Going Old-School, Heirloom Spaghetti Sauce

My friend Christa said she would be thrilled to teach me a recipe and how about the whole family come over on a Sunday afternoon!  The girls can cook while the boys watch football.  Which is like blowing off the dust on the sexology file,  How Men and Women Should Spend their Sundays.   Hey, why not?  This could be *retro fun!

For those of you who know Christa, you probably think of her as a gentle soul, calm and patient, the perfect temperament for teaching a novice to cook.  As I’ve gotten to know Christa, however, what others might mistake for a shy demeanor is actually really, really good listening skills.  I was looking forward to being in her company and listening to her this time.  This Sunday, the roles would be reversed in more ways than one!

It’s obvious she’s been “listening” to my blog!  She would be teaching me a staple I hadn’t yet learned – spaghetti sauce – and started the lesson off by presenting me with a recipe book.  Remember when I’d asked you guys how you store your recipes? Well, Christa responded.  Not with a comment, but with a tangible solution.

Cookbook compressed

And VERY THOUGHTFULLY she’d pre-written her recipe and inserted it into the book.

We’d be making her mom’s “old school” tomato sauce – the real deal. “My mom had multiple kinds [of tomato sauce] that she’d make, but this is the one I remembered as a kid.”

I’ll also reveal to you, dear readers, how extra-special this is because Christa’s mom passed away this fall.  My sister Becky had talked about meals to remember during her cooking lesson and it made me wonder about the value of a recipe, that it can be passed down to the next generation.  It’s a memory that isn’t just recalled but shared with others.

The Kitchen

Christa’s kitchen is lovely and inviting.  Christa enjoys spending time in her kitchen and decorated it herself, “We bought our house brand new, so we got to choose all the cupboards and then we added the backsplash.  We wanted it to feel warm.”

Kitchen compressed

It is also set up with good appliances and apparatus.  I realized right away that I’d be running into a problem as the recipe calls for a blender, which I do not own.  This also means I’ve never made a smoothie, but I understand they’re a healthy breakfast option.

Christa made a recent upgrade to her kitchen equipment: a red cast iron pot.  Christa was brave enough to initiate it for our lesson.  We’d both be learning something new.

With a little internet research, I’ve since discovered several reasons to use cast iron pots/pans.  They:

  • have excellent heat retention properties
  • boost your iron intake (trace amounts are introduced into food during cooking)
  • need/use less oil
  • transition well from oven or stove top
  • easy to clean
  • look super cool

The biggest downfall, in my opinion, is the weight.  A couple of times I held the lid while Christa added ingredients to the dish (probably unnecessary of me, but I wanted to feel like I was doing something) and I had to switch arms.  But wait, never mind! That’s a weight-lifting exercise bonus!

Cast iron pot compressed

The Recipe

Christa gathered ingredients a-plenty for the sauce… but first, the recipe, transcribed from Christa’s super-neat handwriting.


2 cans whole tomatoes
1 can tomato paste
1 grated carrot
1 chopped green pepper
2 chopped onions
1 cup sliced mushrooms
2 cloves of minced garlic
1 tbsp oregano
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 cup red wine

With a mixer, blend together tomatoes, paste and carrot.
Fry ground beef, onions and green pepper until ground beef is no longer pink and green pepper is soft and translucent.

In a large pot, place together wine, tomato and beef mixture, bring it to a boil.
Add mushrooms, garlic and oregano.
Simmer on low for an hour.

Blender compressed


I don’t need to go into the step-by-step of our experience since we followed the recipe and you can too if you wish, but I’ll pull out some of the techniques and tips that struck me as either unique way to Christa or new to me.

  • We used real (fresh) spices because, as Christa said, I am special!  This was such a help to me because this past summer I’d grown basil in my garden.  It was the only thing that grew well and yet the only thing I was clueless about using in a meal. Christa showed me how to de-leaf and properly chop up the basil.  Plus she let me wear her Wonder Woman apron that she got from her husband for Christmas while I did so… which now raises the rating for this blog entry to PG14.

Basil compressed   Chopping spices compressed

Christa task master compressed

  • The ratio when using fresh spices as opposed to dry spices is 3x the measurement.
  • You can grate carrots into the sauce to reduce the acidity of the sauce. Carrots can also be used as a substitute for sugar.
  • The grater knifey thing Christa is using in the picture below is one of her FAVOURITE kitchen utensils.  She uses it to grate  carrots, nutmeg and chocolate and zest lemons… but she mostly shreds parmesan cheese with it.  Her family “lives on parmesan cheese.” I won’t accuse Christa of hyperbole, I believe it is possible to live on cheese.

Carrots instead of sugar compressed

  • Tongs are also a commonly used utensil in Christa’s household.  They can be used lift things, pull things out of the oven, turn things… It makes total sense.  Even though we don’t use them for this lesson I write down “tongs!” for my To Buy For Kitchen list.
  • I’m becoming convinced that every dish has onions and no one cares to use any tricks to reduce the tears.
  • I am still a knife wimp and feel shaky when slicing and dicing.  Christa said that’s OK because she’s a “voice recorder wimp.”  It turns out that recording these cooking sessions can be intimidating to the cooking teacher, to know that your words will come back to haunt you.  We promised we’d help each other through… she with the record and I with my knife.
  • Christa taught me the “whack and chop” technique for garlic.  If you know this technique raise your hand, because you’re savvy!
  • If you put a little bit of salt on the garlic while you’re chopping, it makes it easier for your knife to grab.  While I was chopping garlic, my daughter walked in.  “Look Sophia!  Have you ever seen REAL GARLIC before?” (insert eyeroll here)

How Christa Learned

While there are measurements listed in the recipe Christa gave me, NOT ONCE did Christa measure anything.  It all just “looked about right” when she added “that much salt” and “this much pepper.”

