Monday, August 07, 2006

A Great "Marinara" (and why would you waste calories on something less?)

Italian food names embed some wicked and quirky humor. "Mostaccioli", the fat, ridged tubular curved pasta, means "mustaches". "Ziti", the smooth, medium-width, 2-inch long straight pasta tubes, inexplicably means "bridegrooms". Inexplicably unless you have a creatively dirty mind and realize the original ziti were 8 inches long. "Penne" (feather quills), by contrast, is reasonably descriptive, as are "vermicelli" (little worms), "linguini" (little tongues), and "farfale" -- which we call bow ties -- (butterflies). Then there are the sauces and styles of preparation. "Fra Diavalo", from the title for a monk and the word for devil, in other words "Brother Devil", is a well-balanced dipping sauce I last had at Alfredos on Cheshire Bridge Road (a fine restaurant the critics seem to miss but the people don't) to accompany their delicate fried calamari. "Alla carbonara" (charcoal maker style), or "alla cacciatora" (hunter style), or "alla carrettiera" (wagon driver style) seem mundane, if odd, compared with "alla putanesca" (little whore style) -- suggesting, perhaps, cheap and spicy or, maybe, easy to make). (Do they do ziti alla putanesca?) My favorite has to be "strozza preti", or "priest stranglers". But better yet is the Sicilian cookie, "minni di Sant' Agata" (St. Agatha's nipples), honoring one of the island's patron saints, an early Roman virgin martyr whose breasts were cut off by the pagans for her celebate devotion to Christ. Hey, with such classical themes in Italian cuisine, you have to wonder why the Vatican lets themselves be provoked into giving Madonna lucrative publicity, as they're doing now, by denouncing her second-rate, contrived blasphemies. She's a twit compared to Italian culinary tradition. Or even not compared to anything.

But this posting was supposed to be about "marinara", that ubiquitous and much-abused red tomato sauce that somehow got named after sailors and fishermen. In American usage, "marinara" sort of means red and vegetarian. But, in fact, in southern Italy anchovies, or even tuna, can be included. Maybe that's the marine connection. I've seen recipes that include ground meat and chopped carrots or celery, but that's "bolognese" ("in the style of Bologna"), not marinara. A great marinara is, to me, bright red, vibrantly fresh with tomato and garlic highlights, and only very lightly herbed. And it is also easily made. Really. I'll show you.

My mother, who was not at all Italian, nonetheless made a mean red sauce for our weekly spaghetti. She learned, she said, from her half-Genovese father-in-law, my grandfather, plus from an Italian colleague in her social work days, a woman with the lovely name of Maria dellaRippa. But Mum's sauce always had meat in it, lucious garlicy meatballs plus -- her requirement for a "good" sauce -- Italian sausage. The sauce simmered for hours until the surface gleamed with a rich brown crust of caramelized tomato and olive oil. I started out making sauce like that. But then I encountered really great marinara at small chef-run Italian restaurants I could afford as a student, "Jenny's" in pre-gentrification Haymarket Square in Boston (who didn't ask age before serving red wine), "Joe's" in Ithaca, and finally "Acky's" (for Acchiavelli) in New Haven. Gradually and increasingly my recipe got simpler, and more intensely focused on tomato. Some years ago I had spaghetti at my brother-in-law's, and I really liked it with all the meats. When I complimented him, he said you ought to like it, it's your recipe. It was, indeed, an earlier, forgotten stage in my red sauce's evolution, flash frozen in time so to speak, a sort of living fossil. This accidental paleogastronomy showed me how far I had come, yet it reassured me that I used to eat good stuff even though my tastes have moved ahead. The sauce I now prefer is a streamlined, purified descendent of what I once made, but it retains one key element of Mum's savory staple from my childhood. The Italian sausage (Sicilian, actually, where I grew up) that my mother considered the necessary base of a good sauce has left its core seasoning with me, the mildly licoricy spice fennel (which is "jintan manis" in Malay-Indonesian, in case you missed how I named this web log). Whole fennel seeds are the essence of what is Italian sausage to me, and infusing some fennel into the tomato sauce gives that wonderful yet fleeting fragrance that characterized the sauce I grew up with. It was the trick that my mother didn't realize she had.

OK, that's a long lead-up to get you to the recipe. Below is my (current) method of making marinara, my overall favorite Italian sauce. This is a beautiful dressing for pasta, as well as a topping for pizza, lasagna, eggplant parmagiano, and warm meatball sandwiches. The deceptive simplicity of the sauce lets the intense, fresh taste of the tomatoes emerge, enhanced subtly with the fragrances of garlic and fennel. Be sure to remove the garlic after gentle frying, leaving its essence in the olive oil but avoiding the heavyness of the fried garlic itself. Also, pay attention to the quality of the tomatoes you use. And no tomato paste is allowed, which would make the sauce taste sodden and overcooked. Incorporating Romano cheese into the sauce was something my mother did, and while I often leave it out depending on the sauce's intended use, it was recommended again for this particular sauce by an Italian-American physician friend in Athens who has a very refined palate.


Marinara Sauce Tim: 3 extra-large or 4 large cloves garlic, 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 large (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes (Hunts brand strongly preferred, especially their new "organic", which has been excellent so far), 1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds, 1/4 teaspoon paprika, 2 teaspoons sugar (or more, depending on the acidity of the tomatoes), salt to taste (1/2 - 1 teaspoon, or more), 2 large whole fresh basil leaves, 2 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese (optional) for cooking into the sauce, plus more for topping the sauce. Crush the garlic (press under a drinking glass or with the side of a knife) and remove the skin. In a stainless steel pot over low heat, fry the garlic slowly in the olive oil until just starting to turn golden. Remove and discard the garlic pieces (or salt them lightly and eat on toasted bread for a treat). Add the tomatoes and fennel seeds. Bring to a rapid boil, stirring frequently, and let boil 3 minutes. (Partially cover the pot, since the tomato splatters, and remove the pot from the heat before stirring, to reduce splatter.) Lower the heat and add the paprika, sugar, and some of the salt. Simmer 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Stir in the basil and the Romano, if used, and remove from the heat. The sauce is best if made ahead and briefly reheated before serving. (It stores in the refrigerator up to 5 days or freezes for up to several months.) If serving with pasta, accompany with grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese. If using on pizza (or on split pita bread substituting for pizza dough), dust lightly with dried oregano and drizzle with olive oil before baking.

Tim

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