If there is one dish that is truly my own -- that defines me, in the culinary sense -- it is my marinara. Or "red sauce," as my family calls it. This is the meal that I turn to more than any other, the one of which Husband says, "I can eat your sauce each and every night of the week and I am being serious." When Mom says, "Are you feeding your father tonight?" what she means is, "Are you making red sauce?" Even Mom, who is not a fan of pasta and would just as soon eat a fried egg or a boring old salad for dinner, will from time to time eat and enjoy a bowl of rigatoni if it's topped with this sauce. And if you know Mom, that is quite a compliment.
The recipe for my red sauce varies depending on the time of year and the availability of delicious, ripe tomatoes. If it's fall, winter, spring or early summer and I can't get my hands on really amazing fresh tomatoes, I reach for a can of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes or -- better yet -- a jar of my own homegrown beauties that I put up the previous summer. But if it's late summer and the plants are producing copious amounts of glorious, sun-kissed tomatoes, well, friends, it is roasting time.
The late-summer, roasted tomato version of the marinara is, quite literally, good enough to eat with a spoon. Husband sometimes does. The slow roasting of the fresh garden tomatoes lends a delectable smokiness to the sauce that just cannot be duplicated any other time of the year -- well, any other time of the year here in Northeast Ohio, where the growing season is short and the cold, blustery months long.
I can't really recall the origin of this recipe. I just sort of made it up one day and have been perfecting it over the years. Though it is not rocket science, people really seem to respond to this recipe. And by "people," I mean my family and various friends -- the people who really count when it comes to cooking and feeding and sharing and entertaining. Roasted tomato marinara takes tomato sauce to an entirely new level. It is well worth the months spent cultivating my garden, then the time spent peeling and roasting the fresh-picked tomatoes. Time is well-spent in the service of great sauce.
You know, for a dish that is so central to what I do in the kitchen -- and what I do in my yard during the warm months -- I have surprisingly little to say about it. No elaborate background story; no effusive foodie language. Maybe this is because my red sauce is such an elemental part of my kitchen and of the way my family eats and of the way I feed them. It's hard to describe the importance of something so central to one's life, so omnipresent in one's kitchen. It's challenging to articulate why you love your husband, what makes your nephews so special, why your dog is a beloved member of the family, what it is about the national anthem that brings a tear to your eye. These things just are. They are in your soul.
ROASTED TOMATO MARINARA
This recipe doubles quite easily, if you have a lot of tomatoes in your garden and wish to make a large vat of sauce. Also, I never measure ingredients when I make this sauce. So if you have a little extra basil on hand, or wish to polish off the last of the wine but there's a little more in the bottle than 1/4 c., by all means go for it. Play with the ingredients. That's what makes it fun, and that's what makes it your own.
For the roasted tomatoes:
4 T. olive oil, divided
6 lbs. tomatoes, from the garden or farmers' market, peeled
1/4 c. fresh basil, packed
1 T. fresh rosemary
2 T. fresh oregano
2 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
For the sauce:
3 T. olive oil
1 medium onion, halved and sliced
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
1/8 t. kosher salt
1/8 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
1/4 c. red wine
6 T. grated Pecorino cheese
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Pour 2 T. of the olive oil on a heavy-duty sheet pan and spread it around to coat the surface. Peel the tomatoes. First, fill a medium saucepan about halfway with water and place over medium heat. Bring to a slow boil, then reduce the heat to low and keep the water at a simmer. Using a serrated knife, cut an "X" into the bottom of the tomatoes. Working in batches, place them in the simmering water for 30 seconds to a minute to loosen the skins. Remove the tomatoes from the water and peel them under cool running water using a paring knife. Cut each tomato in half, then remove the core and some of the seeds. (It is not necessary to remove all of the seeds -- no need to be fanatical about this step.) If you are working with particularly large tomatoes, cut them into three or four pieces. Place the peeled, halved tomatoes on the sheet pan.
Place the basil, rosemary, oregano and flat-leaf parsley in a big pile on a cutting board. Roughly chop; set aside.
Drizzle the tomatoes with the remaining 2 T. of olive oil, then sprinkle with 3/4 of the chopped herb mixture, the salt and the pepper. (Reserve the remaining 1/4 of the herb mixture.) Place the sheet pan in the oven and roast the tomatoes for 45 minutes, until they develop some char along the edges and are hot and sizzling.
About 10 minutes before the tomatoes are finished roasting, in a large pot heat 3 T. of olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the sliced onion, garlic, salt and pepper to the oil and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and begin to take on a lovely brown color.
Remove the tomatoes from the oven. Spoon the tomatoes into the pot with the onions. When most of the tomatoes are in the pot, carefully pour the reserved liquid and oil from the sheet pan into the pot, using a wooden spoon to loosen and scrape any caramelized tomato pieces into the sauce. It is important to get as much of the roasted goodness from the sheet pan into the pot of sauce, so do not skip this step. Reduce the heat to low. Stir in the red wine. Cook the sauce for about 10 minutes.
Using an immersion blender, puree the sauce until smooth. (You can perform this step in a traditional blender, but the immersion blender works extremely well with little to no mess.) Add the Pecorino cheese; stir to combine. Cook for another 15 minutes.
Finely chop the remaining herb mixture. Add to the sauce; stir through and turn off the heat. Adding the herbs at two different points -- at the beginning, before roasting the tomatoes, and at the very end -- brings a depth of flavor and freshness to the sauce.
Serve over hot pasta and garnish with a sprinkling of Pecorino, or allow the sauce to cool to room temperature then store in the refrigerator in a covered container for up to 5 days. The sauce also freezes well.
Makes about 6 cups of sauce.