Sunday, September 5, 2010

Marinara Sauce with Fresh Tomatoes

It’s no secret that psycho cooker is psycho for pasta.  It is just so tasty and versatile, not to mention affordable.  Of all the ways to cook pasta, there are few that are as pure and classic as marinara.  I have no qualms about using canned tomatoes, or even cracking open a good jarred brand.  However, making it from scratch with fresh tomatoes elevates this simple pleasure to a new elegance, and there is no better time to tackle such an endeavor than late summer, when tomatoes achieve their deepest color and flavor.

Fresh marinara is not a quick feat, and while it is not difficult, there are a lot of steps, and it requires some organization.  The recipe requires that Roma tomatoes be blanched, peeled, and seeded, which is less difficult than it sounds, but takes a good half hour to forty-five minutes.  What does this mean exactly?  Score all the tomatoes, by using a paring knife and making an X in the bottom of each one.  Then drop them into boiling water for about 20 seconds.  The tomatoes go promptly from the boiling water to a bowl of ice water for about a minute to cool down (this is called “shocking” the tomatoes, and I imagine that, as a Roma tomato, it would indeed by quite shocking).  After removing them from the ice water, the skins of the tomatoes will easily slip off with a gentle tug.  You can then remove the majority of the seeds by slicing each tomato in half and gently squeezing the halves in the palm of your hand.  This process may sound like nuisance; I personally find it incredibly comforting.  To each him own, but if you find yourself siding with the prior statement, the recipe could also be made with a large can of whole peeled plum tomatoes, and a significantly decreased cooking time. 
Marinara requires diced aromatic vegetables as its flavor base.  I recommend chopping the aromatics (onion, carrot, celery, and garlic) first, while a BIG pot of water comes to a boil for blanching the tomatoes (the water can be used again later to boil the pasta).  Chopping these vegetables in advance and setting them aside will make the whole process smoother, and it will only require a few extra minutes (we can all come up with 10 extra minutes, right?)  You could skip the carrot and celery, but I think they add a nice dimension, and balance the tomatoes’ acidity.
Did I mention how delicious this sauce is?  I let it cook for about 50 minutes, of course tasting it along the way.  It retained the flavor of raw tomatoes for so long that I was getting a little concerned, but something magical happened in the last 10 or minutes of cooking; all the flavors came together to yield a rich, deep, slow-simmered tomatoey flavor.  I gave mine a blitz with my immersion blender to make it smooth and silky.  This is not necessary, especially if you like a chunky sauce, but it also helps create the creamy color.  Despite the color, there is actually no cream in this recipe.  That is just the natural pigment of the fresh tomatoes, and I can practically guarantee that your sauce will have the same lush color.  In a world with so much chaos, it is certainly a comfort to know that simple, raw ingredients can be transformed into something so much greater than the sum of their parts with a little thought and organization, and of course, heat.  You can always rely on good, old chemical reactions.     
This recipe yields about 5 cups of sauce.  What to do with the leftovers?  Freezing it is a good option, but I have a more delicious idea.  Stay tuned (hint: it involves crispy, breaded chicken and melted cheese).   

Fresh Tomato Marinara (yields about 5 cups)

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 lbs. ripe Roma tomatoes
1 medium onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoons dried oregano
Hot pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
1 teaspoon sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ -1 cup chicken stock, vegetable stock, water, white wine (optional)

Serving suggestion:
Freshly cooked pasta, Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley or basil

-       Dice the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic set aside. 
-       Put a large pot of water over high heat to come to a boil.  You want it to be large enough to boil your pasta.
-       While the water heats up, rinse the tomatoes, and score them on the bottom, making an X.  Use a paring knife to do this and try not to cut too deep into the tomato.  Also, set up a large bowl of ice water.
-       When the water is boiling, add about 3 tomatoes at a time with a slotted spoon, and let them boil for 20 seconds.  Remove from the boiling water, and add to the ice water.  Allow the tomatoes to sit in the ice water for one minute, and then set aside.  Repeat until all tomatoes have been blanched and chilled.
-       In a three-quart sauté pan (or larger – definitely not smaller), heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add chopped vegetables and garlic.  Season with a big pinch of salt (about a teaspoon), pepper, and add the oregano and hot pepper flakes (if using).  Sauté until soft, stirring frequently, about 12-15 minutes total.
-       While the vegetables cook, pull the skins off the blanched tomatoes, and cut each one in half.  Place a tomato half in the palm of your hand, cut side up.  Gently the tomato gently into a fine strainer, lining a large bowl.  Squeeze each tomato half until the majority of the seeds come out, and set the tomatoes aside.  When you are done with all the tomatoes, push the pulp through the strainer with the back of a large spoon. 
-       Coarsely chop the peeled and seeded tomatoes, removing any large white cores.
-       When the vegetables have softened, add the tomato paste, and stir to combine (some chunks of tomato paste are okay), and then add all of the tomatoes and any strained juice from the seeding process.
-       Add more salt and pepper, a teaspoon of sugar, and stir to combine.  Increase heat so the sauce is gently bubbling.  Put a lid on the pot, but keep it vented.  Stir occasionally, and allow the sauce to simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.
-       If you’re sauce looks like it has reduced a lot, but it still has a raw tomato flavor (e.g it’s not done), and requires more cooking, add some liquid (½ to 1 cup).  I used chicken stock, but water, wine, or vegetable stock would work too.
-       When your sauce tastes and smells delicious (taste it for seasoning), you may want to give it a blitz with an immersion blender, but don’t obliterate it.  You could also do this with a standing blender.  I would recommend only blending about half the sauce so you maintain some texture, and make sure you don’t fill your blender more than half way, and vent it, to prevent explosions.
-       Toss your sauce with freshly cooked pasta and lots of delicious Parmesan, and maybe a little parsley.  Be sure to set aside some pasta cooking liquid before draining your pasta to help bind everything together.  A little extra virgin olive oil at the end is also delicious.  (By the way, unless you're cooking for a really big crowd, be sure to set a couple of cups of sauce aside for other applications.  Always better to set aside too much than too little.  It goes back into the pasta a lot easier than it comes out.)