What My Stepmom Taught Me about Spaghetti

Buca-Spaghetti-World-Pasta-DayIt’s no secret that I never attended culinary school.  All that I know was learned in the kitchens of my mother, grandmother, and aunt. They taught me how to bake bread, cakes & cookies, how to make jams, jellies & marmalade, and most importantly, how to follow a recipe. 

By 9 years old, I’d won my first best of show award (a “Tri-Color” as it’s called at the youth fair) for Lemon Zephyrs, a lemon shortbread sandwich cookie with a lemon curd filling and dusted with powdered sugar. By high school, I had a few more “Tri-Colors” under my belt and could bake anything I wanted.  However, I could not cook an actual meal.

The greatest leap in my culinary evolution came as a result of my parents’ divorce. The truth of the matter is I didn’t need to learn to cook until my parents divorced.  When my mom went back to work, I learned to cook dinner by  calling her at work asking “how” to make something.  She would talk me through it, and dinner would usually be done by the time she got home.  Learning to cook by phone may not be the most ideal method, but it worked, and it taught me to remember steps and tasting as I went, rather than simply reading a recipe.

Along with my parents’ divorce there were new marriages and new family members. For a kid who’d grown up in rural orange grove country, we’d always eaten very “Southern” foods, grown our own vegetables, caught our own fish, killed our own game, and everyone prepared the same dishes, pretty much, the same way.  Now, I had family members with different opinions, different backgrounds, different cooking styles, and different taste buds (lol!).

The meals that I experienced with this new family were different and the cooking styles completely went against everything I knew, and that may have been the best thing that ever happened to my cooking style.

You see…if you ask my stepmom, “are you a good cook?” She’d probably laugh a bit and say no. But I’d have to disagree.  No, she doesn’t cook like my mom or my granny or anyone in my original family. However, she’s willing and excited to try new foods and recipes. She doesn’t prescribe to the idea that meals should take hours (or days) to prepare. She appreciates foods from around the world, and she taught me how to make spaghetti with meat sauce.

As simple as spaghetti is, I’ve never understood why people insist on using store-bought, jarred sauce. I’ve also never understood why people insist on a recipe.  What my stepmother taught me is that, unlike baking which is a chemical reaction, many dinner recipes can be altered, improvised, and completely changed to suit your needs and wants, which makes the “need” for a precise recipe completely unnecessary.

I’m sure there are plenty of die-hard recipe-following cooks who will balk at this “recipe” for spaghetti sauce, but here goes…


1-1 1/2 lbs. meat–No it doesn’t matter what kind…ground beef, ground pork, turkey, chicken, and I’ve even seen her use left over pork roast. I’ve even used crab, shrimp, and scallops.  However, if you use seafood, don’t add it until nearly the end.

1 onion–chopped.  No it doesn’t matter what kind of onion or how big you chop it.

1 bell pepper–chopped.  Again, it doesn’t matter the color or size of chop.

2-3 garlic cloves-minced.  Garlic is spicy, so add as much as you want. If you don’t like biting into garlic pieces, replace it with garlic powder.

Tomato paste–use 1-2 TBSP for thin spaghetti sauce and a small can for thick spaghetti sauce

Tomatoes–My step mom always uses a large can tomato sauce and tomato puree, but I like more texture, so I use a large can of crushed and a small can of diced.

2 bay leaves

1 TBSP Dried Parsley

1-2 tsp Italian Seasoning–If you only like basil or if you want to use individual spices, that’s fine.

Salt & Pepper to taste

Sugar to taste–If you don’t like your spaghetti sauce sweet, leave it out.  If you do, add it to taste.

Red Pepper Flakes to taste


In a large pot, brown meat and drain. (If using precooked meat, skip this step and saute onion, bell pepper and garlic in olive oil. ) Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic to meat and saute until veggies are tender.  Add tomato paste and stir to combine.  Add tomatoes, bay leaves, parsley, Italian seasoning, and salt & pepper.  Bring to a simmer.  Taste.  Add sugar and red pepper flakes to your personal preferences. Let the whole pot simmer on low for about 30-1 hour.  Most Italians would say the longer it simmers, the deeper the flavors.  I let mine simmer as long as my hunger can hold out.  If it simmers longer, you may need to add water to keep it from burning, but only add a half cup at a time.

Serve over/with pasta.

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