spaghetti and meatballs: familystyle

Spagetti and meatballs, familystyle

I experience New Year’s Day with mixed emotion. As much as I love holding a new calendar fresh with possibilities for the year ahead, at the same time my head is spinning trying to process the one that just sped by, seemingly faster every time. What’s up with that?

I can only think it’s what happens when we’re living a full life – each day a series of events that unfolds onto the next. But in the middle of the daily process of work and school; relationships with family, friends, dog…it becomes like a monotonous ride. Some mornings I feel like a character in Groundhog Day.

Italian parsley and Parmigiano cheese

spaghetti

Which is why I’m grateful for the few weeks in December when I can make a plan to unplug; to spend time to nourish myself and my family, with things like mornings without an alarm clock and a schedule with absolutely nothing on it.

And food, of course. There aren’t many things that connect us like time shared around the table, especially when a large platter of spaghetti and meatballs is sitting on top of it.

I’ve shared my personal attempt at my mother’s meatball recipe on this blog before, but this latest version has become all my own. If my mom were here to sit at my table, I think she’d approve.

spaghetti and meatballs familystyle

Spaghetti and meatballs: familystyle

Serving Size: Serves a table of 6

Ingredients

    Meatballs:
  1. 1 ½ pounds ground beef
  2. 1 ½ pounds ground pork
  3. 1 onion
  4. 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  5. ½ cup fresh bread crumbs *
  6. 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
  7. 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano, Romano or Asiago cheese
  8. 2 eggs
  9. 3 teaspoons salt
  10. 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  11. Large pinch crushed red pepper
  12. Olive oil
  13. Gravy:
  14. 2 tablespoons olive oil
  15. 1 onion, finely chopped
  16. Salt
  17. 2 or 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced or finely chopped
  18. 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  19. 1 container Pomi strained tomatoes
  20. Pinch sugar
  21. Fresh ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. To make the meatballs, put the ground meats into a large bowl. Grate the onion over the bowl on the side of a large box grater. Add the remaining ingredients (except the olive oil) and mix together with your hands or a large fork until thoroughly combined. Form into 2-inch diameter balls and arrange on a large baking sheet.
  2. Heat a large, deep sauté pan (12 – 14-inches in diameter) over moderate heat. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan completely and heat for a minute or two before adding the meatballs. Cook until nicely browned on one side; carefully turn the meatballs with tongs or a spatula to brown the other side. Transfer the meatballs to a platter.
  3. Drain the fat from the pan. (Note – if you don’t have a large sauté pan with at least 3 inch sides, fry the meatballs in a sauté pan, in batches if necessary so you don’t crowd the pan. Make the sauce in a separate wide saucepan or soup pot.)
  4. To make the gravy, place the pan back over moderate heat. Add the olive oil, onion and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook the onions until they become very soft. If they begin to brown, add a few tablespoons of water, lower the heat and cover the pan until they’re ready.
  5. Stir in the garlic and cook for a minute, until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, sugar and more salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook 15 minutes.
  6. Put the meatballs into the pan, cover and continue simmering for another 10 minutes or so.
  7. Serve the sauce and meatballs over hot spaghetti or pasta, with plenty of cheese grated over.

Notes

*To make fresh bread crumbs, trim the crust from a large hunk of crusty peasant bread. Cut the bread into large pieces and toast 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Grind in a food processor to form fine crumbs. Keep extra crumbs in a covered container in the refrigerator or freezer.

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Classic Italian Meatballs

Classic meatballs, Italian-American style
Meatballs are personal.

Let me rephrase that: Show me your meatball, and I’ll show you mine.

Oh, wait. No. Not that personal. That’s the sort of thing that goes on in other blogs, the after bedtime, Not Safe for Work kind.

What I meant was, meatballs for me are like Proust’s madeleine. Like any childhood comfort food, meatballs represent a time, place and taste that exists only in my memory. But when prepared in just the right way – today, right now- one bite into a really good meatball could transport me back to my parents’ Sunday afternoon dinner table.

My mother would set out a large platter of meat that had spent the better part of the day braising in thick, rich tomato sauce – the gravy. On it, there would usually be a beef chuck roast, a braciole (a rolled beef flank steak stuffed with cheese, breadcrumbs and fresh parsley), sweet and spicy pork sausages handmade by my grandfather, and meatballs. I always went straight for the meatballs.

Meatballs are so personal that even among family there can be great disappointment. My bias unfailingly (some might say stubbornly) swerved toward my mother’s meatballs. Even as much as I loved my grandmother’s Sunday gravy, I was ambivalent about her meatballs. And because each person’s meatball is as unique in form as their own fingerprint, it was always immediately apparent to me when someone other than my own mother or grandmother had shaped meatballs and surreptitiously slid them into the family gravy pot.

