It was a year ago today, around my birthday, when I was thinking a lot about Italy and the food I’ve loved since I was a boy.
I never thought of myself as much of a cook, but over the past year I’ve come to see that the fundamentals of cooking aren’t half as complicated as I thought.
And while I can’t pinpoint exactly how or why it began with marinara sauce, I think it had something to do with travel.
I was 18 years old when I first visited Italy and the experience changed my life. For one thing, it was one of the first countries where I spent any good amount of time outside of the States. Not only did it broaden my perspective, but it did so in a way that inspired a deeply-rooted trust in the basic goodness of people, a trust that continues to this day.
Never in my life had I met people who were so consistently happy, helpful and welcoming; and the realization was enough to make me weep especially when complimented with a cuisine so unbelievably good that I was convinced I could feel the love of a people put into it with every bite.
And then of course, there was the wine. I’d never really sipped or much less enjoyed wine before, but that first night in Rome marked the beginning of a love affair which, as my best friends will certainly tell you, also lasts to this day. Chianti remains my favorite wine. Forever and always.
Simply put, Italy is one of the most friendly, romantic, sexy, joyous and culturally rich countries I have ever visited in my life. It was an incredible way to begin what I further hope is a long life of travel.
So I guess I can tell you exactly why I began my cooking trip with marinara sauce–because every time I make it, I reflect on these experiences. I think about the old ruins and cobblestone streets of Rome, the ornate fountains, the candlelit restaurants that feel like they might stay open all night. I think about the hills and cypress trees of Tuscany, and the Arno River in Florence glowing in the moonlight. I think about the history. The ghosts of the Coliseum. I think about the art. The art! This is the land of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. The Renaissance. The opera! This is La Dolce Vita and the surrealist dreams of Fellini and the great masters of Italian cinema.
It’s a place where time doesn’t exist except in all the right ways, and for all the right reasons, where you’ll see flashes of modernity amid the backdrop of ancient ruins. For me, life is a flashing moment and one great big beautiful trip that ought to be celebrated and revered. Italy is a place that encapsulates that realization, one that I hope is a realization for the rest of the world that encourages us to not take life for granted, but to cherish it and truly cherish one another.
Finally there’s one other reason why I appreciate making the sauce. As it’s a reminder of that first experience in Italy, perhaps by extension, it also reminds me of the excitement in beginning something new, something that’s about to unfold in a way I can’t even begin to imagine.
It’s the thrill of being a beginner, when everything is unknown and mysterious and you’re unburdened by any heavy expectation because, in the beginning, you’re too humble and open-minded to indulge it. I try to maintain that mindset in everything that I do. Though I’ve learned and experienced a lot in the time in between, I still like to consider myself an amateur. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Now, let’s get to the dish. Like many people, Italian food is my favorite cuisine, and though I’m inclined to say that it’s more the intangibles that I appreciate the most–the warmth, the attitude, the lack of pretentiousness, the familial, convivial nature of the restaurants and the country, the red wine and all those wonderful things I mentioned earlier–if there is one constant that makes me enjoy Italian food as much as I do, I would have to say it all comes down to the sauce.
Since I was new to cooking, I figured marinara was a simple enough dish to start, since it incorporated so many basic principles of cooking: using fresh ingredients, prepping the ingredients, using oils and garlic effectively, knowing how and when to add salt for taste, and then, my favorite part, the process of letting something cook slowly while you periodically check in to stir, maybe add more salt or get a better idea of how much time you have left. Of course, you’ll likely add your own flourishes and personal touch with time, as I typically do myself, but here are the fundamentals.
1 can of whole tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
7-10 cloves of garlic
A little basil
And that’s all you need my friends.
Prep your garlic by slicing thin. The thinner the better.
Crush the tomatoes by hand in a big bowl.
Add the oil to the pan and heat over medium, add the garlic and then let it sizzle, 1-2 minutes so it doesn’t burn. When that happens, go ahead and add the crushed tomatoes. I like to add a cup of water, which I’ve poured into the empty can of tomatoes to get any remaining bit of sauce.
From here, just let it look and stir every twenty or thirty minutes. Add salt to taste. When it starts smelling real good and the water has absorbed, you’ll have your sauce, finish off with thinly sliced basil. Buon appetito!
As you can see, we’ve provided our own curated Spotify playlist above. If you’re looking for upbeat, Louis Prima is the way to go. If you’re looking for romantic, try anything by the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti. You might also consider the soundtrack to the Godfather.
For some reason I enjoy listening to film scores when I cook. Another great album is the score for Anatomy of a Murder by Duke Ellington. If you’re looking for smooth, try Quincy Jones’ I Dig Dancers or The Quintessence, or Henry Mancini’s score to the Pink Panther.