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Briggs: The best thing I ever did to simplify Christmas

After a meltdown for the ages, columnist Tracy Briggs shares that she took her husband's advice to decrease Christmas stress and carried it out with help from an old Sicilian friend.

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Tracy Briggs, "Back Then with Tracy Briggs" columnist.
The Forum
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Confession time. If you saw me at Trinity Lutheran Church’s Christmas Eve service a few years back and witnessed me crying in the pew, it was not from the emotion of the beautiful service. I was at my wit’s end — about ready to blow like a pork roast in a pressure cooker.

Listen to Tracy's podcast audio of this episode:

To summarize, I had been juggling (like many of us do) writing Christmas cards, shopping for gifts, wrapping gifts, finding stocking stuffers, volunteering, planning meals and holding down a full-time job while raising two tweens who were not quite Christmas angels that week. I don’t know what caused me to finally blow my top. I just know I could not stop the tears from flowing that night, a release from a month of Christmas stress.

After the holiday was over, my husband (a smart man who knew not to try and speak rationally about my meltdown until January) showed concern and tried to figure out how we could de-stress Christmas.

His idea was to simplify Christmas Eve dinner.

It’s a start, right?

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Contrary to popular belief, I don’t really like cooking. I really love baking, but cooking, to me, is usually just a chore. However, one Christmas, my sister (who is an excellent cook) and I decided to do something extra special for Christmas Eve dinner — we’d honor our Briggs heritage by making a British feast, so we toiled away making beef Wellington, Yorkshire pudding, plum pudding and sticky toffee pudding. (Apparently, the Brits are into their puddings).

I do say “toil” because it was a ton of work and the results were not worth it. We spent hours making the dishes and minutes eating what could be described as “meh” food. The one exception, interestingly enough, was the easiest dish to make: the sticky toffee pudding, which was super yummy.

Anyway, realizing how complicated our Christmas Eve food had become, my husband said, “why don’t we just do something easy like spaghetti?” To him, that meant nothing more than boxed pasta and a jar of Prego. But I wanted to do something just a little more special than that. I resisted the urge to make homemade pasta as that would completely defeat the purpose, so I stuck with the boxed pasta but found a recipe for authentic spaghetti sauce and meatballs, from a favorite old Sicilian friend.

The recipe

Tom Pantera isn’t exactly Sicilian. He grew up in Columbia Heights, Minn. but he is of Sicilian heritage. I worked with him years ago while I was at WDAY-TV and he was at The Forum. He moved away from Fargo, but we’ve remained in touch on Facebook, where he once mentioned his grandmother’s spaghetti sauce and how delicious it was.

He has vivid memories of his grandma, Catherine Novello Stornant, who was “right off the boat from Sicily.”

grandmayoung.jpg
Catherine Novello was just 16 when she married her husband Joe Stornant. Grandson Tom Pantera said she was "right off the boat" from Sicily. The spaghetti sauce she made still endures. The family even makes jars of it to give as gifts.
Contributed / Tom Pantera

“My grandmother was a very sweet woman, with an ample build, a lovely smile and a liking to be teased (she and my Dad got along famously). I still vividly remember her kitchen; for some reason, I particularly recall that she always had oyster crackers in her pantry and to this day, whenever I see oyster crackers I think of her,” he shared.

Pantera says his mother made “the sauce” too. They had it once or twice a year and he always knew when he smelled it cooking and watched his mom "bustle about the kitchen" that he would eat until he burst that day.

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He learned to make the sauce himself.

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“Personally, and this probably is making tomato sauce carry a bit too much freight, for me it's a lovely connection to long-gone people and my heritage. I'm at least the third generation to make it, and I assume it goes back further than that, at least in some form. I remember the first time I made it, I nailed it. The smell was perfect; I could close my eyes and suddenly be back in Mom's or Grandma's kitchen.”

Pantera says the sauce is a part of him and his family — something that he can share. He even gives jars of “the sauce” as gifts each Christmas.

The first year I made it, it was a gift to me. It was simple and delicious and nearly stress-free. There were no tears that night at the Christmas Eve service, just smiles, peace and warmth at the beautiful Christmas message and knowing I had a satisfying, yet simple meal waiting for me at home. And so as not to completely turn my back on my own ancestors, we had some sticky toffee pudding for dessert. Enjoy.

