I came late in life to the spaghetti and meatball party... I don't think I ever had them growing up. If I did, they made no impression. By the time I began my career in food, classic Italian-American fare had fallen out of favor. Then, a few years ago, Gourmet published an entire issue devoted to the glories of Italian-American food. I was completely drawn in by this food tradition that I knew so little about. I read the magazine cover to cover and then, on a cold Saturday afternoon, made the recipe for Spaghetti and Meatballs. It was admittedly a lot of work. But it was more than worth it. When we finally sat down to eat, I could not believe how good they were.
Now, at least once a year, I make a batch. I enjoy some right away and then tuck the rest away in the freezer. There, they are my rainy day fund...perfect for those times at the end of a long day...or series of days... when cooking the kind of pampering, soothing meal that I really need is just out of the question. They were perfect for today. (I'm so glad I had them in my freezer.) If you have never had Spaghetti and Meatballs....or if you have, and they left a lot to be desired...I encourage you to make these. I still can't believe how good they are.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
For tomato sauce:
3 (28-oz) cans whole tomatoes in juice (preferably San Marzano)
1 medium onion (about 8 oz.), finely diced
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 medium onion (about 8 oz.), finely diced
2 to 4 T. extra-virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 1/2 cups torn day-old Italian bread (about 60 grams trimmed weight)
3/4 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
2 oz. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (2/3 c.)
3 T. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 t. dried oregano, crumbled
grated lemon zest of 1/2 a lemon (see notes)
2 1/4 lb ground meat (see notes)
olive or vegetable oil for frying the meatballs
1 lb. dried spaghetti
Pass the tomatoes, along with their juice through a food mill fitted with the coarse disc.
Warm the olive oil in a 5 to 6-quart shallow saucepan set over medium heat. Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden—about 10 to 20 minutes.
Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant—about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, 1 t. kosher salt (see notes), and 1/2 t. freshly ground pepper. Simmer sauce, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 1 to 1 1/4 hour. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt.
Make meatballs while sauce simmers:
Warm 2 T. of olive oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet set over medium heat. Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden—about 10 to 20 minutes. Add more oil as needed if the onions seem dry. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant—about 2 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a small bowl, soak the bread in the milk until soft, about 5 minutes.
Firmly squeeze bread to remove excess milk, discarding the milk. Stir together cooled onion mixture, bread, eggs, parmesan, parsley, oregano, lemon zest (if using), 2 t. kosher salt, and 1/2 t. freshly ground pepper until combined. Add meats to bread mixture, gently mixing with your hands until just combined (do not over mix).
Form meat mixture into small balls (weighing about 20 gr./3/4 oz. each) with dampened hands, arranging meatballs on large baking sheets or in shallow baking pans.
Heat some olive or vegetable oil (about 1/4-inch deep) in a 12-inch heavy cast-iron (or other nonstick) skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Brown meatballs in batches (without crowding), turning frequently, about 5 minutes per batch. Return to baking sheets (This is not an insignificant step...if transferred directly to the sauce, they will make the sauce greasy. If allowed to sit on the sheets for a minute or two, some of the surface oil will drain off and be left behind on the sheet pan.)
Add the meatballs to the sauce, cover and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the meatballs are cooked through and tender—about 30 to 45 minutes. (The meatballs have the best flavor and texture if they are allowed to sit in the sauce for a while before serving—up to an hour or two at room temperature—reheat to serve.)
Cook the spaghetti in 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with 2 to 3 T. salt. Stir occasionally and cook until the spaghetti is al dente. Drain. Return the spaghetti to the pot and toss with some of the sauce and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with meatballs, remaining sauce, and grated cheese. Serves 8.
• Traditionally the ground meats used are a combination of 3/4 lb. ground beef, 3/4 lb. ground pork and 3/4 lb. ground veal—but you may use any combination of meats that you prefer. It is however important that the majority of the meat that you choose be from fattier cuts—beef chuck, pork shoulder, etc. The meatballs need to have fat for flavor, tenderness and moisture. If they are made with lean meats they will tend to be hard and dry. The naturally lean veal contributes collagen which acts as a binder—without it, the meatballs can be a bit meal-y. If you can't get (or choose not to eat) veal, substitute dark meat (thighs and legs) of chicken or turkey.
• The original recipe called for 2 t. salt in the sauce. You may or may not need this much salt, depending on the brand of tomatoes that you purchase—the sodium content varies widely among brands.
• You may of course brown the meatballs in the oven instead of frying them—although the result will not be quite as nice. To brown in the oven, spread the meatballs on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 450° until browned, or alternatively, broil them.
• Traditional Italian-American style meatballs are quite large—perhaps twice as large as directed here. I prefer smaller meatballs. But you should feel free to make the meatballs as large as you like. Adjust the cooking time accordingly.
• Even if you don't need the full recipe, it's a good idea to go ahead and make the whole thing in order to make it worth the time invested. Meatballs freeze beautifully (see below). If you have the equipment, you might consider doubling the recipe. To make this size recipe it will take about 3 hours from start to finish—although you will only be actively cooking for about 2 hours of that time.
• Meatballs can be made and simmered in sauce 5 days ahead and chilled (covered once cool). They may also be frozen in the sauce in an airtight container or heavy-duty sealable bags up to 3 months (or longer if you have a freezer that holds a consistent temperature of zero).
(Recipe adapted from Gourmet Magazine January 2009)