The Secret is in the Sauce

This month I am sharing my secrets about two Italian classics that are total crowd pleasers.

The presentation of this dinner is very colorful and can be prepped in advance before your company arrives.

Great Gravy

San Marzano tomatoes are grown in volcanic soil in Italy. They are more sweet than acidic, compared to Roma tomatoes, and I feel they are far superior to any other type of tomato you can buy in a can. They are typically priced $1 or more per can and you will realize why once you taste this sauce.

If I can find fresh San Marzano tomatoes, I boil them down in olive oil to start from scratch, but the canned variety is the next best thing. These tomatoes are magic. When used to make pizza, tomato soup or a marinara sauce, San Marzanos make me look so ridiculously good.

I usually have a can or two in my pantry for a go-to meal. People who don’t even like spaghetti love it when I make marinara sauce—especially kids.  I’m often asked for recipes when I use these tomatoes in dishes and I always give these tomatoes credit. You could say I am a San Marzano evangelist.

My basic San Marzano Marinara Sauce is also known as Pomodoro and, in Italian families like mine, we call it “gravy.” I have been making this sauce for years, but this is the first time I have ever actually written down the recipe!

In addition to the best tomatoes, it is never a complete sauce without fresh, thinly sliced garlic (the more the better), which I sauté in olive oil along with diced sweet onion and red pepper flakes. Throughout my years of experimenting with my gravy I have found that this combo is simple and pleases everyone. If I want to add more heat, I use more red pepper flakes. You can make a huge batch of this and freeze it for a future quick meal. The longer you simmer it, the more intense the flavor.

My ingredients are all organic and non-GMO (genetically modified organism). I am also a fan of Flora 100 percent Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil, first cold pressed from certified premium olives. It has a fruity taste that complements all dishes.

Perfect Peppers

When picking peppers for stuffed peppers, I look for vibrant colors and firmness. I feel the red, yellow and orange peppers are sweeter than the green ones.

When I am prepping the peppers, I cut off the tops and remove the seeds. Then, I put them in a pan close together, spray with a bit of olive oil and roast about 10 minutes. You still want them to be undercooked before you add the stuffing.  I love my stuffing to be a blend of ground beef and sausage, but you can adapt to your family’s preferences by using ground turkey or chicken.

This recipe is a favorite of my daughter Danielle. She often makes it for her family and even my 4-year-old grandson devours the peppers.

I am not a real “saucy” person, so I always have a side bowl of gravy for family members and guests because you can add but it’s hard to take away any excess.

This dish becomes complete when served on a bed of pasta. I prefer angel hair because it is delicate and doesn’t overpower.

Now what could make this even better? A fine bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. There are many great options depending on your budget. My husband, son Vincent and myself are fans of Caymus. Another great option is Austin Hope Cabernet, which I order through eBay at about $40 a bottle, and you can always go for Josh Cellars Family Reserve, available at Publix, Target and ABC for around $15.

Happy shopping! And maybe I will run into you in the produce aisle—just don’t buy up all the San Marzanos. Leave a few for me!

Interact with Jill and follow her lifestyle posts on Instagram @festivelysouthern and under Festively Southern Recipes on Facebook. 

Jill’s Pomodoro Gravy

2 28-ounce cans of San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1 14-ounce can Muir Glen Organic petit diced fire roasted tomatoes
1 Vidalia onion, diced
10 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
10 fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
2 tablespoons organic cane sugar
1 tablespoon garlic salt
1 tablespoon parsley
1 to 2 tablespoons red pepper flakes (to taste)
1 full rind with skin removed from Pecorino Romano cheese
1/3 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese

Put three tablespoons of the olive oil in a pot and add in the onion, sliced garlic and one tablespoon of red pepper flakes. › Sauté until onion is translucent and caramelized. › Fold in the two cans of San Marzano tomatoes and fire roasted tomatoes. › Add in remaining oil, parsley, basil, Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, sugar and garlic salt and stir. › Add in the Pecorino Romano cheese rind and Parmesan Cheese and stir until blended. › Simmer for one to two hours. *After I boil whatever pasta I am using, I reserve some of the liquid to thin out the gravy as needed.

Italian Stuffed Peppers

1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef (or substitute with ground turkey, chicken or pork)
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes with juice
6 bell peppers any color (large size)
6-8 fresh basil leaves, chopped
4 garlic cloves minced or thin sliced
3/4 cup long-grain white rice cooked until just underdone (cooled)
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons oregano
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. › To prepare the peppers, trim about 1/4-inch from the tops and snip around the core and remove core and seeds. › Place the peppers snugly into a foil-lined baking dish just large enough to fit them so they do not fall over. › Brush or spray the inside of each pepper with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. › Roast the peppers until just undercooked and firm (about 15 minutes – be sure to not cook the peppers completely as this can cause them to collapse.) › Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. › Add the chopped onion and sauté until translucent (around 4 to 5 minutes). › Add the garlic and cook another minute. › Add beef (or other protein), season with salt and pepper and cook until browned. › Break up the beef and toss it with onions and continue to cook another 2 minutes. › Remove from heat and drain off excess fat if necessary. › Stir in tomatoes and crush them with a spoon or potato masher. › Mix in the just underdone cooked rice, parsley, basil and oregano. › Taste for seasoning and season with salt and pepper to taste. › Spoon the mixture evenly into the roasted peppers. › Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and bake 20 to 25 minutes or until the peppers are tender and the tops are crisp and golden. › Serve warm.

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