A couple weeks back, Brandon came to join me in Italy for a break from the working American monotony. Between eating and venturing through Bologna, navigating the canal-scored streets of Venice and stumbling through the ruins of Rome, it’s been a busy couple of weeks with little respite. Finding the opportunity to write up a recap has been a challenge, and ignoring a guest who traveled 3000 miles to see me to instead scheme up quips for my blog borders on the side of rude, which may be why I’m now writing one at 2AM.
After we’d zipped through the murky-watered Venice for a day, we then bee-lined our way to The Eternal City for a three day stop. The streets of Rome are thronged with so many English-speaking tourists that I began to wonder if Italians were even actually among us. We spent most of our time lounging and soaking up the Roman architecture, with the exception of our second day when we found ourselves in a cooking class, cooped up in a muggy and crowded kitchen and taking orders from a sardonic Italian chef (e.g. During the demonstration he held an egg up and asked the class if it looked like a freshly-laid egg. One of the girls said yes, to which he zoomed in two inches from her face, pointed to the printed numbers on the egg and said without skipping a beat, “Oh, really? Your bionic chickens have printers in their butts?”).
Brandon had booked us a day with Cooking Classes in Rome, which was his first cooking class ever, and I was nervous. Brandon isn’t the type of guy that likes to cook, so he just doesn’t do it. If left to his own devices, he’ll eat sugary cereal until diabetes claims his right foot, after which he might hobble to the pantry to eat cat food. Or the cats. Or whatever he finds under the refrigerator, I don’t know. Eating for him is a necessity for survival rather than for experience, and I like to think that I was brought into his life to show him a thing or two about what it means to love food and to keep him from getting rickets.
In ascending order from dessert to appetizer, our class menu consisted of yogurt-crusted cake filled with ricotta and chocolate, gnocchetti sardi with fried eggplant tomato sauce, chicken cacciatora, zucchini parmigiana, and procuitto and mozzarella stuffed pumpkin flowers. We’d become somewhat obsessed with pumpkin flowers after being served sautéed pumpkin flowers over ricotta tortelloni three nights prior, so their presence among the menu struck elation comparable to Angelina Jolie finding a naked and needy baby of color sitting outside of her front door, only to gleefully discover it was also an orphan.
At one point during the prep work, a 70-something year old woman held up a pale yellow-white hunk of pecorino and asked earnestly, yet so shrilly that Linda Bove would have winced, “DO YOU WANT ME TO CUT THE CHEEEEEESE?” and I was pretty sure I’d never stop laughing. Until the chef whipped his head around the corner to meet me eye to eye and asked in an authoritative and humor-murdering manner, “and just what are you doing?”
Given that the entire shebang was orchestrated by a veteran Italian chef and the food was constructed only with the freshest organic meats and produce procured from the market that morning, the taste factor of everything the class prepared was unparalleled. Chef Andrea was hilarious and lightheartedly derisive, all the while being enthusiastically helpful to the less experienced hands in the kitchen. The deep fried pumpkin blossoms did not disappoint either, as evidenced from finding myself embarrassingly eating a large second helping while audibly talking about how delicious they were long after everyone had grown bored of the dish and moved onto the next course.
Most surprisingly of all is that Brandon actually enjoyed the cooking class. I asked him later if he would start cooking for himself, but before I could even finish my thought he was already opening up a box of cereal. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can never really tear a person away from his roots.
photo taken by Brandon
A few notes regarding my marinara recipe:
I know, I know. Who makes their own marinara sauce from scratch when it’s so much easier to go out and buy a jar of spaghetti sauce? Calm down, back away from that disgusting jar of Prego and hear me out. Marinara sauce is so stupidly easy to make and you can prepare mass quantities of it for pennies on the dollar (if you shop your local farmer’s market — the grocery store will be a bit more expensive, but still a savings from jarred sauce), and it can be frozen in Ziplock bags for months without compromising its integrity. To get the same quality of sauce that this recipe produces, you will have to skip the Ragu and Mario Battali brand and head straight for the top shelf. If you’re really in a rut and need sauce immediately, my go-to is Rao’s. It’s nearly $10 for a 24oz jar, but it’s the only sauce brand I will use in a pinch.
