Sunday, January 14, 2007

In search of the classic marinara

In my last post, I mentioned marinara, one of the basic Italian pasta sauces. Spaghetti with marinara is a staple in many American homes.

I wanted to replicate that dining experience recently in my Calcutta home. I bought imported Italian spaghetti and fresh Indian tomatoes – I haven’t so far seen canned Italian tomatoes in Calcutta. And, I made the marinara from a recipe by acclaimed Italian chef Lidia Mattichhio Bastianich, but it wasn’t the same as I had tasted in America several years ago. The marinara ended up too dry and chunky; so much so that it didn’t quite mix with the spaghetti as other sauces do.

Here is my recipe for the classic marinara, as adapted from Chef Bastianich:


3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1½ pounds fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
Salt, to taste
Crushed red pepper, to taste
5 fresh basil leaves, roughly torn (or ⅓ tsp dried basil)


  1. In a medium-size, non-reactive saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
  2. Add the garlic and cook until lightly browned, about 2 minutes.
  3. Carefully add the tomatoes and their liquid (Because I didn’t have canned tomatoes, I tried to catch as much of the juice while processing them, using a strainer).
  4. Bring to a boil and season lightly with salt and crushed red pepper.
  5. Reduce the heat to a simmer, breaking up the tomatoes with a whisk as they cook, until the sauce is chunky and thick, about 20 minutes.
  6. Stir in the basil about 5 minutes before the sauce is finished (I cheated here – I used dry basil.)
  7. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.

After I finished step 7, I had an extremely chunky and dry sauce. It tasted fine. It had the nutty flavor of browned garlic and of the blend of tomato, basil and olive oil. I realize that the sauce is expected to be chunky, but, as I said earlier, my creation was too dry to mix with the pasta well.

What went wrong? Was there something inherently wrong with the recipe? Is 20 minutes too long for the simmer? I do know from Internet research that some chefs use tomato puree instead of, or in addition to, chopped tomatoes. Post your comments.


Anonymous said...

I read a lot of food blogs and it is interesting to find that many indian food bloggers living in the states try to cook indian food and show pride towards their native cuisine, while many bloggers in India somehow seem to lack the same appreciation (like you for example) - tuna sandwiches and marinara sauce ????

Angshuman said...

Hi anonymous:

Thanks for your comment. The trend or pattern that you have observed can have several explanations.

In my case, there are two:
-- When I lived in the United States, I held on to my native cuisine as though it were precious and I might lose touch with it. I think this happens with a lot of immigrants.
-- Cooking, especially in modern times, is global: If one loves to eat and cook food, and is curious about world cuisine, as I am, then one would be open to multiple cuisines. In any case, chefs have been fusing different cuisines, either ingredients or techniques -- or both -- for many years now. Some chefs go even beyond that. They embrace a different cuisine totally. Canadian celebrity chef Guy Rubino's restaurant is a "celebration of Asian cuisine," according to Food Network, which airs his "Made to Order" series, co-produced with brother Michael. Guy Rubino grew up in Canada in a European home environment, but cooks, for instance, Japanese food with gusto.

Jyotsna said...

So true Angshuman. I think cooking and eating just one type of cuisine is boring, unimaginative and unadventurous.Anybody who loves food and cooking is bound to venture beyond their own borders.
By the way Anonymous everything under the sun does not show the presence/lack of national pride.

Creativecook said...

How does one define nationalistic pride? I think each has their own way. I find a deep connection to Calcutta in the way this blog presents the local environment, I think you bring out the character of Calcutta in a very unique way.

And I agree with Jyotsna, it is extremely unimaginative not to experiment with other cuisines.

Pelicano said...

I read over your recipe...I do peel my tomatoes (by dunking into boiling water for a few minutes) for marinara, but I do not seed them. I like the seeds, plus there is quite a bit of liquid in the seed cavity...I also use less oil than this...a pound and a half? that is about maybe 7 Italian (Roma) tomatoes? I would go with like 2 teasoons of oil...just enough to float on top, plus I don't let the garlic brown in the least; I add it to the oil, stir it for about 10 seconds, then add the tomatoes and keep the heat low...this longer, slower cooking helps break down the structure. The other ingredients are the same that I use, but i add a little black pepper. Some recipes add oregano, bay leaf, thyme, spearmint...small quantities. Hope I was of help!

I agree that the world is shrinking...simultaneously there is a great interest across the globe to preserve traditional dishes from oblivion, and at the same time there is much experimentation going on as other cuisines with their ingredients and techniques are assimilated. It was always so... that commentor does not understand how the cuisine(s) of India, as he knows it now, was constructed by this very a slower pace perhaps, but, for example, the cuisine of Hyderabad is world-renowned, yet it is the epitomy of a fusion cuisine! Great things happen when worlds collide...

ammadio said...


I also make Marinara sauce at home here in Bangalore. I make it the same way as you have mentioned. I kinda developed it on my own based on what I wanted in the sauce and what is available.

The only variation is, to give the sauce some body, I add a little bit of "the water in which pasta is cooked" to it (maybe 1/4 cup for a quantity of sauce meant for 2 people). The starch in the water give some consistency.

Secondly, I make the sauce fresh, add pasta to it, simmer for about a couple of minutes and serve.
My kids really love it.

The suace is very tangy as it has been reduced considerably unlike the store bought once.