Sunday, February 5, 2012

Simple Marinara Sauce (and thoughts on canning tomatoes)

I don't buy fresh tomatoes out of season (if you want to learn more about the tomato industry, Tomatoland is a great book).  But I do still crave their tomato-y goodness, so I keep a few cans of organic tomatoes around, perfect for quick sauces and soup. Tomatoes are one of those foods that when cooked, can be even healthier for you: cooking tomatoes increases the amount of lycopene (a phytochemical associated with decreased cancer risk) that our bodies can use.

When I lived in Pennsylvania, I worked on a family farm, where tomatoes - especially sauce tomatoes - were a big crop for them.  People would buy sauce tomatoes (I recommend San Marzanos) by the bushel (or peck; did you know there are 4 pecks to a bushel?) for canning.  And at the end of tomato season, I helped the family can enough tomatoes to last them through the next season (lots - an all day event).  Before this experience I thought canning your own goods wasn't worth the trouble when they come so cheap in the grocery store.  But I have a wiser perspective now.  When you grow your own food, you gain a deep connection with that food and you are intimately involved in so much of what goes into producing it.  You want to treat each tomato with the respect it deserves and allow it to express it's tomato-ness (especially on the palate!). 

But I didn't put up tomatoes last summer so I'm stuck with store-bought (organic in glass) for now.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, cut in half again and sliced thin
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 1/2 cups (28 oz) canned crushed or ground tomatoes

In a large skillet, heat oil on medium heat and add the onion & spices.  Cook, stirring, until onions are soft.  Add garlic and cook a few minutes more.  Add tomato and cook, stirring, until it bubbles.  Reduce heat to low and cook to desired thickness.  Add sea salt to taste if needed (canned tomatoes usually contain enough salt that you may not need to add any more).

While the sauce is simmering, I boil up my pasta (I prefer angel hair or penne) in salted water and cook until just before tender.  Using tongs or a slotted spoon, I transfer the pasta (and the water that clings to it) into the sauce and allow it to finish cooking together.

Big Plus: this meal cooks up in about 15 minutes!

Add other chopped vegetables in with the garlic (such as summer squash)
Top with your favorite Italian cheese (such as pecorino or parmigiano reggiano)
This sauce also works well as a pizza sauce when reduced until very thick.

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