Sunday, June 1, 2008

Let's make Marinara!

Lately, I've been observing (and drooling over) a couple of food blogs I really enjoy. One of the very best presentations I've found online is by Pioneer Woman, whose beautiful photography and incredibly scrumptious-sounding (and looking) food makes me want to quit my job and cook all day. Actually, wait a minute. Who am I kidding? I want to do that anyway!

While I'm nowhere near the photographer PW is, I do love to cook and I enjoy learning new recipes. I also enjoy making our time-honored favorites, and pretty much enjoy just any old time I get to spend cooking. And I love sharing things I enjoy here with you on this blog. So in a nod to the photo-journalistic style used by PW and others, I plan to try my hand at documenting a few recipes to share with my readers. Some will be personal recipes from my own kitchen or members of my family; others will be recipes we've tried and loved from names you'll recognize. I will always credit the author, if it's someone besides me. And I'll let you know where I've made changes or tweaks from recommendations of the original recipe. I'll give directions from the viewpoint of a newcomer to cooking, as I've found that's a great way to pick up new hints here and there.

And there's another reason I decided to try this. I have several good girlfriends who just hate to cook, or think they are terrible cooks and so have given up trying. Far too many, actually. Cooking can be such a joy, and for me it's absolute therapy. Nothing relaxes me more (okay, almost nothing). One of my very good friends is absolutely convinced she can't do anything without a precise recipe, and even then, she is hesitant to try anything with more than about five ingredients. She does not like to experiment in the kitchen, and seems convinced before she even begins that she will not be able to make any recipe work. After years of encouraging her that she can certainly cook and she needn't be afraid to try, I'm hoping to share with her (and anyone else who's interested) some step-by-step examples of how easy even more complicated-sounding recipes can be - and how delicious! My own love of cooking, and our universal need to eat and feed our families well every day, makes me sad to see anyone afraid to cook - or convinced they hate it before they've really had a chance to learn it. I'm hoping with a little friendly guidance (and some yummy photos for you to drool over) I can convince at least those closest to me to get in the kitchen and make something fun!

Now, a couple disclaimers about this new cooking series (sorry, it's the lawyer in me!). I'm not a trained cook or chef. I'm a home cook who learned most of my modest cooking skills from my mom, my grandmother, a few great cookbooks and various favorite shows onFood Network(!). I'll emphasize up front that I don't know everything about cooking. What works for me in a given situation may not work for you, and every cook has his or her own style of doing almost any kitchen task. And I'm not receiving any financial reward (sigh) for posting anything I may cook, so please don't think I'm endorsing any particular product for that reason. Any recommendations I make are only that - my personal preferences. But I'm happy to share what I do know, and I've picked up some tidbits along my own culinary journeys that might be helpful to others. So, I hope you'll come along for the ride, maybe pick up a new recipe or skill along the way, and enjoy the photos! If you ever have questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments. I will certainly be happy to help if I can!

So, without further endless rambling with no photos to keep you company ado, let's cook something already!

Loyal and alert readers from prior months will recognize the recipe I'm making today. It's a Marinara Sauce recipe from Giada de Laurentiis. Giada is one of my very favorite chefs, and she makes even the most complicated Italian food accessible. The good news today is that this recipe is neither complicated nor hard to make. It's a one-pot sauce with endless potential applications. I keep a constant supply in my freezer for use anytime, and so far I love it over pasta, chicken, fish, just about anything. It's sooooo much better than the kind in a jar. I never believed anything could be better than my favorite jarred sauce, but I was wrong! And actually, I think if you blended the finished sauce, it would make an outstanding tomato soup. But I digress.

So here we go! Today's recipe needs only one large pot, a good-size cutting board and a good quality knife. Oh, and some freezer bags or containers if you want to freeze for later use.

You may also recall that I bought a new knife the other day, and as promised, I'm going to document its debut for you! This is a good recipe to try it out, as there are a couple vegetables to chop (not too many; I wouldn't do that to you on our first outing!)

Let's round up the suspects and bring them in, shall we? You'll need these ingredients (as we go along, click on any photo to enlarge):

We've got some extra virgin olive oil, diced tomatoes (you can also use crushed or even tomato puree, if you prefer), 2 sweet onions (it's Vidalia season here), some garlic, 2 stalks of celery, 2 carrots, 2 bay leaves, and salt and pepper.

