There are certain dishes everyone should know how to make; Spaghetti & Meatballs is one of them.
It’s funny, though, because even though I’ve been cooking consistently for the past six years, cooking my way through the staples (here’s my favorite chili, my new standard roast chicken, my go-to chocolate chip cookie) I’d never really tackled Spaghetti & Meatballs. I once made fancy meatballs in a sugo that had orange zest and I titled that post “Not Your Mama’s Meatballs.” What I wanted, though, was the opposite: I actually wanted your mama’s meatballs. And I think, finally, that’s what I’ve found.
Reading as many cookbooks and food magazine and food blogs as I do, I’ve encountered many meatball recipes: some are made with fancy mixtures of veal and pork and beef, others get even fancier (as Mario Batali’s recipe does) with prosciutto and Asiago cheese. I’m sure one day I’ll try those fancier versions and I’ll love them, but, for right now, my go-to recipe comes from Arthur Schwartz’s book “The Southern Italian Table.”
I like this recipe because its two essential components–beef and bread–are available in just about any grocery store. The bread ends up being just as important as the beef: without it, you’d have a dense, billiard ball of beef. With it, the meatball becomes airier and also develops a darker crust (cooked bread is, by nature, toasty.)
The resulting dish, which according to Arthur Schwartz is “one of the most internationally famous specialties of Southern Italy,” is something you can manage on a weeknight to feed your family for not a lot of money. No wonder it’s such a standard go-to staple for so many; now it’s one of mine.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
based on a recipe by Arthur Schwartz
About two cups dried crustless bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (I get a boule of something nice; I wouldn’t use just plain, enriched sandwich bread, though–if you must–I’m sure it’ll work)
1 1/4 pounds ground beef (preferably 80% lean, not leaner)
2 eggs, beaten to mix well
2 large garlic cloves, finely minced
1/2 cup loosely packed grated pecorino cheese
1/4 cup loosely packed finely shredded parsley (<--don't skip this, it gives your meatballs a hit of green which they really need!) 1/3 cup pine nuts (<--I skipped these and my meatballs were fine) 1/3 cup raisins (<---again, I skipped, though one day I'll try them) 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/4 cup vegetable oil (approximately) 1 quart Tomato Sauce* (See my starry thing at the bottom) 1 pound dried spaghetti 1. Soak the bread in cold water until soft, a few minutes. 2. Meanwhile, combine the beef, eggs, garlic, pecorino, parsley, pine nuts, raisins, salt, and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Do not mix yet. 3. Squeeze the bread by the fistfuls to drain it, then break it up with your fingers, adding it directly to the bowl.
4. Mix the ingredients very well, squishing the mixture with your hands to make sure the bread blends with the meat. Do not worry about handling the meat too much.
5. Roll the mixture between your palms into 12 meatballs, each using about 1/3 cup of meat.
6. Heat about 1/8 inch of oil in a 9- to 10-inch skillet over medium high heat. When the oil is hot enough to create bubbles around the handle of a wooden spoon [Note: I love this trick! It’s a terrific way to know when it’s time to fry almost anything]….
…gently place the meatballs in the pan.
As soon as a crust develops on one side, using two utensils (I use a metal spatula and a wooden spoon), dislodge the meatballs and turn them to another side.
Continue rotating the meatballs. After about 10 minutes the meatballs should be well browned but still slightly rare in the center.
7. Once the meatballs are browned all over, add to a pot of simmering tomato sauce.
Let them simmer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, start to cook your spaghetti in a pot of rapidly boiling, salted water.
8. Remove the meatballs to a plate:
Add a splash of pasta cooking water to the sauce to thin it out, slightly:
Add the spaghetti to the sauce:
Toss all around:
Plate immediately and top with the meatballs:
If you want you can grate some more Pecorino on top. Eat it hot!
* So here in this starry thing (you know, the asterisk footnote) I’d like to point out that you could, if you want, make a tomato sauce in the same pan that you fry the meatballs. Just pour out a lot of the fat after they fry–leave about 3 Tbs–and then add a chopped onion. Cook until translucent then add 3 to 4 cloves of slivered garlic. Cook until fragrant (just a minute more) along with some red chili flakes (if you like it spicy) and then add two large cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes. Break them up with your spoon, add some salt, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer and cook about 30 minutes. You’ll have a sauce enriched with all those meat bits on the bottom of the pan.