“But how do you know?” I asked.

“By taste!”

Makes sense.

I asked Christa whether she uses recipes often, as she does like to experiment in the kitchen.  That’s when she pulled out her recipe book.  Or should I say collection of manilla envelopes, printed e-mails, scrap paper and clippings of dishes she’d enjoyed and referred to often.  “Someday I’d like to organize this.”

Christa's cookbook compressed

I asked Christa when and how she’d learned to cook.  It wasn’t till she moved out of her family home and got married that she took a real interest.  When she realized she didn’t have too much to work with in her repertoire, she would phone up her mom and ask her for certain recipes. “I’d remember the things I’d had [as a child] and asked her how to make them and that’s how I started.”

Discussion compressed
Talking recipes, ignoring the recorder

She also said she learned from friends and cooking shows.

I have yet to encounter anyone whose mother (or PARENT, to be fair) has actively given cooking lessons to them.  Becky said that she remembers spending time in the kitchen with mom… but by my mom’s recollection, Becky was very much a self-starter and did a lot without her or with a little guidance.

Christa says that she tried to teach her own kids to bake when they were younger, getting them to take measurements and explaining the procedure. “Now they have little interest, but it will come again when they want to.”

You might remember Christa’s daughter Brittany’s failed baking experiment I posted.  No?  Here it is again. ;)

Just to let you know, Brittany said she tried the brownies again and she remembered to add flour.  Proud of you for getting back on the  horse, Brittany!

Ladies in the kitchen compressed
Sophia and Mallory, Brittany and Christa looking pretty in the kitchen

I asked Christa if she’s ever had a “cooking disaster.”

“Oh yes, of course. Everyone has!”

“That’s a standard question I can ask then!”

But it took a while for her to remember. “The first time I made a pie… Ohhhh… they’re all coming to me now.  I used icing sugar instead of sugar. Don’t try to improvise with baking…”

The Meal

Christa made penne noodles for the sauce (those I know how to do!) and a lovely salad for the meal.  She served the noodles and sauce in a nice casserole dish.  As she set the table, I checked in on John-Mark.

“Who’s winning?” I asked

I was surprised when he answered without hesitation, “The Ravens.”

“Look at us acting ‘normal!’ You’re watching football and I’m cooking!”

My use of the term “normal” there probably should be unpacked… What does it reveal about what I believe ideal roles are for husband and wife and whether we live up to them? Maybe I’ll save that for another post.

J-M waiting for dinner compressed Final dish compressed

Christa’s Joy

The meal was a total hit for adults and kids alike.  Christa’s mom’s old-school heirloom sauce will now go down in our family recipe book.  The food and the company makes for a lovely Sunday dinner.

I realized after the fact that I hadn’t actually asked Christa what’s the source of her joy of cooking.  She was gracious enough to answer in an e-mail.

I love cooking. It feels like an art to me. I love to learn from others. I chose my mom’s recipe because when my family gets together we love to cook together! It’s funny because my brother and I argue a bit (in fun), about who can do it better, him or I! When my family gets together we usually have an Italian night where my dad will make homemade pasta from scratch. My favorite is his gnocchi. It’s a pasta made with potatoes.

I think cooking together, brings people closer together. Maybe that’s why I love it. I like to cook for others as a way of showing them they are special to me. I have often thought about going to culinary school to become a chef. I have around 40 cookbooks, but I don’t necessarily follow the recipes. They are more for inspiration.

During our lesson I’d also asked spun off the apron I was borrowing and asked Christa when does she feel like Wonder Woman?  Is it when she’s prepared an awesome meal?  She mentioned that it’s when she gets things complete on her to do list – which I think every woman can relate to – but she mulled over her response and clarified her final answer.

…You asked me about wonder woman and when I feel most like her… Dennis makes me feel like I can do anything. That’s when I feel like wonder woman. I don’t know if you were planning on putting that in your blog but I just wanted you to know.

This apron belongs to Christa.

Operation Recipe Swap 011

*I found out during the course of the lesson that Christa’s husband, Dennis, also enjoys cooking and Christa enjoys football – especially the Vikings (whoever they are).  The two of them would host a Superbowl Party at their place a couple weeks after this lesson.  Both Dennis and Christa posted a recipe on Facebook for the ultimate chip dip in preparation for the game.


  • small spatula
  • blender
  • large pot
  • grater thingy
  • tongs!
  • recipe book

5 thoughts on “Going Old-School, Heirloom Spaghetti Sauce

  1. Loved this post. You summed up so much of what is wonderful about Christa! The wonder woman apron is priceless!

    So glad to see you now have a place for storing the wonderful recipes you’re amassing.

  2. We had such a great time when you were here! We need to have you over again soon! Maybe next time the men can cook and we’ll watch football!

  3. Pingback: Reporting from the trenches | Based on a True Story

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