The calendar may say April, but the weather is once again chilly, rainy, and utterly dreary. It feels more like Day 97 of January than mid-spring.
And that makes it the perfect day for some serious comfort food like my Almost-Famous Marinara Sauce.
The recipe has evolved over decades of cooking. It began with my mother's made-from-scratch spaghetti sauce. If we walked in the door after school and sniffed the pungent fragrance of real olive oil and simmering onions, we instantly knew what was for dinner. The onions were soon joined by celery, bell peppers, and carrots. The aroma was intoxicating.
Mom was ahead of her time, eschewing processed and packaged foods for old-fashioned fresh produce. Most summers, she planted a garden in our suburban back yard, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and melons plus whatever caught her fancy at the garden center. One year, we had a rogue watermelon vine in the flower bed beside the front door, probably from a seed one of us kids had spit out. She joked that she was experimenting with ground covers. She had inherited her own dad's green thumb, though honestly they could both stick a broom handle in the ground and wake the next morning to a profusion of roses.
My current recipe is very similar with a few tweaks. I'm confident Mom would approve.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Health Benefits
In addition to being scrumptious, marinara sauce is a powerhouse of goodness. For starters, it's a rich source of vitamin C. Depending upon your specific recipe, it may contain 67% of the daily recommended allowance. It's also a good source of vitamin A, delivering approximately 40% of your RDA. Iron clocks in at around 10% and calcium around 7%. And it's chock-full of antioxidants. Let's break it down among some of the major ingredients.
Tomatoes have benefits for fighting or managing diabetes and may help lower the risk of hypertension. They are an excellent source of the antioxidant lycopene (more on this in a moment), which has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. Tomatoes are an excellent source vitamin C, biotin, molybdenum, and vitamin K, and are also a very good source of copper, potassium, manganese, dietary fiber, vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene), vitamin B6, folate, niacin, vitamin E, and phosphorus.
Onions can provide 10% or more of the daily recommendation for vitamin C, vitamin B-6, and manganese. They also contain small amounts of calcium, iron, folate, magnesium,phosphorus and potassium, plus the antioxidants quercetin and sulfur. They may help to lower the production of LDL (bad cholesterol) and keep your heart healthier.
Celery is an excellent source of vitamin K and molybdenum which contributes to antioxidant capacity in the blood. It is a very good source of folate, potassium, dietary fiber, manganese, and pantothenic acid, and is also a good source of vitamin B2, copper, vitamin C, vitamin B6, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids).
Lycopene is cancer-preventative phytonutrient — an antioxidant with a laundry list of healthful benefits. The most prevalent source of lycopene is tomatoes which also happens to be the main ingredient in marinara. Lycopene is recommended for preventing heart disease and atherosclerosis AKA hardening of the arteries. It's a mighty warrior for fighting cancer of the prostate, breast, lung, bladder, ovaries, colon, and pancreas, and is used for treating human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, a major cause of uterine cancer.
Herbs and Seasonings - Herbs are treasured for their health benefits and their tastiness, providing a concentrated source of both flavor and nutrients. Like virtually all leafy green plants, herbs are full of nutrition, though ounce for ounce fresh herbs like oregano, rosemary, parsley, and basil (and microgreens in general) are among the most nutritious greens you can find. This recipe includes a variety of herbs, each with its own goodness. I use dried herbs for convenience, but please substitute fresh if you have it available.
At this point, marinara may be starting to sound like medicine (and it is), but don't despair! It's also delicious soul food, especially on a chilly day.
Almost Famous Marinara
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 large sweet onion, finely chopped
3 -4 ribs celery, thinly sliced
3 medium carrots, scraped and diced
I large sweet red pepper and 1 large green pepper, seeded and diced
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
2 28-ounce cans organic crushed tomatoes (or 1 crushed and 1 diced)
1 6-ounce can organic tomato paste
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried marjoram
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried rosemary
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ - 1 teaspoon sea salt (I use the lesser amount)
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 pint baby Portobello mushrooms, sliced (optional)
1 pound ground beef, pork, or poultry - grass-fed or free-range. No antibiotics or hormones. (optional)
Sauté garlic, onion, carrots, and celery over medium heat until they begin to soften. Add peppers and cherry tomatoes and continue cooking until they begin to wilt.
If you are including meat, sauté it in a separate pan and drain all fat before adding to the recipe.
Transfer vegetable mixture to slow cooker. Stir in drained meat if using. Add all remaining ingredients except mushrooms.
Cook on high for 4 - 6 hours, stirring occasionally. Add mushrooms during last hour.
Serve over your pasta of choice with fresh grated Parmesan cheese.