Thursday, June 5, 2014

Spaghetti and Meatballs - A Meaty Romance

What could be more romantic that the scene in Disney's Lady and the Tramp where our protagonists share a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, ending in their first kiss? Swoon!

Am I the only one that has a hard time thinking of wads of meat as romantic? It's just weird. Pasta, maybe, but cooked meat wads? They were dogs. Dogs are meat eaters. I guess is makes a kind of perverse sense. But, seriously?

Romance aside, it's hard to beat a tasty, moist meatball, smothered in thick tomato sauce, gently resting on top of a pile of spaghetti, cooked just al dente. Sigh. Maybe I'm a romantic after all.

First, meatballs should be tender. I don't want to bounce them off the walls or play table tennis with them, thank you. Fortunately, this recipe delivers in that department. I make a quick tomato sauce of my own for use with this recipe, but you can use canned, if you must.

Grating your own Parmesan is best. The measurements given are for the grated form, not the solid block form. In case you don't know, bulk sausage is sausage sold before being formed into casings. If you can't get it that way, remove the meat from the casings before proceeding.

Equipment Needed
cutting board
chef's knife
garlic press (optional)
measuring spoons
wooden spoon
mixing bowls
large skillet


For the sauce:
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
2 14.5-oz cans, diced tomatoes
1/2 Tbl dried basil (or 2 Tbl fresh, minced)
1/4 tsp sugar
salt and pepper as needed

For the meatballs:
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 grated Parmesan cheese
2 slices good white bread
1/3 cup buttermilk or plain yoghurt
3/4 pound of ground beef (80% lean)
1/4 pound of bulk Italian sausage, mild
1 Tbl dried parsley (or 2 Tbl fresh, minced)
1 large egg yolk
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper

olive oil
1 pound spaghetti noodles
More grated Parmesan cheese, for serving


Pour about 4 quarts of water into a large cooking pot and set it on a a cold burner. Don't start heating it just yet. We just want it to be ready to go.

For the sauce:
Add the olive oil to a saucepan. Heat both over medium heat until the oil is just starting to shimmer. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, but not brown, about 30 seconds. Stir in the canned tomatoes, along with the canning liquid, and the dried basil. If using fresh basil, save it for later. Using an immersion blender, blend the tomato mixture enough to break up the heavy dice, but still leave small chunks. Bring to a simmer and cook until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in the sugar and season with salt and pepper to taste. If you are using fresh basil, add it now. Set aside.

For the meatballs:
Cut the crusts from the bread and tear into small pieces. Add the bread and buttermillk, or yogurt, to a large bowl and mash into a paste. The Italians call this a “panada.” Add the ground beef, Italian sausage, grated Parmesan, egg yolk, minced garlic, 3/4 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper to the bread mixture. Stir to combine.

Using 2 – 3 Tbl of the meat mixture at a time, roll it between your palms to form them into 1 1/2-inch balls. You'll end up making about 12 - 13 meatballs, this way. Make sure they're packed pretty well, so they don't fall apart while cooking, but don't overdo it.

Now is the time to turn the heat under the pasta water up to high, to bring it to a boil.

In the meantime, pour olive oil into a skillet to a depth of about 1/4 inch. Heat over medium-high until the oil starts to shimmer. Carefully add the meatballs, one at a time in a single layer. Cook until nicely browned, gently turning once through the cooking cycle, about 10 minutes. Remove the cooked meatballs from the pan and transfer them to a paper towel line plate. Pour off the remaining oil in the skillet to discard it.

Reduce the heat to medium and return the skillet to the stove. Pour in about a cup of the sauce and deglaze the skillet, scraping up the yummy browned bits (or “fond”) off the bottom. Stir in the rest of the sauce and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and return the meatballs to the skillet. Cover and let simmer while the pasta cooks.

The pasta water should be boiling about now. Add the spaghetti and 1 Tbl salt. Cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid and drain the rest.

Remove the meatballs from the sauce and set aside on a clean plate. Add the reserved pasta water to the tomato sauce and stir in to “loosen” the sauce. Taste the sauce, adjusting the seasoning if needed. Pour the sauce over the cooked spaghetti and toss to coat.

Divide the pasta between four bowls. Top with meatballs, more grated Parmesan cheese as desired, and serve.

Makes 4 large servings.

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