There was that one Sunday gravy which has traumatized me for life. I can’t remember the distant relative who’d prepared them, all I know is this: one hopeful bite of her meatball revealed something dark, chewy and slimy-sweet, an alien nugget that could only be… a raisin. A raisin.

Who would go and put a raisin in an innocent-looking meatball? Why?

Later, my mother explained to me in a stage whisper that it was because great aunt Carmella was Sicilian. Oh.

Needless to say, my family was spoiled by my mother’s stellar meatballs and as a result grew very particular. It was standard for us to rate the quality of the meatballs whenever we ate at a restaurant. We could spot inferior execution every time. Like meatballs made with stale, dried, seasoned breadcrumbs or those that were so firm and rubbery you could set one on a billiard table and smack it into the corner pocket.


Because I believe my mother made the very best meatballs, hers are the standard by which all others are judged. They were generously portioned – almost the size of a baseball; crusty on the outside, tender and almost fluffy within. They were strewn with flecks of fresh parsley, garlic and soft bits of milk-soaked Italian bread. They were sharp with the salty tang of Pecorino Romano cheese. They were big juicy spheres I couldn’t wait to stick my fork into.

My mother is no longer with us, and sadly, she took her meatball recipe with her. She’d told me her meatball secrets, probably more than once, but that was a while ago and the details are sketchy. Did she say to remove the crusts from the bread before soaking in milk? To squeeze out the milk thoroughly or to keep the bread dripping with liquid? To flatten the meatballs slightly while frying? Can’t remember. I didn’t write it down.

Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have inherited the gene for meatball mastery from my mother, and I’ve yet to work out her perfect ratio of meat-to-seasoning-to-filler. I hang my head in frustration, but I’m working on it.

I’ve turned to cookbooks lately, and recently found a recipe in Two Meatballs in an Italian Kitchen that seemed eerily familiar. I played with the recipe a bit and came up with this one. They are very close to my mother’s in method and taste, but just not as light as I’d like them to be. Back to the mixing bowl.

As always, I’ll keep you updated with breaking meatball-recipe news as it occurs.
Until then, what are your cherished food memories? Visit the comment section at the end of this post and share them with me.

You might also like Rigatoni with 20-Minute Sunday Gravy.

Classic Italian Meatballs

3 thick slices Italian-style bread, crust trimmed
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 pound ground beef chuck
½ pound ground pork
2 egg yolks
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tablespoon kosher salt or 1 ½ teaspoons table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
¼ cup olive oil

1. Tear the bread into small pieces and place in a medium bowl. Cover with the milk and soak 5 minutes. Squeeze the milk out of the bread until just moist.

2. In a large bowl, use your hands to combine bread, beef, pork, egg, cheese, salt, pepper, garlic and parsley until evenly mixed. Break off ¼-cup sized pieces of mixture and roll into balls. They don’t have to be perfect – craggy meatballs have character and hold the sauce better.

3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add as many meatballs as will fit in the pan without crowding. They should sizzle as soon as they hit they pan or the pan isn’t hot enough.

4. Cook meatballs until browned on all sides and cooked through, 6 -8 minutes total.

5. Serve hot with your favorite tomato sauce.
Makes about 15 meatballs

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Kid-Friendly Food: Turkey Meatballs with Cilantro

I don’t know what it is about meatballs, but they seem to be the “it” food these days. I’ve seen recipes for meatball sliders teased on the cover of glossy food magazines and every Food Network personality seems to have a variation; Giada De Laurentis makes Mini Meatball Subs, Rachael Ray has her Spanikopita Chicken Meatballs, and Mario Batali, maybe most tempting of all, has a recipe for Lemon-Scented Meatballs.

Mario’s seem most like the meatballs I grew up eating, the Italian-style ones my mother would make for our Sunday gravy, with the exception that she used beef rather than veal – they were big, tender and simply seasoned with garlic, parsley and Parmesan cheese. I still haven’t nailed down her recipe (she never wrote it down, it seems), but these might come close.

I’ve been playing with the traditional Italian meatball ingredients; switching them out for Asian and Latin flavors. After all, every ethnic cuisine includes seasoned meat rolled into balls.

Even better, meatballs couldn’t be more family-friendly; I like to make a big batch and freeze some for a quick and healthy “emergency” meal, served with brown rice and sauteed spinach.

I use ground turkey thigh in this recipe, it’s a lower-fat alternative to beef and the dark meat produces a juicy meatball.

Turkey Meatballs with Cilantro

1/3 cup fine breadcrumbs
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 pounds ground turkey
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1 egg
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoons olive oil

Combine the breadcrumbs and milk in a small bowl; soak 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine turkey, onions, cilantro, garlic, egg, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper. Add breadcrumb mixture and mix until combined; form 1 1/2-inch diameter meatballs.

Heat the oil a 12-inch nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Arrange meatballs in pan and cook until browned on all sides and cooked through, 7-10 minutes.

Makes about 2 dozen.

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