Through the narrow streets of northern Italy we wound in our rental car, inhaling the delights of that treasured place where my husband had served as a young missionary. His soft lips wrapped themselves around the language he loves, bargaining for me at flea markets in Tuscany, getting directions from curators in galleries and museums, ordering at the counter in a small deli near Como. Turning off the road in Piachenza we came to a stop at an old farmyard. The powdery dust of the driveway swirled around our car and came to a rest on the windshield. The drive encircled a crooked old tree. Chickens jerked their slender necks as they raced past us. David took my hand and walked me to the door of what appeared to be an old barn. Indeed, it had been a barn, for probably a century, before Sister Settembrini and her husband made it their home. The door burst open and we were immediately enfolded in the arms of a most charming pasta-mama, her ample arms wrapped around us, Italian words strung together without pause flowed from her lips while she shuffled us into her kitchen, the only gathering place in her home. We walked under smoked hams and other meats and herbs hanging in the entry. I did not understand a bit of her rapid fire speaking, and I was quite curious about the kitchen/gathering space, but I wholly understood the aromas that also enfolded us. Amazing smells that might have made me seriously hyperventilate because I just kept over-inhaling. Oh my, the smells that live in the home of a past-mama! If I were a smell, and I could not be a lilac, I think I would want to be a good marinara sauce.
Here in Utah, when the sun begins setting earlier and earlier, the warmth of late summer days is whipped into an autumnal chill, and the peaches are ripening on their branches, that's when I drive up to Layton and out Gentile Street to Day's Farm. On the other side of summer, in May, I go to Day's Farm to pick fresh asparagus. Flip side of my season of harvests is tomato picking. I grow my own tomatoes at the end of my driveway, but those are for eating, or making a quick batch of Pomadoro. In September and October, when my canning pot is left in a convenient spot near the kitchen, I pick tomatoes.
Nice plump Romas, with some slicers intermingled for their juices. I usually pick a couple big boxes full. They are easy to can and I know there are no additives when I break the seal on one of my own bottled products. Just plain old crushed tomatoes, a spoonful of salt and a spoonful of citric acid - that's all you'll find on my shelf of bottled tomatoes. I used to bottle them whole, but always ended up crushing them anyway, so nowadays I crush my blanched and peeled tomatoes in by Blendtech (not over crushed) and they are recipe ready for marinara or Beef Barley Soup. If you don't have home canned tomatoes, no problem. Just use a good quality crushed tomato in this recipe. If Roma's are on sale somewhere I will buy a big bagful, blanche them in a pot of boiling water for two or three minutes, then submerge them in ice water. The peels come off super easy. Remove the stem core and give them a quick ride in your blender. Romas have less seeds than other tomatoes, so this works ok. Do NOT over blend. My family does not like a chunky sauce, so this works for us. I just use these freshly ground tomatoes to make my sauce. Talk about fresh.
This is how Sister Settembrini taught me to make Marinara. If you add meat, it becomes a Ragu sauce.
1 small can tomato paste
tomato sauce (if desired)
Fresh Garlic, minced
Fresh or dried basil
Pour 1/4 c olive oil into heavy bottomed skillet of pot. Heat it gently. Grate one small carrot into olive oil. Sautee carrot a minute or two. Add minced or chopped garlic, maybe 7 or 8 clove nubs. Cook another minute of so. Add sugar, then can of paste. Stir as it heats up. To this add crushed tomatoes and stir well. I usually add a couple quarts, depending on how big a crowd I am feeding or how much I plan to send home with guests (they always want some) Add a good bunch of fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces. If you don't have fresh, use a couple tablespoons of dried crushed basil. Taste and see if you need to add salt. If you are using commercially processed tomatoes there is likely to be more salt than home canned. Add some cans of tomato sauce to this if you want. It stretches out your sauce if extra guests show up. After simmering for an hour or three, you can add a couple tablespoons of butter or cream to counterbalance the acidity and smooth out the sauce. A little of the starchy water from the pasta boiling will also smooth out the sauce.
RAGU SAUCE: Add meat to Marinara and you have RAGU. I prefer fresh ground pork in marinara sauce. Pork really likes tomato, and vice-versa. Use plenty of salt and pepper and cook your pork in olive oil. Add this to your sauce. Stir some sauce around in the brownings at the bottom of your pan to get all that flavor into your ragu. You can also use hamburger the same way.
MANICOTTI or LASAGNA:
Marinara or ragu sauce
pasta noodles (Manicotti for stuffing, or lasagna for layering)
I make a bunch of Manicotti while I have the mess out. It freezes fine, and is good to make for neighbors and have some for home as well. Here's my double batch recipe.
2 boxes noodles
2 lb Ricotta Cheese
1 c Parmesan Cheese
6 c Mozzarella cheese
1/2 c bread crumbs (I toast bread and crush it in blender)
2T chopped parsley or 1 T dried parsley
Boil noodles in plenty of hot water, 6-8 minutes. Drain and put in ice water to help keep them intact . Fill baking dish or large cake pan 1/3 full of marinara sauce. Stuff shells and lay them side by side in pan. If making lasagna put ricotta and other ingress in globs on pasta, sprinkle mozzarella on top, pour some sauce over it, and repeat in layers. For Manicotti just do one layer of rolls and then top with plenty of marinara sauce and some shredded mozzarella with parmesan on top.
Bake uncovered at 350 for roughly 40 minutes. If frozen, defrost for a day in the fridge and then cook.
A little note about cooking pasta: Be sure to cook your noodles in plenty of water. Too little water will not give the poor pasta anywhere to send its starch. Cook it according to directions on the box or bag, minus a minute. That's when you check it. Take a bite. If there is any crunchiness in it, keep cooking. If there is a little resistance to the tooth, it's just right. If it's mushy, you've overcooked it. Don't waste good sauce on overcooked pasta. Boil a new batch. Do NOT keep cooked pasta in hot water, or even cold water. Drain it and toss some olive oil or butter in it to keep it from sticking. You can always reheat is rapidly boiling water for 30 seconds (I'm talking spaghetti here.) For lasagna and manicotti noodles, I keep them in ice water to keep them from sticking to each other and to hold the shell shape. But I work rapidly so they are not over soaked. Also, boil in salted water. Do not salt pasta after the fact.