Gemma Simmonite is co-creator of, and chef at, the popular eaterie Gastrono-me. Here she prepares her daughter for university life. . .
September always seems to herald a change to me, maybe even more so than January. It could be the back to school vibe we never lose – the lure of new stationery, the rich autumnal colours in the shops that now seem so appealing after a limp summer, or new things to watch on tv that make staying in on a chilly evening with a glass of wine worthwhile.
For the last few years my Septembers have passed by fairly unremarkably, with both daughters settled in school and college. But this September my eldest began her journey to university in London. The last few weeks seemed to pass in a blur of endless lists, trips to homeware stores and form filling. But we started to feel smugly prepared, having always been the parents reliably unprepared over the last 18 years – our brand of parenting has been noted as forgetful, even at times haphazard. But this time we felt like we’d aced it. Until one thing dawned on us, a fairly necessary thing we had forgotten to prepare her with.
I loathe to say she can cook no more than a toaster waffle. She has been known (much to to the joyful derision of her younger sister) to microwave a salad. As a chef, I should probably be ashamed. I, of all people, am equipped to teach her how to nourish herself. But you know what, it’s like hairdressers never have time to do their own hair (a generalisation – I’m sure all of you have lustrous locks). But it’s because I can speed into the kitchen, get the job done, with minimal fuss/mess. Even when they were little, I was still far too much of a perfectionist to let misshapen cookies or cakes in the oven. I would reshape them when they weren’t looking – awful I know. Verging on control freak? Duly noted. I swear I’m a warm and fuzzy mother in other respects.
So that explains why we had a fervent three-day crash cookery course before she left. What to send her away with? What could she cook confidently in front of her new friends that would be cheap and nutritious.
I decided on a great sauce that she could tinker with. Tomato sauce or Sauce Tomat, famously created by the French as one of the five mother sauces of classical french cuisine (I’m not sure how the Italians feel about that claim, but clearly a debate for another time!) is without a doubt a necessity in every new or old cooks armory. But here simplicity is our strength – apologies to the French master Escoffier whose sauce Tomat would have me render the fat from salt pork, create a roux, among other steps – I have three days and a disinterested 18-year-old to teach.
So I’ve opted for a simpler version, one more in synch with an Italian nonna who’s got a horde to feed fast. At Gastrono-me we constantly have this tomato sauce bubbling away, it’s the carrier for our Meatballs al Forno, it’s layered into the Gastrono-me Hash, and even a delicious slick of it inside our Meatloaf sandwich.
I’ve added spinach and black olives to this recipe. But it could be left unadulterated by following it up to step 2. You could just as easily add streaky bacon or pancetta snipped in to make it a delicious Amatriciana. Or crushed red chilli flakes and chopped flat leaf parsley to make a spicy, tastebud-tingling Arrabiata, (which, by the way, translates to ‘angry’ because of the heat of the chilli peppers!). Or even add double cream and Parmesan at the end for a more indulgent dish. That’s how versatile it is.
I really hope you enjoy making this perfect mother sauce – even if at times, like me, you feel a little less than deserving of the title!
Prep: 5 mins
Cook: 25 mins
Makes 4-6 portions
A good glug of olive oil, around 2-3 tablespoons
1 tablespoon of butter
3 large garlic cloves crushed
3 tins of good quality chopped or plum tomatoes
A small bag of baby spinach
A handful of black stoned olives
1 teaspoon of sugar
Salt and ground black pepper to taste.
Heat the olive oil and butter gently in a saucepan, until melted. Add the crushed garlic being careful not to burn it, your sauce will never recover if you do, and it’s best to go again – it happens.
Stir in the tinned tomatoes, add the sugar, salt and pepper and let it bubble gently for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Be generous with your seasonings and keep tasting as your sauce develops. It should have thickened beautifully and be glossy and rich.
Now, off the heat, stir in a couple of handfuls of fresh baby spinach, the residual heat of the sauce will wilt it perfectly. Throw in good quality stoned olives. I’ve chosen black, but green will be just as good for a lovely umami hit. Check your seasoning again, and you’re ready to toss with your favourite pasta.