Family Favorites–A Mean Spaghetti Dinner

My daughter Christine was in all the plays and musicals at her high school and in one play she had the lead role, a character named Nicole, who was, like Christine herself, a high school student.  In one scene “Nicole” is talking to a friend who mentions that Nicole’s mom “makes a mean spaghetti dinner.”  Later, Nicole’s mom turns up, in an apron, and if memory serves, with a spoon in her hand.  I have a feeling my daughter offered some advice on wardrobe and props for her “mom” on stage.  It’s either that, or you can call me a home cook right out of central casting.

Here is the spaghetti sauce recipe Christine’s real mom makes in the “Family Favorites” episode of Indiana Home Cooks. It comes from an old, old issue of Taste of Home magazine.  And, as usual, I’ve given it a few adjustments. This recipe can be doubled or tripled to serve a crowd.

Also, be careful not to add too much salt.  Keep in mind the salt in the soup base and in the canned tomatoes.  I know from experience it is easy to make spaghetti sauce that is too salty. I have a small covered dish on the counter next to my stove filled with kosher (coarse) salt.  That’s what I use to season the dishes I’m cooking.  It is easy to SEE how much salt I am putting on the food. And I measured it–my “pinch” of salt (between the thumb and first three fingers) is no more than 1/4-teaspoon. When I add salt a pinch at a time, and taste the dish as I go, I can more easily regulate how much is going in the dish I’m cooking. Try it. You may find you don’t need as much salt as you think you do.

Susan’s Savory Spaghetti Sauce (4-6 servings, about 1 quart)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 lb ground beef
1 medium sized onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp low sodium beef soup base (our 1 tsp low sodium beef bouillon)
1/2 C. liquid (combination of water and dry red wine, or all water)
2 cans tomato sauce (or combination of sauce, crushed, or diced tomatoes–2 cans total)
1 tsp dried oregano*
1 tsp dried basil*
1/2 tsp dried thyme*
2 T sugar
Kosher salt and ground pepper

Heat a large saucepan or dutch oven on medium high heat.  When pot is hot, drizzle in just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Put in ground beef and cook until thoroughly browned.  Allow it to sit and cook and get a bit crusty on the bottom of the pan. But don’t burn it!  Add the onions and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes or until fragrant. Drain fat from the meat if there is an excess amount (note: if ground beef was 20% fat, or more, you should drain it off).

At this point, your pot should have some bits of meat stuck to the bottom.  That’s fine.  If you drained the meat mixture, then return it to the pot and add the soup base or bouillon.  Return pot to medium heat and add the liquid.  Allow mixture to simmer so as to loosen the bits stuck to the bottom.  Cook for about 5 minutes while scraping the bits off the bottom.

Add tomato sauce and the rest of the ingredients (salt and pepper to taste).  Cook at a simmer for at least one hour.  Can be cooked low and slow for 2-3 hours if you prefer.  Stir occasionally.  Before serving taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.  Drizzle 1-2 tablespoons olive oil into sauce, stir in, and serve over cooked pasta.  Top with grated parmesan cheese if desired.

*Note–if using fresh herbs, TRIPLE the amount given for dried.  Stir in a little more of the fresh herbs just before serving if desired.  But taste and adjust herbs and seasonings to your preference.

