Monday Marinara

I think meatless Mondays are a great idea. Most of us don’t eat enough vegetables; while a couple of meals a week at our house are all vegetables, meat is the focus when it’s there. That’s just what tends to happen, and I know it’s mostly a result of poor planning. So we try to make sure that we have vegetable-based meals that are easy to pull out and make when even rice seems like a lot of work.

Enter the marinara sauce. Make a quick search with our friend Google – there are literally thousands of recipes for marinara sauce. When I see something like that, I always wonder why. Where did something that is so much a part of household recipes come from?

The word marinara sounds like marine, so that’s where I started looking. As it turns out, that’s a good place to start. Marinara sauce literally translates as mariner’s sauce. It is Italian, but it didn’t come as a recipe from Italy. Sailors on ships coming to the US made it up – mariner’s sauce. Those sailors would have used what was available to them, and it’s a given that their supplies wouldn’t have been the same on every trip. And when you think about a recipe with a start like that, it’s no surprise that there are so many variations.

It makes me feel less bad about the way I make it. In other words, the basic parts are the same, but no batch is ever the same. If I have fresh herbs on hand, I use them. If there are fresh tomatoes, they’re great. But it’s also easy and good to make it with dried herbs and canned tomatoes to keep it in the house year-round.

I also believe in making big batches of sauces and soups that I can freeze by the quart for later. And, when it comes to marinara sauce, even though I have a really great recipe that I can follow exactly, I play it fast and loose. I don’t measure. I don’t time it. I taste it after it’s been on the stove for a little while and add whatever I think it needs. In other words, I suck at being able to pass this recipe on.

Or maybe I don’t. Reading a recipe is good. If it’s a recipe written on a note card that your grandmother gave you, that’s wonderful. But there’s something to be said for having to spend time in the kitchen with someone, watching and tasting with them, listening to them tell you why they’re doing that step or where they learned it. Those are the recipes that you really remember. They’re the ones you don’t need to read because they come from memory. When you think about the day spent in the kitchen with someone you care about and respect, that dish you were making sticks.

Patric likes my marinara sauce. He always likes to ask what I put in it this time. And I’ve built that memory with him by telling him to come into the kitchen with me.

A Big Batch of Marinara Sauce

Total Time: PT2 to 4H

Yield: 11 quarts

I'm sure you noticed that there aren't quantities on the spices. To be honest, working with this quantity of tomatoes, the spices went in by the handful with the exception of the cayenne. A cupped palm is about 2 tablespoons for me. And this is not somewhere to skimp on salt. Without enough salt, marinara is pretty bland. I did specify San Marzano tomatoes. They cost more and are a little hard to find sometimes, but they really make a richer, brighter flavored sauce. I said a cooking time of 2 to 4 hours here. If you want, though, you can reduce the heat to low and let this cook overnight. Just make sure your burner is on the lowest setting. If you make less sauce, you'll want to cut the time back. Either way, do not let the sauce burn on the bottom or you'll need to throw the whole batch out.

You don't have to cook this much sauce. Just scale it down to make what you want. As far as spices, use what you like. Marjoram, ground fennel, a little fresh thyme, some parsley - anything that sounds good to you. Just don't overdo it. You can always add more, but once it's in there, well, it's in there. If you want more texture, add capers or olives. If you want a smooth sauce, puree in a blender or in the pot with an immersion blender.

The general rule on pasta to sauce ratio at our house is 1 quart of sauce to 1 pound of pasta. After cooking the pasta, save about 1/4 cup of the pasta water. Add the pasta back into the pot with the water and a tablespoon of butter over medium heat and add warmed marinara sauce. Using tongs or a pasta fork, toss the noodles until they are evenly coated with sauce.


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Paprika
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Salt
  • 3 #10 cans whole San Marzano tomatoes


  1. Heat the olive oil in a (really) large stockpot (like 15 - 20 quarts) over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes or until translucent.
  2. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes longer.
  3. Add the herbs and spices to taste.
  4. Add the tomatoes with all juices in the cans.
  5. Bring the sauce to a simmer, only until bubbles are starting to break the surface.
  6. Keep the sauce at a simmer and cook, covered, for 2 to 4 hours or until the tomatoes come apart with a push of the fork.
  7. Allow the sauce to cool before filling 1-quart containers and freezing. Alternatively, you can use a pressure cooker to jar this the same way you would fresh tomatoes.

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