My favorite tomato sauce

Most of the time, I love to cook.  I love creating food, either new recipes or tried-and-true classics.  I love anything that gets my hands (and counters) messy - kneading bread dough, hand-rolling sheets of pasta, cutting biscuits.  I love the repetitive tasks like slicing cabbage into thin slivers for raw slaws, dicing onions, and shelling beans.  To me, the best smell in the world is onions cooking on the stove and the pungent punch of garlic when it hits a hot pan.  Put some Sinatra on in the background and I love the process just as much as I like eating the finished product. 

But other times, cooking becomes another chore.  Coming up with a healthy and tasty menu each week can get challenging.  Grocery costs can be depressing.  Washing endless piles of dishes becomes tiring.  Forgetting again to soak those beans overnight or thaw out those chicken breasts can throw a wrench in even my most well-constructed plans.  As much as I love to cook, the day-to-day of it can get as monotonous and mindless as brewing my morning coffee.  

It's recipes like this one that brings me back to loving the creation of good food.  The flavors and ingredients are simple - things you probably keep in your kitchen every day - but that's what makes it great.  There's no complicated recipe to follow, no fancy ingredients to track down, and no delicate process.  It's a taste-as-you-go type of recipe that requires just a bit of love along the way.  The type of recipe everyone tweaks slightly to their own liking, but it's always great regardless of the chef.  It's a classic combination of vegetables and herbs, and it can be used in anything from pasta to meats to eggs.  Healthy, hearty, humble food.  That's the best kind of food.
Let's talk about lycopene.

Lycopene is a carotenoid found in tomatoes that give tomatoes their bright red color. Carotenoids are mystery nutrients: we know that some are converted to retinol (vitamin A) in the body, but their functions and benefits are largely unknown. We just know that many large studies show that higher blood levels of carotenoids obtained from foods are associated with lower risk of many chronic diseases, quite possibly from antioxidant activity. The antioxidants found in lycopene may be linked to reduced risk of heart disease, asthma-induced exercise, various cancers, eye conditions, gingivitis, high blood pressure, and male infertility.

Antioxidants are pretty amazing. They go around the body neutralizing free radicals - nasty substances that contain highly reactive unpaired electrons that like to attack harmless, healthy cells and cause inflammation. As you may know, bodily inflammation is linked to many chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's, and diabetes. Antioxidants are able to neutralize free radicals by donating electrons to complete the pairs, or by breaking them down completely. Most of our dietary antioxidants are found in produce, so the bottom line is eat your veggies! I really can't emphasize that enough. Eat 'em.

Because lycopene is fat-soluble, its bioavailability (ability of our bodies to absorb and utilize it) is greatly improved when tomatoes are cooked with oil, like in tomato sauce. Lucky us.

My favorite tomato sauce
Serves 4 with pasta

28-ounce can whole peeled plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 of a small onion, diced (2/3 cup)
1/2 of a medium carrot, diced (1/3 cup)
1 small celery stalk, diced (1/3 cup)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup dry red wine or cooking wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon sugar
5 basil leaves
3 sprigs thyme
  1. Empty the jar of tomatoes into a medium bowl and use your fingers to crush the tomatoes into small chunks. Set aside.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a deep, non-reactive skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, and celery. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper and cook the vegetables until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir, cooking an additional minute.
  3. Add the wine and use a wooden spoon to scrape any bits from the bottom of the pan. Allow the wine to reduce until the pan is almost dry. Add the tomato paste and stir into the vegetables. Add the bowl of crushed up tomatoes, sugar, basil, and thyme and stir. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 1 hour. 
  4. Transfer the sauce to a blender (or use an immersion blender) and blend until smooth. Depending on how smooth I want the marinara, I might transfer the blended sauce to a food mill at this point and process with the smallest disk. This is optional, of course.
  5. Return the marinara to the skillet and gently reheat. Keep on low heat, covered, until ready for use.

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