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When Uncle Florio passed away at age 95, he had “a bunker in the basement filled with spaghetti, sauce and other survival items.” Maybe it was because he grew up during hard times. Or maybe it was just because he loved to eat.

Florio was born back when most American cooks had never heard of pasta. Like Yankee Doodle, most of us “called it macaroni.” “Tomato sauce” came in cans, one variety, smooth and sweet.

Nine decades later, there are dozens of pastas and sauces on the shelf, some with a hefty price tag. To make some variations at home requires time and talent. But homemade marinara can be made in the time it takes to bring the pasta water to a boil. Its bright color and tomato-y texture can replace your winter doldrums with visions of bella Italia.

The following recipe uses simple ingredients with simple steps, but there are a few tricks Julia Moskin gathered from great Italian cooks: “Use a skillet instead of the usual saucepan: the water evaporates quickly, so the tomatoes are just cooked through as the sauce becomes thick.”

Fresh-tasting olive oil is key, but it doesn’t matter whether it comes from Italy or Greece or California.

Use garlic cloves that are firm and white, thinly sliced or slivered, or left whole and lightly crushed, but not chopped or minced. “The more the garlic cells are broken down, the more sulfurous molecules, which produce a strong odor and flavor, are released,” Moskin said.

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Buy San Marzano canned tomatoes. Yes, they cost a bit more, but way less than a lot of jarred sauces. And tomatoes make this sauce.

The final trick: “Cook it at a vigorous simmer, so that the tomatoes are cooked through just as the sauce becomes thick. The tomato pieces hold their shape, the seeds don’t have time to turn bitter, and the color stays bright-red.” Don’t cook too long. Frank Prisinzano of the restaurant Sauce puts it bluntly: “Marinara, after 25 minutes, it’s dead.”

And contrary to the habit of many of us, marinara should never be spooned on top of plain pasta, but tossed with it in a preheated serving bowl — or in the cooking pot — as soon as the pasta is ready.

Done right, this simple sauce explains why spaghetti with tomato sauce is a dish that a person might crave virtually every day, like bread and butter. And maybe this is why Uncle Florio’s basement always had pasta at the ready.

Marinara sauce

Ingredients

1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, certified D.O.P. if possible

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

7 garlic cloves, peeled and slivered

Small, dried whole chili pepper, or pinch crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 large fresh basil sprig, or ¼ teaspoon dried oregano, more to taste

Directions

Pour tomatoes into a large bowl and crush with your hands. Pour 1 cup water into can and slosh it around to get tomato juices. Reserve.

In a large skillet (do not use a deep pot) over medium heat, heat the oil. When it is hot, add garlic.

As soon as garlic is sizzling (do not let it brown), add the tomatoes, then the reserved tomato water. Add whole chile or red pepper flakes, oregano (if using) and salt. Stir.

Place basil sprig, including stem, on the surface (like a flower). Let it wilt, then submerge in sauce. Simmer sauce until thickened and oil on surface is a deep orange, about 15 minutes. (If using oregano, taste sauce after 10 minutes of simmering, adding more salt and oregano as needed.) Discard basil and chile (if using).

Source: Julia Moskin, nytimes.com

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Lynne Ireland lives to eat and welcomes comments and questions from others who do (or don’t). Contact her at features@journalstar.com.

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