An article in the Globe and Mail a while back has been on my mind. Called “We’ve Overloaded Family Dinners with Expectation and Symbolism,” it talks about how foodie types have imbued home weeknight cooking with an unrealistic level of expectation. Cook an elaborate recipe that requires special equipment! Use organic ingredients! Cook with love! Set a beautiful table!
As an advocate of real food home cooking, this article gave me pause. Do I present my food in a way that seems inaccessible? Have I forgotten my roots as a plain eating farm girl and later a single mum who worked all day and then came home and got dinner on the table for three kids in under an hour, on a super tight budget? Have I forgotten the brutal truth that not all of those meals were made with love? Do I remember the gritted-teeth determination it took sometimes just to get dinner out of the way?
I love to cook, but let’s face it, sometimes cooking is a chore. Even now.
I don’t kid myself that anyone will mistake this blog for Gourmet Magazine. Yes, I strive to present the food nicely so this space is aesthetically pleasing, but I think even harried single parents cooking on a budget for fussy kids like to look at nice pictures. I mean, which spaghetti dinner draws your eye, the one above or this one below? They’re almost the same recipe, by the way, but the first is an example of my early food photography (now you know why I’ve been working at it).
Now that I’m not feeding those, ahem, selective kids anymore I can afford more speciality food items and because I eat little meat I often buy organic. But I still make lots of plain, nourishing food that doesn’t require gourmet-quality ingredients. The kind of stuff you can make ahead on a weekend or even when you get home at the end of the day, slap on plates and scarf down while you
preside over referee family conversation that goes something like this:
“Eeuww, what is this? I’m not eating that!”
“Mum, he looked at me!”
“My potatoes and meat are touching!”
“Please can I get a new Barbie? Pleeaaassseee?”
In the same vein, entertaining doesn’t need to be the production we make it out to be. In fact, just for a minute let’s not call it entertaining. Let’s take the pressure off and call it having people over for dinner. Just sharing our family meal, but with a better quality of conversation. The kind of thing you can do on a weeknight (see my tips, here), when people are so grateful to have someone else cook for them that they’re not expecting anything at all fancy. This is the kind of cooking that won’t intimidate your guests into thinking they could never cook for you (and you absolutely don’t want them thinking that).
My recipe for a basic spaghetti sauce is just the ticket whether it’s you and the kids around the table, or a few friends. You can make it from scratch when you get home from work and have it on the table about an hour and a half later, or you can make it ahead of time and reheat. I made a quadruple batch of this last week, shared a couple jars with the offspring and put the rest in the freezer. It’s a versatile recipe, as the substitutions below prove. You can make it high-end or budget-conscious, carnivore or vegetarian, and any way it’s delicious. Serve it over pasta or spaghetti squash. Hey, you can put it on a bun and call it a sandwich. Just round it out with a salad, some red wine and don’t forget love.
Remember, it’s just dinner.
Basic Spaghetti Sauce
My basic spaghetti sauce is something I’ve been making for years. It’s quite variable, and suits either cooking on a budget or the use of higher-end ingredients. You can make it with a variety of ground meats, or with mushrooms and extra chopped peppers for a hearty vegetarian/vegan version. Whatever you use, buy the best you can afford and what you prefer taste-wise. You can also make it in advance and freeze it. To maximize efficiency, just multiply the recipe by whatever factor your biggest pot can hold. Best of all, it’s perfect for a simple family or company meal.
Pre-heat the oven to 350℉ (or you can make this totally on the stovetop).
- 1 tbsp olive oil (or grapeseed or other vegetable oil)
- 1 lb ground meat (a chicken/turkey blend or ground beef, sausage meat, or substitute roughly chopped mushrooms)
- 1 cooking onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 red chile pepper, minced (or 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, more if you like the heat)
- 1 red or orange pepper, chopped (if using mushrooms, you might want to add an extra pepper)
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper (sorry, I can’t bring myself to suggest you use pre-ground, but use what you like)
- 1/2 tsp salt (I recommend Kosher; it really does taste better than regular table salt)
- optional but very nice: 1/4 cup red wine (whatever you like to drink)
- 1 14 oz can whole tomatoes (just regular, or San Marzano-type to make it extra special)
- 1 14 oz can crushed tomatoes
- about 2 tsp fresh sage, finely chopped (1 tsp dry chopped sage)
- about 2 tsp fresh basil, chopped (1 tsp dry)
- about 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped (1 tsp dry)
- optional: grated Parmesan cheese
- optional: fresh basil for garnish
Put the oil into a large oven-proof skillet and warm over medium to medium-high heat. Add the ground meat or mushrooms and saute, stirring frequently, until browned. Note that the mushrooms will release a lot of liquid; cook until it’s pretty much evaporated.
Add the onion, garlic, chile pepper and red or orange pepper along with the pepper and salt and cook, stirring, until the juices they release have evaporated. The mixture may be starting to stick to the bottom of the pan. That’s okay because those bits have lots of flavour.
Stir in the red wine if using and deglaze the pan. Otherwise just add the can of whole tomatoes(they’ll also deglaze the pan) and break them up roughly with your spatula or spoon. Add the crushed tomatoes and herbs. Stir well, cover the pan with its lid and put it into the oven for about 30 minutes. At that point, remove the lid, stir well and continue to bake uncovered for another 15 minutes or so to help reduce the juiciness of the sauce.
You can also simmer the sauce on the stovetop for the same length of time, covered and uncovered, but you will need to stir more frequently to prevent sticking and burning.
Serve over pasta or spaghetti squash, and if you like, garnish with grated Parmesan cheese and/or some chopped fresh basil.