The Mother-in-law Sauce and Baked Rigatoni
The French have their five mother sauces, without which French cuisine just would not be the same.
In our family we have the mother (in-law) sauce, which everyone calls Safta sauce.
Safta is what the grandkids called my mother-in-law, Dorothy.
Dorothy's special marinara sauce became "Safta Sauce" as the grandkids grew and came to love her sauce.
Safta grew up in a Jewish orthodox household, so it is a curiosity that an Italian marinara sauce is the dish she was best known for.
Stanley, Safta's husband, was a huge fan of Italian food. So much so that the family frequented the Italian restaurants near their home in Rockaway Beach, New York, quite often.
Legend has it that there was also an amazing Italian cook in the neighborhood named Vie.
Dorothy was friends with Vie, and had often asked her to share her beloved marinara recipe.
Vie flat out refused, at which time my mother-in-law decided she would have to be satisfied with the next best thing.
She made sure that she was present when Vie made her sauce, looked over her shoulder and watched everything that she did.
I'm not sure if Dorothy altered Vie's recipe when she made it her own, but this was the story she told me as she showed me how to make the sauce.
Dorothy also said thay she knew that Stanley was wanting her to make the sauce when he would take the family out for Italian food.
He would say, "Yours is so much better," which she took as her clue. Dorothy never understood why he wouldn't just ask her to make hers in the first place.
Happy to have a night out with no cooking or cleaning, she never said anything to him.
Learning to make this sauce, I believe, was a prerequisite before my husband, Marty, would propose to me.
Everyone in the family has attempted this sauce at one time or another, and none of us have ever felt that our version was as good as Dorothy's.
(This beautiful shot is from my niece, Liat. She has been conquering Safta's recipes one by one. Way to go, Liat!)
Dorothy always claimed that the reason was because she used more oil than we did.
This is probably true.
"You can always pour off the excess oil after it's cooked," she would say.
In the beginning, Dorothy always used Redpack whole tomatoes in thick puree for the recipe. She would crush the tomatoes with a potato masher before simmering.
As the years progressed, however, she transitioned to crushed tomatoes in puree.
A move to Florida found that Redpack tomatoes weren't always available.
What matters most, we found, is that the crushed tomatoes be in a rich puree.
Celebrity chefs always say that San Marzano tomatoes are far and away the best. They are supposedly stronger, sweeter and less acidic than regular plum tomatoes.
They are also more costly than other brands.
I have made this sauce with dozens of canned tomatoes over the years, including different brands of San Marzano.
I did not find them to be better than other tomatoes.
It could be that our family's taste buds were used to the higher acidity of the regular tomatoes. I'm not sure.
When I first learned the sauce, it was also strange to me that salt was not added.
If your pasta is cooked correctly, however, it should be more than salty enough.
If you are using the sauce to make something like a baked ziti or parmesan dish, then you are also getting a lot of salty taste from the added cheeses.
Like any other recipe, this is one that you can play around with and alter to suit your palate.
If a sauce just isn't sauce without salt to you, then by all means add it.
Though I wrote the recipe below to reflect 1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper, I rarely make it with less than 1/2 teaspoon.
If I'm making it just for myself and my grown kids, I add even more.
The four cloves of garlic called for below usually ends up being around six for me, as well. We like it garlicky.
As Dorothy aged, she began to play around with her recipe as well.
In Florida she grew herbs. Sometimes she would throw in fresh basil or oregano.
That's the beauty of this basic recipe.
There is much you can do to make it your own.
Sometimes I use fresh tomatoes, if they look particularly good at my farmer's market.
When doing so, I like to use basil instead of parsley and omit the garlic. I love the bright, fresh taste of this simple preparation.
My sister-in-law, Lisa, has been making the sauce with tomatoes fresh from her garden. Lucky lady!
If I want to jazz things up a little I add some heavy cream and vodka, to make a beautiful alla vodka sauce.
Add a few chopped kalamata olives, capers and some crushed anchovies, and you have a puttanesca sauce.
Omit the anchovies, add a little brine from the olive and caper jars and you have a bold and tasty vegan puttanesca.
Last week, after making Sam the tomato maple jam toasts he requested, I made Safta sauce and added a little maple syrup and vodka.
While it was a little to sweet for me, Sam loved it.
