My new book, How to Cook Without a Book, was born of my struggles as a 1990s-working mom trying to get dinner on the table. For months, I’d walk in the door at 6:30 p.m. to two hungry kids and a kitchen-clueless spouse. I’d frantically open the refrigerator door and stare. I saw ingredients, not dinner. The two big barriers to weeknight cooking were finding a recipe and grocery shopping. I knew how to get a recipe and shop for everything I needed to nail it—I was a magazine food editor, for God’s sake—but when it came to feeding my family on a Wednesday night, this was a recipe for frustration.
Working in New York City, I was a long way from home, a world away from my Alabama mother and grandmother, who pulled off weeknight cooking without breaking a sweat. How did they do it? I wondered. True, my mother didn’t work outside the home, though she had her hands full sewing, cleaning, caring for a child, running errands, volunteering, helping Dad fix up a handyman special, then building and maintaining her dream home. My grandmother was a dirt farmer, and later in life worked full-time in a garment factory making pajamas. Yet both of these women could do something I couldn’t: regularly get dinner on the table.
I had access—literally—to thousands of ingredients they’d never heard of, and had made everything from crème caramel to cassoulet, but I was missing something. By keeping their pantry, fridge, and freezer stocked and relying on a set of internalized techniques and formulas, my mother and grandmother overcame both of the barriers to weeknight cooking: recipes and running to the store.
Following their example, I quit shopping ad hoc and stocked my kitchen. Eventually I developed my own set of techniques and formulas that worked for my busy life. In other words, I started to cook without a book. Regardless of the season, I could walk in the kitchen and start cooking with whatever ingredients I had around. With a few staples, I could transform chicken breasts, broccoli, lemons, and rice into a sautéed chicken breast dinner complete with a restaurant-style citrus pan sauce, a quick comforting soup, or a kick-ass stir-fry. With a carton of eggs, a seasonal vegetable, and a little cheese, I could whip up a supper frittata or a super-size omelet. And for years, I found a way to carry on like Mom and Mama Skipper, bringing my family around the table for dinner nearly every night.
A big pot of tomato sauce creates a range of meal possibilities. Siphon off a quart of sauce and simmer it with cauliflower and capers for a satisfying meatless spaghetti dinner. Add a can of evaporated milk and a pinch of nutmeg and baking soda to the second quart of sauce for an almost instant homemade cream of tomato soup: With bread, cheese, and fruit, it makes an easy appealing second meal. Transform the third quart of sauce into a quick chili: Just add it to sautéed onions, peppers, chili powder, and ground meat along with a couple of cans of pinto beans.
If you served spaghetti and tomato sauce three nights in a row, you might get some groans, but as everyone savors pasta one night, soup the next, and a Southwestern classic the following evening, they’ll never suspect the same quick tomato sauce is at the heart of all three very different meals.
This is why you never make just one batch of tomato sauce!
TIPS AND TRICKS
• If using whole tomatoes packed in puree (San Marzano is my favorite), pour them into a big bowl and use your hands to crush them before adding them to the pot.
•Some brands of tomatoes are more acidic than others. Taste your sauce and if it’s too tart, add up to 3 tablespoons sugar to balance or 1 teaspoon baking soda to neutralize some of the acidity in a four-can recipe. With both the sugar and baking soda, start by adding a little, then taste, and add more only as needed.
•Tomato brands also vary in thickness. If after 15 minutes of simmering, your sauce is not thick enough to mound slightly on a spoon, stir in enough tomato paste to achieve desired thickness.
A VAT OF SIMPLE TOMATO SAUCE, GARLICKY OR VEGETABLE
Makes more or less 3 quarts or enough for 3 meals (serving 4)
Whether you flavor the tomatoes with garlic or with celery, carrots, and onions, this sauce will become a kitchen staple. It’s certainly true for me. There are many nights when I open the fridge wondering what to cook, and I sigh with relief when I spy a quart of this sauce.
Since I’m often in a hurry and mincing 12 garlic cloves is a lot, I buy peeled garlic cloves and mince them in the food processor, or I use the tubed garlic paste you find in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Figure a quarter cup of the garlic paste for the 12 cloves. Also, if there are kids in the house who don’t like spicy, you may want to reduce the pepper flakes to half a teaspoon or just omit it.
- .5 cup Olive oil
- 12 large Garlic cloves, minced, or 2 medium-large onions
- 2 Carrots and 2 celery stalks, cut into small dice
- 1 tsp Red pepper flakes
- 4 cans (28 ounces each) Crushed tomatoes or whole tomatoes packed in puree (not juice!)
- 1 cup Red or white wine or water
- Salt and ground black pepper
- 1 can (6 ounces) Tomato paste*
FOR GARLICKY TOMATO SAUCE (A): Heat the oil, garlic, and pepper flakes in a large pot over medium-high heat until the garlic starts to sizzle, just a couple of minutes.
FOR VEGETABLE TOMATO SAUCE (B): Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, and pepper flakes and cook until vegetables soften, 5 to 7 minutes.
Stir in the tomatoes. Use the wine or water to rinse out the cans and add to the pot. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until the sauce thickens and the flavors meld, about 15 minutes. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add enough tomato paste so that you’ve made a thick, full-bodied sauce, not soup (see Note). Simmer to blend the flavors, a few minutes longer. Cool the sauce and divide it among 3 sealed containers. (Can be refrigerated for a couple of weeks or frozen for several months.)
*NOTE: If using canned crushed tomatoes, you may not need any tomato paste. If using San Marzano whole tomatoes packed in puree, you will likely use the whole can of paste.
Reprinted from How to Cook Without a Book, Completely Updated and Revised: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart. Copyright © 2000, 2018 by Pam Anderson. Photographs by Lauren Volo. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.