I’ve long had a visceral aversion to boring foods. And by boring, I’m thinking those measly garden salads that are on every average restaurant menu in America. I’m thinking plain white bread. I’m thinking marinara sauce — not every marinara sauce, but the ubiquitous kind that’s plopped out of a jar and poured over spaghetti and called dinner. As long as I’ve been cooking, and as many short-cuts as I like to take at times, I’ve never brought myself to accept a jar of sauce and some noodles as dinner. This may explain why, even when faced with little time and a jar of sauce, I do my best to jazz it up, like I did with this spicy chorizo sauce from a few years ago.
It’s not that I am being a food snob (OK, maybe I am), but that I really just LOVE food so much that I can’t imagine wasting a meal on something that doesn’t really excite me. I guess that’s the difference between someone like me and someone who “forgets” to eat lunch (we all know those people, and no, I don’t understand them one bit).
But as much as I tend to do everything in my power to avoid boring food, and as often as marinara sauce seems to fall in that category, I really do love the flavors of a good marinara. In fact, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed so many amazing, non-boring spaghetti marinara dishes (including my mom’s) over the years. There is a consistency to those that I’ve loved: lots of garlic, chunks of fresh vegetables, and subtly spiced yet intensely flavored. These were my primary goals when I set out to create a marinara sauce that would pass the non-boring test — one that I could feel confident sharing here.
In the spirit of being not boring, I encourage anyone making this to give it your own twist, if you’d like. A dash of crushed red pepper flakes would make it spicy, while a few cremini mushrooms sauteed with everything at the beginning would make this even more earthy and hearty. And you don’t just have to serve this over pasta, as I did here. Try it as a more “textured” alternative to pizza sauce, in lasagna, or as a dip for bread or chips.
Note: despite my recent trend toward oil-free cooking, I did decide to use olive oil in this dish. For an oil-free marinara, saute the vegetables with vegetable broth, white wine or water instead of oil.
Hearty Vegetable Marinara:
Makes a little over a quart of sauce
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup celery, diced (about 2 long stalks)
1/2 cup carrot, peeled and diced (about 1 medium carrot)
2 leeks, washed and finely chopped (white and light green parts only)
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-oz. can whole tomatoes (whole tomatoes with basil is preferable if you can find it)
1 14-oz. jar or can crushed tomatoes*
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (plus more to taste)
1/3 cup red wine
1/3 cup water
*Note: if using unsalted crushed tomatoes, increase salt to 1 teaspoon, plus more to taste.
1. In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the celery, carrots and leeks and saute over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. Add garlic and saute for another 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.
2. Add the whole tomatoes with juice. Using a wooden spoon, break up tomatoes with the spoon until they are more bite-sized (I broke mine up into quarters or thirds). You can break them up more as you continue cooking.
3. Add remaining ingredients and bring sauce to a simmer over low heat. Keep over low heat and simmer, uncovered, for about an hour, until the sauce thickens slightly. If desired, you may add some additional water at the end of cooking to thin sauce out. Taste and add salt to taste. Remove bay leaf before serving.