I frequently use the sauce to top pizza crusts, sprinkling a little dried Italian seasonings on top to give it a pizzaria vibe.
For parties I make a hot dip featuring the marinara and goat's cheese. I serve it surrounded by slices of crisp French bread, and it is always quickly gobbled up.
Another use that Dorothy had for her sauce was as an integral ingredient to her baked ziti and eggplant parmesan.
She taught me how to make the baked ziti not long after I learned the sauce.
Baked ziti was not a thing I had ever eaten before.
Lasagne was common in New Orleans, but the ziti was new to me.
This, too, is an easy recipe with many applications.
It's a fantastic party dish, and one that was a staple of mine when I used to do catering.
It also became a favorite with my New Orleans family. Rarely a visit ever went by without someone requesting I make it.
Early on I began substituting rigatoni for ziti, because I love the shape. It's larger and fatter than ziti, and has textured ridges that cradle the sauce.
Most often, I make this meatless, but that's just my preferance.
When making for other people I have added ground beef, ground sausage or a combination of both.
The sauce, as well as the baked ziti (rigatoni) freezes well.
The ziti can also be frozen uncooked, and then baked without defrosting.
If baking from frozen, I'd recommend keeping the top covered in foil and then removing about 20 minutes before serving to brown it.
The key to making a good baked pasta dish is to be generous with the sauce. Far too many times I've been served baked ziti that was dried out because it wasn't prepared with enough sauce.
My family also likes it very cheesy, so my version may be a little cheesier than most.
I've also used 4 blend Mexican cheese along with ground meat, when I didn't have the Italian cheeses on hand. While not particularly Italian, the taste was fantastic.
While I prefer the taste of the Italian cheese blends, mozzarella alone works well too.
Though Safta (Dorothy) left us in 2018, her love and her sauce continue to comfort and feed us.
Does your family have a favorite go-to recipe? If so, I would love to hear about it. Drop me a note in the comment section below.
Safta's Marinara Sauce
1/4 cup canola oil
4 cloves garlic, pressed or finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes or more to taste (We use 1/4 teaspoon at least.)
1 tablespoon dried parsley (Double that if you're using fresh.)
1 32 ounce can crushed tomatoes
Add oil, garlic, red pepper and parsley to the bottom of a skillet. Give it a little stir.
Heat on high just until the oil begins to bubble, and then for about 30 seconds. Be careful not to overdo this or the garlic will burn and the sauce will be bitter. The garlic should not be brown.
Turn heat to medium low, add tomatoes and cover.
Check after ten or fifteen minutes, and turn to low if necessary. Simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.
Stir and serve.
Makes 4 cups
Note: Safta never recommended doubling the sauce. She said it would not taste the same. While I have doubled the sauce, especially when making baked ziti, I found that she was right.
Baked Ziti (or Rigatoni)
2 recipes of Safta sauce
1 box ziti or rigatoni, cooked al dente
1 32 ounce container whole milk ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon dried parsley
4 tablespoons parmesan cheese
4 cups shredded 6 blend Italian cheese
You can make one large pan of ziti with these ingredients, or divide it into two. The total servings is about 10.
Most recently I've made it into two dishes, using deep 6×8 pans. I've also done a single version using a 9x13 pan. You'll want to use pans a few inches high, so that you are able to make 2 layers.
Begin by adding the ricotta cheese to a medium bowl.
Add the parmesan cheese and dried parsley.
Mix to combine.
Continue by spooning some marinara on the bottom of the pan.
Add half of the noodles and mix with the sauce already in the pan. Add more sauce and thoroughly combine.
Each noodle should have sauce on it and around it.
Dollop the ricotta cheese over the noodles, spacing it out every few inches.
Top with a layer of 6 blend Italian cheese.
Repeat the process, making sure you end with the Italian cheese blend.
Bake in a 350 degree oven until the edges are browned and all of the cheeses have melted.
The time varies depending on your oven, and whether or not you're baking from the refrigerator, freezer or freshly made.
If baking immediately it's about 30 minutes.
Baked Goat Cheese in Marinara
Place a large log of goat cheese in a decorative baking dish. A ceramic loaf pan works well.
Surround the log with marinara, allowing the top to remain above the marinara.
Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes or so. The goat cheese should be softened, but not be browned.
Serve with sliced French bread for dipping.