Monday, January 18, 2010

Economical Eating -- Marinara Sauce . . . with Bison

My grandmother has been fine-tuning this recipe for what seems to me like all of her life. She has ladled this sauce onto our plates of pasta on Christmas day and Easter and Valentine's and birthdays and many, many special and not-so-special occasions in between. I used to stand with her in the kitchen as she stirred the pot and my Poppop cut hard bread on a wooden board. I remember gabbing about horses for what seemed like blissful eternity to me at the age of ten and must've been an act of love for her. Everyone in my family has their tomato sauce memory or memories. The stuff is next to water. Life revolves around it.

A part of me wishes that it was never written down with such finality in the book. To get to it, I pull the thing off of the shelf, turn the pages, and there it is -- like an old bit of my history recorded with care. On that page, I find something that feels like it was almost lost, a part of my childhood and the people that made it what it was.

So on Saturday afternoon I attempted to make the grand pot of Nanny's marinara sauce, which is always somewhat of a ceremony. First, I cleared the counter of clutter and the sink of dishes, fetched fresh dishtowels and pulled out my sharpest knives, washed the parsley and set it to dry. I pulled out garlic and onions and wine and dried herbs. Then, I slowly commenced with the Slicing of the Onions, which are meant to be "sliced, not too thick, in crescents."  I love this description. She doesn't just say "sliced in thin crescents" or "sliced thin," but rather she halts you just before you let down the knife to check the thickness of the cut. I always hold my breath a little with each slice and think "not too thick!"

Here's where things went a little crazy. I ended up having one major interruption (albeit a fun one, visiting a friend), during which I stopped cooking the sauce after the first simmering stage (1 hour) and put it in the fridge until the next morning. I had a very uneasy feeling about deviating from the recipe like this--messing with perfection and all that. The next morning I added the cans of sauce and paste, finishing the long simmer (1.5 hours) before church on Sunday. The sauce was none the worse, in the end.

The economical thing about sauce is, it makes a ton. I put two containers in the freezer and a big container in the fridge -- good for at least two meals, maybe three this week. I like to make the marinara rather than the meat sauce (recipe is almost the same) because it has so many options. I'll use it for chicken parmesan, or sauce-simmered pork chops (recipe for another day), or eggplant parm . . .

Last night I simmered some of the sauce with ground bison meat, which I had browned first, for 30 minutes. Wow, that was different! The sauce became a dark red-brown, and we heaped it on top of spaghetti. The bison was a little sweeter than ground beef and there was a richness to it that reminded me of venison.

In fact, the whole dish tasted rich and good -- a hard-won reward after a heavy weekend of cooking.

Nanny's Italian Tomato Sauce (Marinara)


4 cans tomato sauce (Hunts brand, 29 oz.)
1 can crushed tomatoes (Hunts brand, 28 oz.)
1/2 can tomato paste (Hunts brand, 6 oz.)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 medium onion sliced, not too thick, in crescents
4 to 5 medium garlic cloves, diced or pressed
1.5 - 2 cups fresh parsley, chopped (at least one bunch)
2 leaves fresh basil, chopped
1/2 cup burgundy or chianti wine (optional, but good)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
pepper to taste
oregano to taste


Put olive oil in a large pot (6 - 10 qt.) and heat. Add onion (sliced in crescents) and cook until light golden brown. Add garlic and saute until light golden brown, do not brown. Add parsley and saute for five minutes to release the flavor. Add salt and pepper and red wine. Simmer for 2 - 3 minutes.

Add the crushed tomatoes to the pot with an additional 1/2 cup of water. Add the basil and sprinkle the oregano over the top of the mixture. Simmer for one hour.

Add tomato sauce and with each can of sauce add about 1/4 cup of water. (I swish the water around inside each can to get all the sauce out.) Add a little more than 1/2 can tomato paste (you can freeze the rest) and the sugar. Simmer 1.5 hours.

Nanny writes: The marinara sauce can be frozen. You'll always have it on hand when someone stops in.

(ALSO, be sure to stir the sauce AT LEAST every five minutes.)

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