Holiday Cook-off

A Norris Family Marinara Sauce Recipe

Growing up, the holidays were an interesting time for culture and religion in the Norris household. My dad’s side of the family is Jewish and my mom’s side of the family is Christian, but I never really went to church or temple. We celebrated with a focus on family, and our various backgrounds played out in the traditions that we set. For example, each Christmas morning we’d gather with the Jewish side of the family and eat lox and bagels while opening our stockings. The house was decorated with Christmas lights outside and menorahs inside. And for some reason, we often ate spaghetti and meatballs for dinner on Christmas Eve because, you know, none of us are Italian but we love pasta!

Not to mention, when I was young, my mom and dad owned an Italian restaurant in Valencia called Pauli’s. Their marinara was based on an old family recipe that was enhanced by a chef that they admired. I’ve been cooking this sauce for nearly 20 years and have made some of my own modifications, too. A good recipe can change over time, as flavors evolve and new preferences influence tastes. This is what makes the culinary arts a practice in which creativity and experimentation are present. Before you get started, though, let’s set the mood…

Cooking is a unique process that can connect the past with the present. The techniques, aromas and sounds involved are simultaneously old-fashioned and modern. I read plenty of examples of this in Sylvia’s article A little bit of Italy on the Thanksgiving Table.

In my house, when I cook Italian food, my first step isn’t to gather the ingredients or pots and pans that I’ll be using. Before any of that happens, I put some Rat Pack songs on to create a certain feeling of inspiration. Dean Martin crooning “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie” truly is amore and sets a certain ambiance that lets me be at my best. If you don’t care for the Rat Pack, try your favorite Vivaldi or maybe even put on the wedding scene from The Godfather:

Music? Check. Next up? Wine!

When cooking with wine, always use a bottle that you’ll enjoy drinking with your meal (spoiler alert, there’s wine involved in this recipe). And while an Italian red like a Chianti is great for marinara sauce, I prefer using local ingredients because it creates a bond between the food that you eat and the place that you reside. I’m fortunate to live in California, where the wine that comes out of places like Napa Valley and Paso Robles are award-winning and delicious. Chianti is only from that region in Italy, but it uses the Sangiovese grape, which is prevalent here in California. So in place of a Chianti, give a Sangiovese by Eberle or Niner a try, you won’t be disappointed. For more ideas on which California Sangiovese to try, check out Vivino.

Now that we have a soundtrack in place and the wine is flowing, we can begin…


2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, diced
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
28 ounce can tomato sauce
28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
6 ounce can tomato paste
14 ounce can vegetable broth
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
generous glug of red wine


Pour olive oil into a large pot over medium heat. When warm, add garlic and let aroma unlock for 30 seconds, then add onion, carrot, chili flakes, salt and pepper. Two notes… 1) don’t let the garlic burn, and 2) carrot is used to make the sauce sweet and reduce the amount of sugar needed. Let these ingredients sweat and brown for up to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Increase heat and add the rest of the ingredients, stirring gently so that the bay leaves don’t break. Once the sauce begins to boil, reduce heat to a simmer and place a lid on top of the pot, leaving a 1/4-inch opening for steam to escape. Stir gently every 20 minutes for 2 hours.

The recipe that I’ve shared has been adapted from its original form to accommodate my amazing wife, who happens to be a vegetarian. If you’re a carnivore that wants to add some meaty flavor to your sauce, you can brown a pound of sweet Italian sausage along with the onion and carrot, and replace the vegetable broth with chicken broth.

Once your marinara is done simmering, it’s ready to serve. For a simple meal, you can boil some spaghetti noodles and ladle sauce over it, topping with parmesan cheese. For more adventurous cooking, you can use it with your chicken parmesan, sausage and peppers, and even on pizza in place of regular pizza sauce. Pizza sauce is usually just a watered down marinara recipe that uses less ingredients and is cooked for a shorter amount of time. Personally, I want all of the flavors in my pizza so I always use marinara instead of pizza sauce.

So there you have it, a (not so world-famous) Norris family marinara sauce recipe that can easily act as the foundation of your escapades into Italian cooking. Give it a try and feel free to add or subtract ingredients as you see fit. If you come up with a groundbreaking revelation that you have to share, you can do so in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to try any suggestions out. Buon appetito!

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