Meatballs and Spaghetti

There’s no meal I enjoy more than a well-made spaghetti and meatball dinner. This is one dish that is practically impossible to have right if not homemade because upscale restaurants don’t bother with it and the kind of restaurants that do don’t give it the attention it deserves.

My preference is for a high proportion of bread crumbs in the meatballs so they hold their shape and have substance. I also favor hot sausages and red pepper flakes in the tomato sauce but as this is a favorite family meal, I usually have to forgo the spice for the sake of tender young palates. The tomato sauce, however, whether made with fresh tomatoes or canned, is so flavorful, I hardly miss the extra spice. This is a favorite menu for my nephew Alexander’s birthday party because kids and grown-ups alike love it and because his birthday, August 23, is right at the height of the fresh tomato season.

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KEEPS: The sauce keeps 5 days refrigerated, 3 months frozen.
INGREDIENTS MEASURE WEIGHT
volume ounces/pounds grams/kilograms
Meatballs
ground beef, pork and veal (ground together) 1 pound ground round, 8 ounces ground pork, and 8 ounces ground veal 2 pounds 907 grams
3 large eggs 5 fluid ounces 5.25 ounces         150 grams

(weighed without shells)

dry bread crumbs cups 6 ounces 172 grams
milk ½ liquid cup
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated cup 2 ounces 56 grams
parsley, preferably flat-leafed, minced ¼ cup 0.5 ounce 15 grams
fresh basil, minced* ¼ cup 0.75 ounce 20 grams
garlic, minced (1 large clove) teaspoon 5 grams
salt 1 teaspoon 0.25 ounce 6.7 grams
black pepper, freshly ground ½ teaspoon
cayenne pepper teaspoon
Sauce
Italian plum tomatoes 10 pounds 4.5 kilograms, 36 grams
tomato paste ¼ cup 2.25 ounces 65 grams
2 beef bouillon cubes (or 2 cubes Glace de Viande,, + 1 teaspoon salt)
salt 1 teaspoon 0.25 ounce 6.7 grams
black pepper, freshly ground ¼ teaspoon
OPTIONAL: red pepper flakes ½ to 1 teaspoon (to taste)
Angostura bitters 1 teaspoon
sugar 1 tablespoon 12.5 grams
OPTIONAL: 3 sun-dried tomatoes, minced 2 tablespoons 0.75 ounce 20 grams

*or 1 tablespoon dried.

or one 28- to 32-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes plus 2 cups canned tomato sauce, a total of two 6-ounce cans tomato paste and 1 cup water.

INGREDIENTS MEASURE WEIGHT
volume ounces/pounds grams/kilograms
Italian sausage, links sweet or hot, pricked with a fork 1 pound 454 grams
olive oil, divided 3 tablespoons
½ medium onion, coarsely chopped ½ cup 2.25 ounces 64 grams
garlic, minced (1 large clove) teaspoons 5 grams
dry red wine *½ liquid cup
fresh oregano, minced* 1 tablespoon 2.5 grams
fresh basil, minced* 1 tablespoon 5 grams
spaghettini or spaghetti 1.5 pounds 567 grams
freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

*or 1 tablespoon dried.

Method

In a large bowl, combine all the meatball ingredients and, using your fingers or a wooden spoon, blend them together. Cover and refrigerate.

Peel and seed the tomatoes: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch the tomatoes in the simmering water for 1 minute. Empty them into a colander to drain. Remove the skin, using the tip of a sharp knife or your fingers. It should slip off easily.

For speed and efficiency, I like to use a Squeezo strainer, a device that removes the skin and seeds without blanching, leaving only the crushed tomato pulp.

Cut the tomatoes into quarters and remove and discard the seeds and cores, reserving any liquid. Chop the tomatoes coarsely using a large knife or the food processor. Place them in a large Dutch oven along with the reserved liquid. You should have about 8 cups of tomatoes. Cook over medium-high heat until reduced to about 7 cups. Add the tomato paste.

(If using canned tomatoes, drain the tomatoes in a strainer over a bowl, reserving the liquid. Cut the tomatoes into quarters, over the strainer. Remove and discard the seeds and cores, reserving the liquid. Place the tomatoes in a large Dutch oven, add the reserved liquid, the 2 cups tomato sauce, the 2 cans tomato paste, and the 1 cup water and proceed as directed.)

Reduce (or turn on) the heat under the tomatoes to low. Add the bouillon cubes (or Glace de Viande and salt), pepper, optional pepper flakes, Angostura bitters, sugar and optional sun-dried tomatoes and let simmer while you prepare the remaining ingredients.

In a large heavy frying pan over medium heat, sauté the sausages until browned, about 10 minutes. Remove them to paper towels to drain and set aside. Discard the fat from the pan and set the pan aside.

Use a meatball shaper or measure about 3 tablespoons of meat mixture per meatball and form 24 meatballs slightly less than 2-inches in diameter. Set aside uncovered (they will develop a slight crust, which helps to keep the shape better when frying).

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in the frying pan over medium-low heat and sauté the onion until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute or until softened. With a spoon, transfer the onions and garlic to the simmering tomato sauce.

Raise the heat under the frying pan to medium and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the meat balls, in two batches so as not to crowd, and brown them, dislodging them gently with the edge of a pancake turner and shaking the pan gently to turn them and keep them as round as possible, about 7 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the meat balls to the simmering tomatoes.

Discard the fat in the pan and, off the heat, deglaze the pan with the wine, stirring and scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Stir into the simmering tomatoes, cover partially and simmer over low heat for 1½ hours, stirring occasionally. Add water if the sauce seems to be getting too thick.

Cut the sausages in half crosswise and add them to the sauce along with the oregano and basil. Simmer for 30 minutes longer, adding water if necessary. There should be about 5 cups of sauce. Skim off any fat that has risen to the surface and discard.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling water, with tablespoons salt, according to the package directions. Heat the serving plates.

Drain the pasta thoroughly and place it on the warm serving plates. Place 3 meatballs and 1 sausage piece on top of each serving and top with a heaping half cup of sauce. Pass grated Parmesan on the side.

NOTE: I like the sauce to be thick enough to coat the spaghetti well. If the consistency seems too thin at the end of the cooking time, remove the meatballs to a bowl, raise the heat and reduce the sauce to the desired consistency. Be sure to stir often because as the sauce thickens it burns more easily.

Cooking in a Crock Pot

I love to make this recipe in a crock pot because I only have to stir once to equalize the heating and there’s no risk of scorching the tomato sauce. I don’t like to leave the meatballs and sauce in the pot all day on low, however, as the meatballs overcook. Turn the crock pot to high and proceed as directed above. If using fresh tomatoes, cook until reduced to 6 cups (instead of 7). If using canned tomatoes, omit the water. Cook the meatballs and sauce for 2 hours on high, stir, add the sausage, oregano and basil, lower the heat to low and continue cooking for 2 hours.

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