Spaghetti
Spaghetti with "Grandma's Sauce" and "Grandma's Meatballs" has become my go-to Christmas Eve dinner. It's super easy and deliziosa!
Tracy Briggs

"Grandma's Sauce"

Makes about three quarts of sauce.

Ingredients:

1 large (46-ounce) can of tomato juice
2 large (28-ounce) cans of whole tomatoes
1 large (12-ounce) can of regular tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
½ cup of sugar
Grated Romano or parmesan cheese (up to ½ cup)
2 cloves garlic (minced)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 or 4 fresh basil leaves or 1 ½ teaspoons dried basil
½ to ¾ cup Mogan David Wine
A box of spaghetti, linguine, fettucine or your favorite pasta

"Grandma's Meatballs"

Serves 8 to 12 people.

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups bread crumbs
½ cup milk
2 pounds ground beef
1/3 pound pork
2 eggs
Salt (a pinch or two)
Pepper (a pinch or two)
2 cloves minced garlic
1/3 cup or more of grated cheese
2 teaspoon parsley (dried or fresh)
Cooking oil

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Instructions:

Empty whole tomatoes into a blender and liquefy. Then place the liquefied tomatoes, with the tomato juice and tomato paste, into a large pot and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients (except the pasta) and start to simmer. Taste the sauce after a few minutes to see if it might need more salt, sugar or garlic. (Pantera says he will usually add more of each). Start working on the meatballs.

Mix milk into bread crumbs to soften. Combine with the rest of the ingredients. Make a small patty and cook it until it’s done in the microwave. Taste it to make sure you’re happy with the seasoning. If not, add whatever you feel is missing. When you’re happy with the taste, put a little oil on your hands and roll the meat mixture into small balls. Put oil into a frying pan and warm over medium-high heat. Place the meatballs into the pan, turning until all sides are browned.

When all meatballs are browned put them in a colander and rinse them in hot water.

Place meatballs in sauce and cook until done (about one-and-a-half hours). Since you started to simmer as you were making the meatballs, the total cooking time is more like two hours.

Cook the pasta. Drain.

Serve the sauce and meatballs over cooked pasta. I usually pair it with a Caesar salad and garlic bread.

Notes:

  • This recipe makes a lot of sauce, so either invite a huge crowd over for dinner or be prepared to have storage containers available to freeze the excess.
  • When I've made the sauce and meatballs for Christmas Eve, I make it in the morning before I get too busy. It's fine to just simmer on the stove all day or just keep it warm in a crockpot. As Pantera said, it also makes the house smell great. When you're ready to eat, all you need to do is make the pasta, garlic bread and salad. No stress!
  • I have occasionally forgotten to purchase the pork for the meatballs and I have to admit, I missed the flavor. All ground beef or even ground turkey is probably fine, but to me, the beef/pork mixture is the most flavorful.
  • Pantera told a funny story about the wine. He said his grandfather was a home winemaker, but his grandmother always insisted they use Mogan David wine in the sauce. I've tried to be authentic and use Mogan David, but sometimes I'm just lazy and use whatever red wine we have on hand (since the sauce requires less than a cup). I would say a sweeter red is better than one that is dry.
  • I think both Pantera and I agree that the sauce is tastiest if you add more than the two cloves written in the recipe, but start with two and see what you prefer. As Pantera said (and I agree), you'll probably want to add more garlic.
  • I mentioned dessert. Because, well, it's dessert. Like I said, sticky toffee pudding is yummy and pretty easy. Find a recipe you like from Google. I've tried many and I've liked them all. This one from the New York Times has received many positive reviews. Another really easy dessert is just brownie sundaes. Make your brownies ahead and top with ice cream, syrup and whipped cream.
  • One final note: A big thank you to Tom Pantera for sharing a piece of his family with me and all of you. If you ever make it back to The Forum, Tom, let's be sure to have a big bowl of spaghetti with Grandma's Sauce and Meatballs together after covering the Fargo City Commission. Heck, it makes so much, I bet we could invite all of them to join us.
Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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