Journal of the Plague Year 2020: Possibly Inauthentic Marinara Sauce of the Gods

pasta with homemade marinara
Monk-made pasta with marinara sauce.

Though I love pasta, for many years I didn’t have a reliable recipe for marinara sauce. This seemed sad and vaguely shameful, since I could make a dandy mushroom sauce, a few different lasagnas, and even a stellar bolognese, which is a remarkable achievement for a longtime vegetarian.

I found what would become the core of my recipe in a magazine called Edible Baja Arizona. I suspect there’s no longer a print version of this excellent publication. Though I no longer consult it when cooking, I cherish the badly stained page that I tore out five years ago. I’ve drifted far from the original recipe, but have cooked some version of it hundreds of times.

Here, then, is my version of marinara sauce. I can’t claim that it’s authentic, but I know it’s delicious.

Possibly Inauthentic Marinara Sauce of the Gods

Sauce-making pre-brief: This recipe can be adapted to accommodate a wide variety of vegetables and herbs. The pimped-out version below has some of my favorite additions, but a stripped-down sauce is possible, and well-worth making. The amounts can (and should) vary depending on what you have on hand and how much time you’re willing to spend chopping and sautéing. The non-negotiable items are in boldface. As with Tereus’s Sangria, I’m going to insist that you use quality ingredients. Unless you haven’t got them and can’t procure them, in which case I simply ask that you use good judgment.

Heat 1-2 Tbs olive oil, or a neutral-flavored oil like canola, in a non-stick pan. Dice an onion, or 2-3 shallots, and sauté on medium heat, stirring occasionally, while chopping and adding further vegetables and herbs.

Fennel is an excellent addition. It should be chopped roughly, much like you would celery, and you should definitely include not just the root, but the green stems and leaves.

Next, add sliced cremini or portobello mushrooms. If you have fresh or dried rosemary, put that in now, too. Let all of these cook for 10 minutes or so, until the onions and fennel are translucent, and the mushrooms are browned and have given up much of their juices.

Add greens, roughly cut. Kale will need a few minutes of cooking; more tender choices like baby arugula or spinach need hardly any dedicated sauté time.

Add whatever fresh herbs you have around. Basil, thyme, sage and oregano are all strong candidates. A pinch of crushed red pepper is nice, along with fennel seeds.

If you have sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil or marinated artichoke hearts, now’s the time to toss them in. I always love the tomatoes, and often feel like the artichoke hearts take over in a way I come to regret. Do as you think best, and as your cupboard allows.

Once everything’s stirred in, wilted and heated through, add a half-cup or so of red wine. It should not be cheap or nasty, but it could be something you didn’t particularly like when you tried to drink it from a glass.

As the red wine cooks down — we’re still on medium heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally as we add new items — whisk in a tablespoon or so of high-quality honey. I strongly endorse raw, unfiltered local honey, but I’ve used everything from molasses to raw cane sugar. The point is to take off the slight bitter or metallic edge common to unsweetened tomato sauces.

Add a squirt of tomato paste, and salt and black pepper to taste.

If you unaccountably forgot to add the herbs above, you can do that now without any real loss of fidelity. Dried herbs can go in, too.

Allow the wine to reduce by half and the honey or sugar to dissolve into the mix, then add a 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes. High-quality imported ones make a huge difference, and are recommended. I’ve used Bianco DiNapoli and Cento brands with good results. This last time I used native ones that were billed to be “heirloom,” and that worked out well, too. I’ve used a 14-oz can of diced tomatoes with some success, though you might want to reduce the quantities of other ingredients.

If you forgot the dried herbs earlier or thought of a few more to add, now’s a good time.

Give everything a good stir and bring it to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer and cover most of the pot with a lid, leaving an inch or so for steam to escape. Cook 30-60 minutes.

Towards the end of your cooking time, make the pasta. I use angel hair because I’m too lazy to cook anything that takes longer. I firmly believe that Montebello brand is the best, because monks have been making it in a monastery since 1388.

(Autocorrect changed monks to “moms,” and strongly resisted my efforts to restore the monks. My mom makes a mean tamale, but I’ve never known her to make pasta. As usual, Autocorrect, your edits are unnecessary and impertinent.)

Serve with hard cheese, grated. Consume while reclining on a chaise lounge like a Roman god.

Someday you will go to Herculaneum and see the Villa of the Mysteries. You will see Homer’s wine-dark sea, and perhaps even the shores of Troy, where Achilles sulked in his tent, scores of heroes died in combat, and Priam begged for the return of Hector’s corpse.

Not soon, perhaps, but some day.

Today’s numbers are below the frieze of our old friend, the brilliant Achilles.

Achilles drags the corpse of Hector
Achilles avenges the death of Patroclus by dragging Hector’s corpse behind his war chariot.

Confirmed Covid-19 cases in Arizona: 174,010
Current hospitalizations: 2,302
Deaths: 3,694

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