Maria Sansone likes to keep things simple in the kitchen. Her favorite cooking tools—a box grater and a well-seasoned cast-iron pan—would be right at home in her grandmother’s kitchen. That makes sense, because some of Sansone’s earliest memories are of spending time cooking with her grandmother.
As a schoolgirl in Pennsylvania, she went to her grandmother’s house for lunch—where most days she got a hot, home-cooked meal. “I was a very lucky child in the food department,” Sansone recalls. Not only that, but every so often, there would be an extra treat, a trip to a neighborhood diner for broccoli soup.
While the Marblehead resident and TV personality has no idea how the diner made it all those years ago, she wanted to create her own version to serve to her kids.
“To me, Easy Cheesy Broccoli Soup is the ultimate comfort food,” Sansone says. “It just really takes me back to the good old days and a super special treat with my grandma.” Like everything in Sansone’s first cookbook, Oh $#!% What’s for Dinner: No-Fuss Weeknight Recipes You’ll Swear By, this dish is rooted in memory and driven by the nightly scramble to feed her family—a routine the mom of two and host of “The Hub Today” and “Mom2Mom” on NBC-10 Boston, as well as a companion Edward R. Murrow Award–winning podcast, understands all too well.
“[The soup] takes no time to make, and everyone is thrilled,” Sansone says. “My kids love it, and it keeps well in the refrigerator too.” Soups are top of mind for Sansone at this time of year.
“Summertime, when we’re running and eating on the fly, it’s so warm outside that sometimes you don’t even want to turn on the oven,” she says. “But when fall comes around, I think about the cozy season and getting around the dinner table again, making memories with the family. And we get very excited about soup.”
The book is chock-full of soups, like “New England Clam Chowdah,” inspired by a favorite dish at The Landing in Marblehead. Like all the recipes in her book, you can get it on the table fast, even after a day at work.
That’s because the book grew from a cooking show Sansone started by chance when she turned on Facebook Live a few years back while preparing dinner, with a preschooler sitting on the counter and a baby on her hip. She quickly developed a following, and that real-time connection meant that her audience was likely in the kitchen too.
“The cooking show was always at 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m., so that we could eat what I prepared,” Sansone says. “And that’s also why everything in the book can be made in about a half an hour.” She didn’t want to be live all night, she explains, so she came up with recipes that she could cook in 20 minutes, with “a little padding for all the nonsense that we would do in the kitchen.”
The nonsense expanded when the family moved from Santa Monica, California, to Marblehead, staying with Sansone’s in-laws while on the hunt for a house of their own. “After leaving Los Angeles, I didn’t know what would happen to my television career,” she recalls. “So, it was very cool that I could seamlessly pick up my show that was happening in my kitchen, and continue it here in New England, although I didn’t have a kitchen.”
The different surroundings meant a new cast popping in and out of the frame, something her virtual audience couldn’t get enough of. “My audience absolutely loved it,” Sansone recalls. “The more chaotic, the better, the more characters that I introduced, the better. And when things didn’t work out, they loved it even more.”
One particularly memorable episode involved a parade of her kids along with their cousins, wearing swimming goggles and carrying balloons and signs that said “APPLAUSE.” “And they were holding them upside down because they couldn’t read,” Sansone recalls. “It was just always chaos.”
It’s no wonder that the cookbook is full of ideas that require little concentration and streamline time in the kitchen. Like her Baked Grilled Cheese, for example, which is so simple and brilliant you can’t believe no one has thought of it before “I love grilled cheese, and I’m always looking for a quicker way to get from point A to point B. That’s kind of the whole point of this cookbook,” Sansone says.
“Instead of standing at the stove, flipping and flopping and just making a few at a time, if you bake the grilled cheese, you can put it on a big sheet pan, and make enough for the whole family or the whole neighborhood. And they’re all perfectly cooked at the same temperature, same time.” Now when her kids have friends over, Sansone’s go-to is Baked Grilled Cheese, perhaps with Creamy Tomato Soup, another family favorite.
“Every kid gets their own grilled cheese at the same time, so no one’s whining.” With the work of perfecting the recipes in her cookbook—Sansone singlehandedly did all the testing herself—complete, she is ready to turn the camera back on in her kitchen. “I was so busy writing the cookbook that I got away from cooking with my audience online,” Sansone says.
Her online show will be back this fall with a new name (naturally, “Oh $#!% What’s for Dinner?”) but the same cast of characters and energy. “Any parent understands what dinnertime is like,” Sansone say. “So to pull back the curtain and just show what it was really like, I think it really resonated with people.”
Baked Grilled Cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
8 large slices of sourdough bread
8 to 12 slices provolone cheese
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Spread olive oil on a large sheet pan. Butter one side of each bread slice.
3. Place four slices of bread, butter-side down, on the prepared pan. Top with 2-3 slices of cheese. Top with the remaining slices of bread, butter-side up.
4. Bake for 6 minutes. Flip and bake for another 6 minutes or until golden brown.
Creamy Tomato Soup
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, minced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cans (28 Ounces Each) San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes, in their juices
1 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 cup light cream
¼ cup chopped fresh basil, plus more for garnish
1 cup shredded mozzarella or fresh grated parmesan cheese, divided
1. Heat olive oil in a large heavy-bottom soup pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook for 2-3 minutes or until translucent. Stir in garlic and cook for an additional minute.
2. Stir in tomatoes and their juices. Mash tomatoes with a wooden spoon or potato masher.
3. Add water, sugar, dried basil, salt and pepper to the pot. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer, partially covered, for at least 30 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cream.
4. If you like a smoother soup, use a immersion blender, or transfer to a regular blender in portions, and puree until smooth. If you like a chunkier soup, puree only half of the mixture.
5. Stir in fresh basil. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Top with cheese and garnish with more fresh basil.