Last week, in honor of National Pasta Day, I shared my recipe for making pasta from scratch. This is our family's favorite sauce to accompany the pasta. I'll be the first to admit that it is far from authentic. During my time cooking in Italy and learning pasta from scratch, I was never taught how to make marinara sauce. Sauces with tomatoes, yes, but a tomato sauce that’s allowed to bubble on the stovetop for a long time with a plethora of garlic, never. My friend Andrea Consoli, who runs cooking classes in Rome, says that if you order "marinara sauce" in Italy, you're likely to get a pasta with tomatoes and fish (which seems like common sense, given the name). Furthermore, the recipe does not appear in one of my go-to Italian cookbooks, Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. But living in Cuba, we make do with what we have and take nothing for granted. I’m not particularly concerned with authentic. I need something that works.
My kids love this sauce, and it’s versatile. They will eat it with any shape of pasta, tortellini, or ravioli. I spread it over my homemade pizza dough. It goes into my chicken and eggplant parmigiana, two more kid-friendly dishes. I use the sauce as a dip, to go with bread and fried calamari. In an emergency, if the kids are hungry and picky, I can reach into the freezer, pull out some homemade English muffins, top them with the sauce and grated cheese, and toast it all for a quick meal.
I actually have my husband, the non-cook, to thank for the recipe. In one of my attempts to get him to cook more, one Christmas I bought him a cookbook called Two Dudes, One Pan, written by Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the two chefs behind the restaurants Animal, Son of a Gun, and Trois Mec in Los Angeles. In their book, nestled in between recipes like “Stuffed Pork Chops” and “Black and Blue Beef Tenderloin,” is this super easy sauce. My husband Craig mastered it, and I stole it from him, just in time for the kids to come along.
I’ve altered the original recipe to include San Marzano tomatoes, which are grown in a certain region of Italy. Italians say this variety is the best in the world. You can find them in virtually any supermarket or superstore in the United States these days. Of course, it’s a different story in Cuba. Thankfully, I shipped dozens of cans with us when we moved here. The other alteration I've made to the recipe is the garlic -- I've toned it down by half, which makes it a friendlier dish for garlic-breath-free entertaining. With the fresh basil I’ve grown in my garden, I can have a steady supply of this sauce year round.
It’s not that there aren’t tomatoes here. There are delicious, juicy tomatoes that rival those in Italy. They come in several different varieties for cooking, salads, and snacking. But, because of the onslaught of heavy rains in the summer months, they are perdido (missing) for about half the year. Around now, in October, they start appearing but they’re carisimo (very expensive) at $2 per pound; one tomato might cost a Cuban a whole day’s worth of their salary. In the winter, when the rains cease and the temperatures drop into the low 80s Fahrenheit, tomatoes begin to populate the stands of every farmer’s market. In Cuba, everything is seasonal, however subtle the seasons are. It’s a good reminder that nature has its own rhythm that does not conform to our modern culture of everything on demand.
Our Family’s Marinara Sauce
2 28-ounce cans San Marzano tomatoes
1/3 cup olive oil
10 garlic cloves, peeled and mashed with the back of a cleaver
1 teaspoon salt
10 whole fresh basil leaves
Pour the tomatoes and juice into a large pot (or a large container with a flat bottom) and mash with a potato masher. Place the oil in another large pot and heat on medium before adding the garlic. Allow the garlic to brown (about 7 to 9 minutes), then stir in the tomatoes and salt. Cook until slightly thickened, about 45 minutes. Stir in the basil and then turn off the heat and allow to cool slightly before serving. Store in airtight containers in the fridge or freezer. (I keep the sauce in the fridge for up to a week.)