Sunday, January 2, 2011

Spaghetti and Meatballs

I am back in my DC kitchen, and after eight (incredible) weeks of eating mostly rice-based dishes my thoughts have been consumed by spaghetti and meatballs since landing in the USA. This dish is tasty, hearty and flavorful. I usually make a huge batch and freeze the leftovers for a quick home cooked meal when my days get crazy.  My sauce has a slightly unusual addition - read more and hopefully you will be inspired to try my version of spaghetti and meatballs.

Here are the ingredients you will need:

  • 1/2 lb each ground beef, pork, and veal (some supermarkets sell a "meatloaf mix" that contains these three mixed together)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano 
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup stale bread
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
Tomato sauce
  • 6 lbs canned San Marzano (or similar Roma) tomatoes
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 carrots, cut in half
  • 2 stalks of celery, cut in half
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 1 Parmigiano Reggiano rind
  • 5-10 whole basil leaves
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar or agave syrup to taste

Start by making the meatballs. Soak the stale bread in milk until soft - this panade helps to ensure tender, juicy meatballs, and it's a technique I use often (see this chicken flatbread recipe). Add the scallions, red pepper flakes, salt, parmigiano cheese, basil, eggs, and ground meat, and then mix all the ingredients together. Form about twenty meatballs, each approximately the size of a golf ball. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot until you just start to see wisps of smoke, and then immediately sear the meatballs until golden brown. I find it helpful to do the meatballs in batches - maybe 6 at a time, depending on the size of the pot. This gives the meatballs space within the pot and helps get a good crust on the meatballs by keeping the pot from dropping in temperature too much. The searing of the meat will create a fond - caramelized meat that will stick to the bottom of the pot. The fond, once deglazed with liquid, will bring flavor and complexity to the final tomato sauce. Don't worry about fully cooking the meatballs. The meatballs will get fully cooked later, when they cook in the sauce. After the meatballs have been seared place them on a plate to cool, and eventually cover them and put them in the refrigerator.

Once the meatballs have been seared (immediately, or else the fond will burn) put the heat to medium-low and add the onions to the pot with a pinch of salt. As the onions cook and soften they will release liquid (accelerated by the salt) - use this to scrape off the brown bits of meatball goodness (i.e., flavor) from the bottom of the pan. After a few minutes, once the onions are soft and translucent, add the tomato paste and cook for a minute or two. Once the tomato paste has caramelized (but not burned!) add the wine and crushed tomatoes and scrape off any remaining fond. (Side note: I get a huge can of whole San Marzano tomatoes from Costco and make tomato sauce a couple of times a year. The easiest and most therapeutic way to crush them is to put your clean hands into the large can and slowly squeeze the whole tomatoes.) Add the carrots, celery, bay leaf, basil and Parmesan rind to the sauce. Now add the special ingredient, a cinnamon stick, which adds some complexity, warmth, and spice to the sauce. Simmer the sauce on low heat for 3 to 12 hours. Thirty minutes before dinner remove the carrot, celery, basil, cinnamon, and parmigiano rind with a spider or slotted spoon, and add the meatballs to the sauce to finish cooking the meatballs and allow the flavors to harmonize. 

To cook the spaghetti, heat a large stockpot of heavily salted water to a rolling boil. The water should be almost seawater salty, and there needs to be plenty of water to prevent the pasta from sticking. Once the spaghetti is flexible but still undercooked in the center - approximately 2-3 minutes less than the manufacturer's recommendation - reserve a cup of the pasta water and drain the spaghetti. Return the spaghetti to the pasta pot along with an appropriate amount of sauce (no meatballs yet), about 1 cup per pound of pasta. Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce over medium heat until al dente (still slightly chewy in the center), adding the reserved pasta water as necessary to "loosen" the sauce (the sauce will lose water to evaporation and absorption into the pasta). This technique prevents sticking and, more importantly, allows the flavor of the sauce to permeate the pasta - you should do this for all pasta dishes.

Serve topped with a little sauce, meatballs, fresh basil, a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano, and a drizzle of olive oil (another great trick for bringing out fresh flavors in long-simmered tomato sauces).

1 comment:

  1. My sister asked me today if I meant to write this recipe with a whooping 6 lbs can of tomatoes? Yep - I buy the huge restaurant size can, available at Costco. It's a great value!