs, but not the fresh basil
  • 4-oz can of organic tomato paste, if you choose to reduce cooking time
Onion, garlic, Italian herbs,Saute before
 adding blended tomatoes.
Seasoning your sauce

There's also a camp that goes super simple using canned tomatoes, preferably San Marzanos, maybe a bit of onion and/or garlic and a sprig or two of fresh basil. The basil is added late to the party, and is dragged through the sauce to extract flavor.

Maybe they do this in Italy. Doesn't work for me. I'm good with fresh basil, without stems, added late, but just leave it in the sauce.

Depending upon what's in the larder or the garden, I may add, along with ingredients listed above:
  • chopped sweet peppers 
  • chopped hot peppers, just a kick for back flavor
  • garlic chili or Serrano sauce, a Tbsp or so
  • crushed fennel seed (love this flavor in marinara) 
  • a sprig of fresh rosemary (remove after cooking)
  • What it looks like to add browned onions and herbs to marinara-in-progress, soon after a frothy aerated blender batch of tomatoes has been added. It already tastes rich. 


First prepare the onions, garlic, and herbs, and lightly brown them in olive oil in the same pan you'll use to cook your sauce.* Browning, according to numerous sources, adds depth of flavor whether you're making soup, gravy, or sauces.

Then rinse, core and cut in half the tomatoes before whirring up in a food processor or blender, about 15 pounds in batches. You should have enough liquid tomatoes to fill a five-quart heavy metal pan, preferably a stainless steel skillet. A soup pot may be used instead, but it takes longer for evaporation  to produce a rich thick sauce.

Simmer for 3-4 hours until volume has been reduced to roughly half. A 4-ounce can of organic tomatoes paste hastens the process, in case you're planning marinara sauce for dinner. Let me know how it goes!

*Time-saver: Instead, whirr up the tomatoes first and get them on the stove to start cooking down. Then use your food processor or blender to chop garlic, onions, and herbs. Add to the sauce without browning. I just recently started the brown-the-garlic-onions-herbs-first business My last batch, however, I was in a big hurry and didn't do it.  Couldn't tell the difference. Shhh. 

More - if you're interested in my mental state, plus links to earlier garden-fresh recipes 

If you've read earlier posts, you know I have a continuing struggle with gardening, trying to cut back so we're not tied down. Trying to get a grip on the reality of being retirees and getting older every minute, and not needing all this food and work—spending hours in the kitchen chopping, blending, and trimming to can, freeze or dry the tons of stuff that lands in the kitchen. No no no!

But then there are the other parts. The tender parts. The pleasure, during the drab winter days, or even spring, while tomatoes are still a dream, of grabbing a bag of frozen tomato deliciousness and turning it into an easy feast.

The spring asparagus feasts. The blueberries all winter. The onions and garlic hanging in the

And also the garden immersion experience, which occasionally transports me into the sweet world of birdsong, bees, and butterflies. The wild randomness of volunteer sunflowers, cosmos, clover, spearmint and dill make a fragrant disorder that somehow makes order in my life. Even the  work - the tomato harvesting, the weeding, the flower deadheading - is a methodical Zen practice where my hands and body do the work but my attention is elsewhere. Floating.

I can lose myself writing (once I drag myself to the computer and get started) but also in gardening chores, which need to be done. How can I give this up? How can I not?

There is a time, turn, turn, turn, you know the Pete Seeger song made famous by the Byrds?  One of my favorites.
To everything - turn, turn, turn There is a season - turn, turn, turn. And a time to every purpose under heaven.A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap. A time to kill, a time to heal. A time to laugh, a time to weep.
Now. Which way to turn, turn, turn?

I loved being in the messy volunteer garden recently, with the wildfire smoke rendering breathing unpleasant but whose eerie light heightened colors. The garden is a reliable rest and release valve, a place of comfort at being alive. Why do I sometimes resent it?
I also love hearing your thoughts and feedback. 

Earlier posts about feasting from the garden

Our go-to salsa recipe - We keep returning to this one, cutting back on the black beans
Tomato Love Casserole - Too good!
Rich, thick homemade marinara sauce - this precedes the recipe above, but is still good, using Roma tomatoes.
Eggplant Parmesan with Low-Carb notes - I went through a serious low-carb period and posted lots of recipes. If you'd like to see some, type "low-carb" into the Search box on the upper lefthand corner of the page.  Warning: some of the older posts have lost their photos. No idea why. 
Ratatouille with Rosemary - Roasted, not fried. 

spaghetti squash lasagna is here - Our spaghetti squash crop failed this year, but half a squash is all that's needed for this and most recipes. I hear they have spaghetti squash down at the Farmer's Market.