This recipe for a basic tomato sauce is one that I’ve fought with for a while before getting it right. I’ve worked over many variations where the taste would either end up being too sweet or too acrid, or the consistency would be too watery, pleading for the addition of tomato paste (NO!) or too chunky necessitating extra water content (NO!). I wanted to produce an end product with only fresh ingredients and no additives or canned accoutrements, and I think I finally achieved it.
This tomato sauce is really clean and light, and the key is to use only the freshest ingredients you can find. The only ingredient I used that was not “fresh” was oregano since the flavor tends to be more prominent when dried. The higher the quality of ingredient you use, the better the outcome will be. This recipe also works well as a jumping off point for making puttanesca, arrabiata, or garbage if you happen to screw it up.
Peeling tomatoes for the sauce: When using fresh tomatoes you will want to peel them so you don’t have tough tomato skin shrapnel infiltrating and assaulting your otherwise velvety sauce. To peel them, bring a large pot of water to boil to assist in skinning the tomatoes. Superficially score the tops of the tomatoes making a shallow “X” with your knife, which will allow water to get under the skin making it easy to remove. Add tomatoes to the boiling water for about 30 seconds, remove to a bowl and let cool slightly. Save the pot of water to use to boil your noodles. Since we remove the skins, we are also removing a large amount of nutrients we’d otherwise metabolize from consuming the whole tomato. Tomato skins contain a large amount of flavenols and two different types of cartenoids, both of which will positively affect your reproductive and brain functions, as well as boost your immunity. These are released into the water when you boil the tomatoes, but if you save it and use that water to cook your noodles, the nutrients will be absorbed by the noodles. And that’s what I like to call ~*-SCIENCE-*~.
Seeding the tomatoes: I remove the tomato seeds from the tomatoes for this recipe. Some people don’t, which is fine as everyone has their own method of creating a basic marinara. However, if you blend your sauce with the seeds, you run the risk of rupturing the seeds and imparting a bitter taste that will take some finagling to recover. You can fix bitter sauce using baking soda, sugar or milk to cut the acidity, but I find it’s easier to remove them from the get-go than to play Dr. Spaghetti, Marinara Scientist trying to fix a problem that could have been avoided from the beginning.
THE FRESHEST HOMEMADE MARINARA SAUCE
*It’s best to serve this sauce with fresh homemade pasta*
Preparation time: 15 minute(s)
Cooking time: 1 hour(s) 30 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 6
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 medium carrot, minced
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 1 rib of celery, minced
- 1 whole unpeeled clove of garlic, slightly smashed
- 4.5 lbs fresh, ripe plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano, but Roma works as well)
- 1 tbsp of salt
- 1.5 tsp dried oregano
- 6 large fresh basil leaves
- Pepper to taste
- Bring a large pot of water to boil to assist in skinning the tomatoes. Superficially score the tops of the tomatoes making a shallow “X” with your knife, which will allow water to get under the skin making it easy to remove. Add tomatoes to the boiling water for about 30 seconds, remove to a bowl and let cool. Save the water used to boil the tomatoes for cooking the noodles.
- Peel tomato skins and discard. Cut the tomatoes in half and place juice and seeds into a sieve over a bowl to filter seeds out. Throw away seeds. In a separate, larger bowl, hand crush the tomatoes, add tomato juice and set aside.
- In a heavy bottomed pot heat olive oil over medium low heat and add the carrot, onion, celery and garlic. Sautee and stir periodically until soft, making sure not to brown the vegetables. This will take about 10 minutes.
- Discard the garlic and add crushed tomatoes, salt and oregano to the pot and heat over medium-high heat until boiling. Run the reserved juice, pulp and seeds through a fine mesh sieve and discard the seeds as these can impart a bitter flavor.
- Reduce to medium-low heat and allow to simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Every so often, crush the larger chunks of tomatoes with a fork for a smoother consistency.
- Remove sauce from heat, add fresh basil leaves, pepper and more salt, if desired then cover and set aside for 15 to 20 minutes. This will allow all the flavors to meld.
- Serve with pasta of choice, use it to top pizza or serve as a dipping sauce.
Similar Recipes from Other Food Bloggers:
- Baked Goat Cheese Marinara with Garlic Toasted Baguette by The Cooking Closet
- Baked Zucchini Fries with Marinara Sauce by Two Peas and Their Pod
- Spinach and Feta Quiche with Kalamata Olive Tapenade by Cook and Be Merry