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Before I start into our next lesson, I want you to take a minute and think about all you have learned. You can now cook with a mirepoix, make a glaze, make a compound butter and roast a chicken! With these techniques you are well on your way top being an accomplished cook.
So, what’s next? Sauces.
What is a sauce? Basically a liquid, some sort of thickener and flavoring ingredients. Really that’s it. From this, we can make a wide variety of sauces. The first sauce we are going to master is a marina. One of the few great pleasures in life is a steaming bowl of perfectly cooked pasta topped with a home-made marinara. So let’s get cooking.
With all the popular jarred marinara sauces currently on the shelf, I know it is tempting to simply use that instead of making your own. Don’t. Most of them are VERY high in sodium and, trust me when I tell you, they will not taste nearly as good as the one you make yourself. Plus, when you make this sauce, your entire house will become fragrant with the aromas from the simmering marinara. That you can’t get from opening a jar.
To have a delicious marinara sauce, you must start with very flavorful tomatoes. I don’t use fresh tomatoes for my marinara. I find that the sauce is watery and lacks the depth of flavor that comes from a canned tomato. The type of canned tomato you use is very important. Look for a brand that comes from San Marzano, a town just outside Naples, Italy. San Marzano tomatoes are thinner and more pointed than a typical Roma tomato. Also, the flesh is thicker and they a have a stronger, sweeter, less acidic taste. If you can’t find San Marzano tomatoes in your grocery store, look for a premium brand of whole tomatoes.
Another important key to delicious marinara sauce is balance. We must balance all that acidity coming from the tomato with sugar. Remember when I told you about a gastrique? A gastrique is a balance of acid and sweet. So in every balanced marinara sauce there must be some kind of sweetener. I prefer brown sugar because I think the notes of molasses work well with the tomatoes. But you can use whatever sweetening agent you would like: white sugar, agave, artificial sweetener, etc.
Let’s get cooking.
You will want to make this sauce in a large sauce pan, at least 4 quart, ideally 6 quart. To start, place two tablespoons olive oil in the pan over medium heat. To that add two finely minced shallots. What is a shallot? A shallot is a member of the onion family and looks like a mini-onion. If garlic and onion married, their baby would be a shallot. It has both onion and garlic flavors. If you can’t find a shallot, then use one small sweet white onion, finely minced.
Next add eight cloves of finely chopped garlic. Cook these until they are translucent. It will take about seven minutes.
At this point, deglaze with a cup of red wine. What is deglazing and why do we do it? To deglaze is to remove the bits of food on the bottom of a pan by adding liquid and heating it. Why do we do this? Because in those brown bits are enormous amounts of flavor and we want to get them off the bottom of the pan and release them into our sauce.
Are you ready for the tomatoes? You will need four, 16 ounce cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes. One can place in blender and blend until the tomatoes become a puree. The other three cans, you will break apart the tomatoes by hand. This is will result in a rustic, chunky, sauce. Add the three cans of hand-chunked tomatoes to the pan and then one cup of the puree. If you want a thinner sauce, add more puree. Thicker, add less.
Next add one tablespoon dry oregano. Why dry? In a long simmered sauce, dry herbs work best. Fresh herbs would lose their flavor and color. Stir well and add fresh cracked black pepper and Kosher salt to taste. Remember, Kosher salt is lower in sodium than regular table salt, but has all the flavor. Now add one tablespoon brown sugar. Taste. Is it balanced? You may need to add more if it still has an overly acidic finish.
Finally a pinch of red pepper flakes. This will not add heat, but will add a dimension to the sauce, a little something in the background that rounds out the sauce.
Turn your heat to low and cook at a low simmer for one hour. At the end of the hour, turn off the heat and add one cup of chopped fresh basil. We add this at the end so it retains all that vibrant green color and its wonderful flavor won’t get diluted by a long cooking process.
That’s it! You have just made a home-made marinara sauce.
Additionally, once you master this marinara, you can use it as a base to make other sauces. For example, add green peppers, mushrooms and Tabasco and you have a Spanish sauce. Add green pepper, lemon, celery and cayenne and viola, you have a Creole sauce. And on and on… But the key to all of it is a well-balanced, flavorful, marinara. As with any technique or recipe, the most important component is the cook’s heart. The heart is what creates delicious.
Chef Ivan Flowers brings 25 years of fine cuisine experience to Top of The Market, San Diego. Prior to becoming Executive Chef at Top of The Market, Chef Flowers owned Fournos restaurant in Sedona, Arizona, named a top 25 restaurant in Arizona. He was also Executive Chef at L’Auberge de Sedona, the AAA Four-Diamond, Four Star award winning restaurant. Flowers has created extraordinary cuisine for some of the finest restaurants in Arizona, including T. Cooks at Scottsdale's Royal Palms Resort and the Phoenician's Mary Elaine's and Different Pointe of View.