My grandma Dolly is a character. Even though her heritage is Italian, she really is the quintessential “American girl”. She loves baseball, golf, politics, and junk food. Some of her favorites are bread and butter, a good hamburger, avocados with bottled Italian dressing, and especially, chalupas (she loves them so much she even gives them up for Lent). When I was a kid, I loved visiting her because she’d feed me the junk foods my mom normally wouldn’t. She would take me, my sister, and cousin to the dime store (if you’re a millennial, look that one up) and load the cart with industrial-sized bags of pretzels and “corn curls” (you may know them as cheese puffs). And of course, we’d always get ice cream—and then have an ice pop or two when we got back to her house!
Despite her junk food ways, Dolly has always been a seriously good cook—and she did it all from a kitchen that was big enough for one but annoying for two. Because the generations overlap in my family, Grandma still had several of her own kids at home and whenever anyone got in her way or tried to steal a bite of food, she’d say, “Get the hell out of my kitchen!” and “Don’t pick!” So, I’d sit at the breakfast bar—that way I could be in the kitchen without actually being in the kitchen. Plus, she fed me. If she handed me a toasted onion bagel slathered with both butter and cream cheese—because, why not?—I ate the bagel. If she cracked open a pomegranate and gave me the seeds, I ate them. Whatever she made or thought I should try, I did. I usually liked everything; although I have a distinct memory of my grandfather bringing home a disturbing jar of pickled pig’s feet and both Grandma and I gagged at the thought of eating them. Anyway, I never really helped my grandmother cook although at some point—and I can’t remember when—I was entrusted to tear the lettuce for the ever-present dinner salad. And one rare time, when it was just the two of us, she broke out her relatively new deep fryer and taught me that a can of biscuits, chunks of green apples, and cinnamon and sugar made delicious tiny donuts.
When my sister and I became vegetarians, we threw Dolly for a momentary loop. But then without us asking her to, she began doing something very simple yet profoundly loving: she made sure that no matter the family gathering or whatever else she’d be cooking, there’d be something special for me and my sister to eat. Usually, it was homemade marinara sauce and pasta.
When I was a little, if you had asked me if marinara sauce was special, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I grew up eating meat sauce and honestly, I really despised it. Any time ground beef was mixed with tomato sauce—spaghetti, lasagna, goulash, chili—it filled me with dread. I ate it but I didn’t like it. For the longest time, I thought it was the tomato part of the sauce I didn’t like—which was weird because I loved pizza.
It wasn't until Dolly made marinara when finally I made the connection that it was actually the meat and not the tomatoes I didn’t like. When I tasted her marinara sauce, it was simple and delicious. It still is. However, she has never given me the recipe. She’s dropped a few hints that she attributes to her own mother. From these bits of information and my own taste buds, I do know that a good tomato sauce requires grated onions, a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the acid, and basil. But beyond that, I’ve had to work out my own recipe.
And I really like this recipe. The flavors are layered with red wine, tomato paste, honey, and herbs. I call it Basically Delicious Tomato Sauce because other than adding it to pasta, it can serve as the base of many other dishes. Like Eggplant or Chicken Parmesan. Or mixed with ground beef, pork, poultry, or sausage to make a meat ragu. Or added to sautéed mushrooms, peppers, carrots, and zucchini for a hearty vegetable sauce. It can be mixed with a good vegetable stock to make tomato basil soup. Or poured on stuffed cabbages and mashed potatoes. Or drizzled over an omelet filled with provolone and spinach. Or used in place of ketchup on a meatloaf. Or whatever you fancy. Make this sauce your own...you know, like I had to!
Of course, my sauce doesn’t taste exactly like my grandmother’s. That’s okay. It has the characteristics of Dolly’s sauce. I accept that. After all, Dolly’s sauce--like Dolly herself--is one-of-a-kind.
Now, get the hell out of my kitchen and into yours and make this sauce!
2 small onions, peeled
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 TBS olive oil
1 TBS tomato paste
½ cup red wine
1 TBS honey
2 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp garlic powder
2-28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes
2 tsp salt or to taste
1/8 – ¼ tsp fresh ground black pepper or to taste
1/8 – ¼ tsp cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes or to taste
½ tsp baking soda
Using a box grater or food processor, grate the onions and garlic, reserving the juice. If you're using a box grater, it's best to place it in a bowl or on a cutting board with a raised edge. Trust me: onions release a lot of juice and there's nothing quite as sticky or smelly as onion juice dribbling down a cupboard and onto the floor.
Heat a large pot on medium and add the olive oil. Add the onions, garlic, and their juices. Sauté for a few minutes or until the onions are translucent. Add the tomato paste. Sauté for one minute more.
Add the red wine, the honey, basil, oregano, and garlic powder. Turn the heat down to medium low and cook for about five minutes or until the wine is reduced by half.
Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, and baking soda. Cook for five minutes and then reduce the heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Check for seasoning and remove from the heat.
The sauce can be cooled and stored covered in the refrigerator for up to a week or frozen for up to three months.