Mother Knows Best: Go-To Tomato Sauce from Courtney Miller Santo

RootsoftheOliveTreePBMy mother can’t cook.

Or perhaps a better description is to say that my mother is a utilitarian cook who thinks that garlic elevates a dish to gourmet. You know that gallon of chopped garlic you can buy at the warehouse store? My mother empties her in less than a month.

Not that her lack of culinary flair is her fault. Her own mother can’t cook. After less than a year of marriage, my grandfather gently escorted my maternal grandmother out of the kitchen and taking up whisk and spatula as brilliantly as he did torque wrench and ratchet driver.

And if we’re being honest (and isn’t that the engine of all great blogs) it wasn’t my grandmother’s fault either. The only cooking my great-grandmother ever did was with a can opener. In her later years, when she was nearing 100, she discovered that with the help of Taco Bell, Mountain Dew and M&Ms, she could get by without a can opener.

I didn’t know any of this until my mother-in-law came to live with us after I had my daughter. Up until the moment she arrived in my kitchen, I’d been under the assumption that the women in my family knew what they were doing in the kitchen, but for the most part chose to stay out of it. But my mother-in-law, who is French-Canadian married into an Italian family who believe in food as much as they believed in mass. As she put it to me later, “It was cook or swim.”

The first time I made Sunday dinner, she looked at the pot of orange macaroni and cheese I had going on the stovetop and asked if I needed help with the meat, or the vegetable. “No,” I said, breaking up a clump of orange powder. “It’s just this.”

The next week, she volunteered to make Sunday dinner. My husband literally licked his lips when he saw her breading chicken and snapping the ends off green beans. The smells coming from our tiny kitchen were incredible—and more complex than anything I’d ever made. We sat down that night at devoured every last bit of chicken parmesan, green beans, and spaghetti that she prepared. We left the cookies I’d made untouched (I never said my family couldn’t bake).

“You have to teach me,” I said, as my stomach made happy contented noises. She started where I think most Italian cooks start: with the sauce. Nearly six months later, she moved in with my husband’s brother, leaving me with a much stronger understanding of what can be created in the kitchen. She also helped me start a conversation with my own mother.

A few months after I learned how to make sauce, I said to my mother in a joking way that she knew wasn’t really funny, “You’re a terrible cook.” And then, because I felt bad, I said, “Not terrible,” and tried to explain that unlike so many of my other friends that our family didn’t have any signature recipes that had been handed down over generations.” She agreed and explained to me how her own mother hadn’t cooked and how my great-grandmother had been a single, working mother in the 1940s and never had the time or inclination to cook. I asked more questions and the stories about the incredible women in my family’s line emerged.

My book, The Roots of the Olive Tree, is an exploration of the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. So much of the book exists because of conversations like the one about cooking that I had with my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother. The food in the book isn’t complex. What the women eat together most often are olives, which don’t need to be prepared in any complicated way.

What I learned when I wrote the book is that it is impossible to truly know our mothers. I’ve come to a much better understanding of my own because I got versions of her life from my grandmother and great-grandmother. And yet, even still, I get stuff wrong.

A few years ago, I made baked ziti for my mother, using my mother-in-law’s recipe for sauce. I told her as she ate it how Amy had taught me to cook. My mother agreed that it was tasty, but pointed out that she’d always made her own sauce.

“It doesn’t taste like this,” I said.

“I sweeten it,” she said, “for your father. That’s how his mother always made it.”

In honor of my mother and my mother-in-law, I give you what has become my go to recipe for sauce. If you’re interested in learning more about the women in your life, over at my blog, I have a list of 25 questions guaranteed to lead to stories you didn’t know about your mother.

1 medium onion, chopped

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

¼ cup olive oil

3 or 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Two 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes

One 6-ounce can tomato paste

½ cup low-sodium chicken stock

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried parsley

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

Optional: 2 tablespoons brown sugar

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, sauté the onion and red pepper flakes in the oil until the onions are soft. Add the garlic and stir until you can smell it. Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, chicken stock, and oregano, parsley, salt, and pepper.

Cover the pan, lower the heat, and simmer the sauce for at least 30 minutes. (You can cook it for much longer, to your desired consistency, as long as you check on it and stir it occasionally.)

Note: If you like your sauce sweet, stir in 2 tablespoons of brown sugar with the spices.

One Response to “Mother Knows Best: Go-To Tomato Sauce from Courtney Miller Santo”
  1. The Omnivore says:

    What a wonderful story! I make a slightly simpler version of sauce:

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