Let's start by chopping up everything that needs cutting. This is a good habit to get into. While my favorite TV chefs can slice and dice away while four different pots simmer on their stoves, I need a little more structure than that. I don't want to cut myself trying to rush through chopping something in the middle of the cooking process, while my waiting recipe cheerfully burns to a crisp because I wasn't fast enough. The French even have a saying for this - mise en place. It means, roughly, everything in its place. Get your knife work done before you start cooking. I promise, you'll enjoy the process a lot more!

I usually start with the onions first. I don't know why :-) Now, you know how to dice an onion, right? In order to do it evenly and quickly, you want to take advantage of the onion's layers. First slice off both ends. Then cut the onion in half from root end to top. (I usually wait to peel it until this point - lots easier, but make sure your knife is sharp enough to cut through the skin). Now, lay each half flat and make fine slices, again from root to top. Keep the slices together and when you're done, spin it 90 degrees on the board and make slices perpendicular to the first set. Voila, finely diced onion (simply make wider cuts if you want chopped).

When you've finished it'll look something like this:

[Hardware briefing: we interrupt this blog to bring you an update on the new knife debut. The knife is blissfully sharp and fully lives up to its billing in that department. It cuts onion like nothing I've ever seen. The little scallops on the blade did not exactly keep the onions - or anything else - from sticking, but I was cutting moisture-rich vegetables and making pretty fine dice, so it may be that food just flat out sticks to the knife when it's in tiny pieces. Overall so far, all my fingers are intact and the only thing that's been cut is the onion. :-)]

Now, we need some garlic. I usually use regular white garlic, but this trip my store only had purple stripe. Its flavor is lovely too - I've never met a garlic I didn't love! Garlic is kind of funny to dice. Everyone's got their own method. I just peel, slice and dice until it's the texture I want. It's a LOT easier to slice if you crush the cloves slightly before starting. But that involves finding a heavy, blunt instrument to crush with, and I'm not crazy about the method some cooks use of smashing the cloves with the flat of your knife. I don't think it's good for the knives, and I know it's dangerous for my already-klutzy hands. So do whatever works for you!

I don't mind larger diced garlic, because it mellows as it cooks. So here's what mine looks like - just keep running your knife through it until you've got the size you want.

Now, some celery. Take two stalks and trim the ends. And one other note - see that bowl in the background? It's what Rachael Ray calls the "garbage bowl." When you're cooking, you want things all in one place (as much as possible). You don't want to waste a lot of time running all over the kitchen - or to the garbage can. So just pick a bowl and toss everything garbage - trimmings, overboard pieces the dog tried to eat off the floor, can lids, whatever in there. Then empty it when you're cleaning up.

You want your celery in pieces about the same size as the onion. To dice celery, just make parallel cuts almost to one end, lengthwise.

Then cut crossways to produce dice.

Now we need some carrots. Don't be like my husband. If I told him to go into the refrigerator and get carrots, and all he found was a bag of baby carrots, he would say "but we don't have any of the kind you can chop up..." This is one of those things that trips some people up. There are times you must stick diligently to a recipe or ingredient list (like baking). But most times, as long as what you're using has the flavor you want, it doesn't matter if it's in a different form than that called for. You can easily chop baby carrots in place of any carrots called for. Or you could chop up matchstick style carrots, etc. Whatever you have on hand. You get the idea! Don't let a missing ingredient here or there throw you. We'll look more at this as we go along. Anyway, I had baby carrots, so that's what I used. About a handful.

[At this point, the knife and I are still friends. ;-) It's cutting through stacks of carrot sticks with blissful ease!]

And that's it! Now we're all set to start cooking!

For any kind of sauce, especially one that will simmer a while, it's best to use the heaviest (i.e., thicker-bottomed) pan you have. I prefer Le Creuset for exactly that quality, and many others. You'll need a good size pot; this one is about 12 inches across. Begin preheating your pot and put a fair bit of olive oil in:

You don't want to add the veggies until the oil is hot. You don't want it smoking, either, because that causes chemical changes that are bad for you. So keep an eye on it. An easy way to tell it's ready is a small piece of onion (or whatever you're cooking) will sizzle gently if you toss it in. Not sure if you can see the tiny bubbles around the onion in this pic without enlarging it:

When the oil is ready, toss in the onion and garlic. I was a little sloppy here and some celery escaped the cutting board, but it's no big deal here. You want to stir it around quickly to coat the veggies, and also turn down the heat slightly. Garlic burns easily and it is very bitter if you burn it. You want the pan hot enough to sizzle gently, but keep stirring a minute or so to distribute the heat through your veggies. Respect the garlic, and it'll reward you later!

