by Eric Wharton
My Recipe Book, constantly being added to
Italy called and said it was hungry.
— Chandler Bing, "Friends"
Marinara sauce is descended from a tomato-based sauce that probably predates the 19th century, originally used for seafood. It could not have been invented before the 16th century when tomatoes, a New World food, arrived in Europe. The Spanish brought the tomato back to Europe and introduced them to the Spanish kingdom of Naples around 1550. The tomato became popular there, which is where marinara sauce supposedly originated. However, It took 200 years before the tomato became popular in most of the rest of Europe. By the time that large numbers of southern Italians emigrated to America in the early 1900s, the sauce was such a way of life that they made it a classic in this country as well.
The name “marinara” comes from the word “mariners” or "sailor's style." Sailors and fisherman, who were the backbone of sea trade at that time, would use the sauce on their freshly-caught fish. The main ingredients of oil, tomato sauce, garlic, and dried herbs traveled well and didn’t spoil easily. The ingredients could be assembled quickly and easily, in about the same time it took pasta to cook, and the two together made a tasty, filling, and inexpensive meal for men at sea.
Marinara is a the grand Italian opera of the Italian sauces, stronger than pizza sauce, not as loud as spaghetti (Bolognese) sauce. It's a simple and unadorned sauce that sings when poured over meat and cheese. That makes it perfect to use in baked pasta recipes, chicken/veal/shrimp parmigiana, with meatballs, or when you need a quick dipping sauce for mozzarella sticks or anything you like to serve with sauce. Remember though, while it is used over meats, it never contains meat directly to the sauce.
The beauty of this sauce is that, with a few additional ingredients, it can be converted to a different sauce. Add red pepper flakes and you have spicy Arrabbiata sauce. Add anchovies in addition to the pepper flakes and you have Puttanesca sauce. However, if using marinara as a base sauce for these and other sauces, the oregano and basil herbs become intrusive—consider skipping them.
Grated carrots—the vegetable disappears quite quickly—brings a natural sweetness and complexity to the sauce, better than the odd spoonful of sugar some people like to add. Even when used as a base-marinara, this is one of those invisible ingredients that lifts and balances the garlic/onion/tomato trio and brings them all together.
2 28-ounce cans whole, peeled tomatoes
1 cup onion, finely diced
2 tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup carrot, shredded
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp basil leaves (for stand-alone marinara)
1/2 tsp oregano leaves (for stand-alone marinara)
1/4 tsp garlic powder
Sauté onions in a little olive oil. Add the other ingredients and reduce the sauce by cooking it down for 15-20 minutes to concentrate it, giving it a powerful, homemade flavor.
If you serve Marinara with pasta, reserve a small amount of water used to boil the pasta. The starchy water binds with the pasta and makes a good addition to your sauce. You don’t have to save all the water, because too much of it can alter the taste of your sauce, but a few spoonfuls or a quarter cup is enough to have a beneficial effect.
Do not pile naked pasta onto a plate and pour a ladle of sauce on top. Cook the pasta until al dente, drain it, and toss it with the sauce. Aside from the satisfying firmness of the pasta, the purpose of al dente is to retrieve the pasta before it’s completely cooked, and let it absorb the sauce as a finishing step.
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