Thieme & Wagner Podcast Recipes & More

My Cooking Style
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, you will soon figure out that my cooking style is pretty informal on an everyday basis.  I tend to look in the fridge and freezer in the morning and decide what I can cook for supper that night based on what I have on hand.  And I try to reinvigorate leftovers so they don’t taste left-over. Sometimes a trip to the grocery is necessary, but I try to put that off as long as possible.
But when I talk about what I’m cooking, I tend to use language like:
“Drizzle in the olive oil.”
“A pinch of kosher salt…”
“A handful of fresh herbs…”
“Cook it till it’s got a good sear before turning over.”
“Taste it and adjust your seasonings if needed.”
I guess I do this because I tend to follow some basic cooking techniques that I’ve honed and that can be adjusted on the fly, or based on ingredients I have on hand. A recipe I find in a cookbook, or online, I will follow pretty closely, but not always to the letter. When I’m just cooking off the top of my head, and then explaining it verbally or in print, that informality carries over. For that I apologize. I know my explanations are not always precise or formulaic, but I hope they convey an ease with which I cook and that I believe anyone can achieve.
Now, that “ease” is not  evident in all my kitchen endeavors: 
Exhibit A:  Pie Crust!
Exhibit B:  Custard!
Exhibit C:  Meringue!
Put those three together and you have, take your pick, Coconut Cream Pie, Lemon Meringue Pie, Chocolate Meringue Pie…and on and on…
My point, and I do have one, is that much in cooking can be achieved with a relaxed approach that allows for substitution and adjustment as you go.  The dinner on the grill from the Indiana Home Cooks “Thieme & Wagner” episode is an example. The ingredients you have on hand can be subbed in for any of the ingredients I used.  You like more heat? Add some dried pepper flakes.  Have a cucumber in the fridge? Add it to the Greek Salad. (That’s more authentic anyway. I just didn’t have a cucumber handy.)
On the other hand, some cooking, and certainly baking, require a fairly rigorous adherence to the recipe.  Precise measurements and proper proportions are crucial to baking success. Proper technique with things like sauces, custards, and meringues is also essential. But it’s not rocket science. It can be learned! And maybe we will learn something along the way with Indiana Home Cooks. Keep in touch!
Mediterranean Marinade for Grilled Chicken
For 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs or 2 b/s chicken breasts
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1 T Dijon mustard
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp each kosher salt and ground pepper
1 tsp honey
1 handful of chopped fresh herbs—oregano, basil, sage, thyme*
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Whisk together all the above ingredients in a small mixing bowl or 2-cup glass measuring cup.  If it seems a little too thick, add a little water.  Taste for seasoning and adjust to your liking.
Put chicken in a zip-top plastic bag.  Pour in the marinade and zip the bag, squeezing out as much air as possible.  Squish around the contents until chicken is thoroughly coated.  Put in the refrigerator for at least one hour, or up to 24 hours, before grilling.  Follow your grill’s instructions, or any basic cookbook, for cooking boneless chicken.
*To chop this jumble of fresh herbs, first, strip leaves from 2-3 springs of oregano, do the same with thyme, and stack together with 2 basil leaves, and 4-5 sage leaves.  Roughly roll this all up into a little “cigar” and slice into ribbons.  Then chop the ribbons finely. 
*Or, say “screw it,” and just use dried herbs!  I would use 2 tsp total—1 tsp of dried oregano, and a generous 1/4 tsp each of the other three.  A rule of thumb: with dried herbs use less, with fresh herbs use more.  Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor.
My Greek Salad with Grilled Vegetables
(4-6 servings as a side dish)
1 bell pepper, any color
One medium onion
One large tomato
Feta cheese crumbles
Calamata olives
For the dressing*, whisk together in your salad serving bowl:
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Pinch of kosher salt and ground pepper
Tiny squirt of honey, or 1/2 tsp sugar
Pinch of dried oregano
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Cut pepper in half and remove the stem.  Peel and slice the onion into 1/2-inch thick slices—keep slices intact.  Rub oil on outside of pepper halves and on the onion slices.  Cook on a grill over “medium” heat.  When the veggies begin to get grill marks, turn over and cook the other side.  Should only take about 10 minutes, give or take, depending on grill temperature.  Remove and let cool.  Then chop, along with tomato, into a large dice.  Add to the bowl with your dressing and top with feta and olives, as much as you want, and toss to coat. 
*You can mix up the dressing while the grilled vegetables cool, while everything cooks, or do it ahead of time.  The longer the dressing sits, the more the flavors will “marry” and get happy.

Debut of Indiana Cooks Podcast

Hello and welcome to the Indiana Home Cooks blog, in support of my Indiana Home Cooks podcast. Please check out the debut episode here.

If you have suggestions or ideas about the show, please let me know.  Leave a comment here at the blog site, or email to

Here are the recipes discussed in Episode 1:

Oreo Truffle Pops
40 Oreo Cookies (whole)
1 pkg (8 oz) cream cheese, softened
4 pkg (4 oz each) Baker’s semi sweet chocolate, broken into pieces, and melted
48 4-inch lollipop sticks*

Put Oreos in a food processor and process until you have crumbs.  Reserve about 1/2 cup of the crumbs to sprinkle on finished truffles if desired.  To the remaining crumbs, add the cream cheese and mix well until. Refrigerate mixture for one hour or until firm.

Shape mixture into 48 truffle balls (1-inch diameter).  Put them on a wax paper lined cookie sheet and freeze for 1-2 hours until very firm.  (This can be done several days in advance if desired.)

*When ready to coat the truffle balls, remove from freezer and let stand about 10 minutes.  Dip stick into melted chocolate and then into the truffle ball.  When all balls are skewered, put them back in the freezer to firm up again.  

Once firm, dip truffle balls in melted chocolate and place on wax paper lined cookie sheet.  Sprinkle on crumbs if desired.   Refrigerate 1 hour or until firm.  Store in the refrigerator.

*If you prefer truffles without the sticks, just skip the skewering step and dip the balls in melted chocolate.  A toothpick makes dipping easier in that case.

Marinade for Chicken (from

Strawberry-Jalapeño Salsa
1 medium lime
2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 C diced strawberries (1/2-inch)
1 small can pineapple bits
1/4 C minced red onion
2 T minced cilantro
2 T minced jalapeño (removed seeds for less heat)
1 tsp sugar

Zest and juice the lime.  In a medium sized bowl, combine the lime zest and juice with remaining ingredients.  Cover and refrigerate up to one hour before serving.  

Quick Pickled Peppers & Onions
1/2 C thinly sliced mini bell peppers (combination of red, yellow, orange)
1/2 C thinly sliced onion (can be red, yellow, or white)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp pepper
Dash of dried red pepper flakes (to taste, for heat)
3/4 C white vinegar

Combine salt, sugar, pepper, and dried pepper flakes with vinegar and whisk until sugar and salt dissolve.  Put vegetables in a shallow bowl.  Pour vinegar mixture over veggies.  Add water, if needed, just to barely cover vegetables.  

Cover and refrigerate about an hour before using.  Add to sandwiches as a topping or put in salads.  Leftovers should be kept in an air-tight container or jar up to two weeks in the fridge.  You can vary the amount of seasonings to taste.

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