Now, add a little salt. Opinions on salt choice vary widely. I use regular sea salt, because I like its flavor (and yes, there's really a difference!) But a lot of chefs use kosher and prefer that - not because it's necessarily kosher, but because of its flaky shape and stick-to-the-food quality. So try any type you want. I would encourage you though - if you've never gone beyond the blue canister of iodized salt, try some freshly ground sea salt (you can get the Chef'n salt and pepper grinders at Target or Amazon, and they're inexpensive. I LOVE 'em!). Then come back here and tell me you still want that stuff out of the blue canister! Oh - and we're adding salt at this stage because it helps soften and saute the moisture out of the onion. Don't add pepper yet - pepper can burn if you happen to get the heat a little high. Wait a bit on that.

When the onions have softened and become a bit translucent, toss in the carrots and celery.

Same routine - stir, add a bit more oil if needed, and salt a bit. Take some time at this stage. It needs to cook fairly gently, but well. You want everything to be cooked (but not disintegrated!) before you add the tomatoes. You want the tastes of these veggies in your sauce, but not a lot of crunch.

One other note. While you're sauteeing, you may see something like this developing on the bottom of your pan. As long as it's not black and smelling like charcoal, this is GOOD, not bad. It's called fond, and it's yummy bits of flavor that result from sauteeing food. They'll make your sauce taste awesome. Back to this in a second.

Now, open a couple large (28 oz) cans of tomatoes. Here again, go with what you prefer or, in a pinch, what you have. If you like chunky sauces (I do) use diced tomatoes. You can always smash up any big pieces with a wooden spoon as they cook. Or if you have crushed or even pureed tomatoes you could use those... again, don't stress over insignificant details. This is a rustic sauce that will accomodate your convenience :-)

If your pan is developing (say it with me!) fond, this is great. But you need a way to get it off the bottom of the pan and into your sauce, without scraping the enamel off your pan. Thankfully, this is easy to do. All you need is the heat coming off the pan itself, and a little liquid. We're going to use the juice from the canned tomatoes - so scoot your veggies to the side and dump the tomatoes right in!

As you're stirring the tomatoes into the mix, use your spatula (or wooden spoon if needed) to gently scrape the bottom of the pan. The liquid sort of dissolves the fond into the sauce - and your pan looks clean again! At this point, also add the bay leaves and stir them in (where the moisture can get to them).

Oh - and NOW you can add the pepper! Stir everything together and turn the heat way down. My stove has a simmer setting. You're going to want it to simmer very gently for about 45 minutes to an hour. Even on low, keep an eye on it. Stir every 10 minutes or so to prevent sticking on the bottom. Be sure you scrape cleanly across the bottom as you stir; I love silicone spatulas for just this purpose.

It's done when everything is the texture you like. If you like it thicker, simmer longer, or vice versa. Remove the bay leaves when done and discard. Allow it to cool slightly, portion into freezer containers and freeze (or refrigerate a couple days and use in recipes).

And look at that! Homemade sauce whose ingredients are fresh (and known!) and not a jar in sight!

Hope you enjoy! (PS: The actual recipe is here.)


Robin's Reports said...

Yum, thanks! I'm hoping to can fresh salsa in the next month or so. Marinara sounds great too.

I love your new knife. My Mom got us one for Christmas and like you, I was scared to death to use it. It is my favorite knife in the kitchen but I am soooo careful with it.

Angie said...

Great first tutorial! PW would be proud! That's the color LC pot I tried to get, but Flame was the color of the month, so I relented to the 20% off. Ha ha!

Angela said...

Thanks Robin! I do loe the new knife. And it is great, but I'm verrry careful with it :-)

Angela said...

Thanks Angie!

And don't worry. You're now in classic territory. If I'm not mistaken, the flame color is the original Le Creuset color. It's their signature!

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