Friday, June 24, 2011

What do you mean your spaghetti sauce comes out of a jar?

This was our dinner tonight. (not a bad picture considering I used my iPhone to take it)  Yesterday I started a big pot of homemade Marinara sauce (or as my niece calls it "Sketti sauce"), and today after simmering it for a few more hours, I thought I'd get adventurous. The picture to the left is what I came up with.

Okay, I'll admit it- a nice, pan seared chicken thigh doesn't really belong on the same plate as Penne pasta covered in a tomato-basil cream sauce with a cute garnish of fresh mozzarella pearls and fresh basil...

However, in my defense it was the only protein I had thawed out, and I had changed my mind about what we were going to have for dinner about 15 minutes before we normally sit down to eat.  Tomorrow we'll have stuffed shells with marinara sauce and meatballs.  All homemade.  Except for the shells.  I'm not crazy enough, skilled enough, or in the possession of a shell shaped fresh pasta die cutter, so my pasta shells come from a box.  Don't judge. 

Tonight's dinner was really good, even though the chicken and pasta didn't really come together as a cohesive dish, on their own they were simply divine.  I thought I would share my recipe for Marinara sauce, and then my recipe for the tomato-basil cream sauce with everyone. 

I've been making homemade marinara sauce for about 15 years.  It's a constant work in progress.  I married an Italian, but didn't get the stereotypical Italian Mother-in-law, so I had to learn how to make it without a recipe that was passed down from generation to generation.  I did get the hottest of all the brothers, so I feel the trade off was fair.

This is a pretty basic sauce.  It isn't fancy, it isn't funky, it isn't stuck-up-it's simple.  Because it is rather simple, it is VERY easy to dress up, and make other sauces out of it- one of which is the cream sauce I made tonight.   I'll do my best to come up with exact measurements, but in all honesty I do all the spices and herbs to our specific tastes.  You can always add more, but you can't take it out, so start out slow and build from there.

Another point to remember is that the acidity levels of tomatoes varies, so you may need to calm the acidity level down a bit by adding a tiny bit of sugar (1/4-1/2 tsp or a pinch of baking soda) to the finished sauce. I personally prefer sugar, but that's cause I'm addicted to it. :)

My Homemade Marinara Sauce
Makes approx 8-10 cups  (feel free to freeze some for a later date, it does freeze well)

  • 2-28 ounce cans of diced tomatoes.  I prefer Muir Glen Organic, but Contadina and Red Gold/Red Pack are also good brands.  If you don't like chunky sauces, use 1 can of diced tomatoes and 3 cans of sauce- as long as you have a total of 4 cans, it's all good.
  • 2-28 ounce cans of tomato sauce.  Again, I prefer Muir Glen organic, but Contadina and Red Gold/Red Pack are my next top picks.
  • 14 ounce can of Tomato Paste.  
  • Approx 42 ounces of cold water (just fill one of those empty tomato sauce cans one and a half times)
  • 1-2 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 3 medium-large garlic cloves finely minced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and sugar (if necessary)
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh basil- cut chiffonade.  (that's chef-speak for roll the leaves into a cigar shape and slice very thin ribbons of basil)
  • 2-4 Tablespoons fresh oregano- roughly chopped  (start with 2, you can always add more if you want)
  • 2-4 Tablespoons fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley- roughly chopped (start with 2, you can always add more if you want)
  • The rind from a hunk of GOOD Parmesan cheese.  I always save the rinds and freeze them.  I use the rinds to flavor soups and sauces.  If you don't happen to have a spare rind sitting around, either run to the store and buy a hunk of good Parmesan (please, don't come home with that green canister of grated Parmesan...hath you no shame, people?) or throw in a 2-3 ounces of fresh Parmesan cut into 1/2 inch pieces.
  • 1 large bay leaf.  Fresh is best, dried is just fine
  • 1/2 teaspoon of each of any combination of the following dried herbs: Oregano, basil, marjoram, rosemary, Italian seasoning, parsley.  I personally don't use rosemary, but knock yourselves out if you happen to like it.

In a large stockpot or dutch oven over medium-low heat, combine tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, water, minced garlic, fresh herbs, dried herbs and bring to a bubble.  Once your sauce starts to bubble, add the Parmesan cheese rind (or chunks of fresh Parmesan) and the can of tomato paste.  Stir well and reduce heat to lowest burner setting.

Simmer for as long as possible.  I simmer mine for at least a day.  Stir it frequently until the Parmesan has fully incorporated into the sauce and there is no longer a chance that it will sink to the bottom of your pan and burn.  Burnt cheese isn't good cheese, and it will ruin your sauce, so keep an eye on it until it is fully incorporated into the sauce. With each stir, taste it to check on the acidity level of the sauce.

After about 2-3 hours, taste sauce again and adjust the seasonings. You may find you want to add more fresh herbs, a little dash of some dried herbs, you may need a little bit of sugar because your tomatoes were rather acidic, and you may fancy some salt and pepper... at this point, your possibilities are endless so adjust to your particular preferences.  Once you've added what you want to add, continue to simmer for another 2-4 hours, take off the heat, and let it cool down as much as possible.  Cover and refrigerate, and just heat thoroughly the next day and serve with pasta and freshly grated Parmesan. (if you simply can't wait a day while your sauce does magical things as it chills in the fridge, go ahead and serve it over some pasta)

There you have it.  Pretty easy, huh?

Okay, now onto the cream sauce from our dinner tonight- the very top picture.

Take 4 cups of the finished sauce and set aside in a bowl.
1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion finely diced
2 Tablespoons fresh basil, cut chiffonade
1/2 cup heavy cream

Heat a saucepan over medium heat.  Add oil, add onion, stir, and cook until tender.  About 3-4 minutes.  Add a little pinch of kosher salt and a pinch of fresh black pepper.  SLOWLY add your homemade tomato sauce and reduce heat to low.  Simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add cream and basil and heat through for another 2-3 minutes, serve over pasta.  I like Penne and Linguine for this particular sauce.

I truly hope that you enjoy learning how to make your own marinara sauce.  It's so easy to do, and it is one of those dishes that you'll spend the rest of your life trying to perfect, each pot will be "the best one yet", until you make another pot.


  1. Chicken SOOOOOO goes with spaghetti of any kind! :D All of our pizza places around here have fried chicken and pasta together on their menu!

  2. Hi Andrea!!! I was wondering about the taboo of chicken and pasta, too. It's one of my favorite food combinations. Or, is it that it's chicken and a creamy marinara, rather than an alfredo? Personally, I still don't see the problem. Chicken cacciatore, anyone?

  3. I like to put chicken in spaghetti sauce instead of beef and add cayenne pepper or crushed red peppers for a spicier version of spaghetti. I've never questioned the pairing. Chicken Parm is one of my most favorite dishes also. I think as long as you use the same flavor profiles on both, or similar ones, then chicken and spaghetti works... now chicken and waffles, I hear of that all the time on the Food Network, but I'm not so sure about that one! HAHA!