Thursday, 3 January 2013

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Sometimes, I think spaghetti and meatballs might be the ultimate food cliche. Who hasn't seen that ridiculous/adorable scene in "The Lady and the Tramp" where the two dogs share a plate and end up kissing because they have both been eating the same noodle?

Funnily enough, you'll hardly ever find that dish in restaurants in Italy: it's one of those American-Italian dishes people in Rome have never heard of, like pasta alla carbonara or Alfredo sauce. But who cares, really? It's delicious and filling, and quite versatile. I decided to make some spaghetti and meatballs after we were all but walled-in by a big snow storm: I thought we could use a nice bowl of comfort-food!

This recipe is for basic beef and pork meatballs in tomato sauce (inspired by David Rocco's recipe in "Made in Italy"): you begin by browning the meat in the pan before letting it cook through in the sauce. You can use any ground meat you can get your hands on: beef and pork are classic choices, but lamb is delicious! Add pine nuts or raisins to your meatballs for a change of pace: the texture and slight sweetness is surprisingly awesome!

Veg-heads need not despair: I also added Isa Chandra's "Appetite for Reduction"'s black-eyed pea and tempeh beanballs recipe, which is a super-tasty meatless alternative.

My friend Alex (the king of pancakes) suggested adding a bit of smoky paprika to a simple tomato sauce, and I do love paprika in red meat dishes, so I modified my usual sauce recipe a bit... Here is the result!

1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 cup bread crumbs
2 eggs
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 to 1 tablespoon chili flakes
1/2 to 1 tablespoon paprika
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 package dry spaghetti

Put the ground meat in a large bowl along with the bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano, oregano, half the parsley and some salt and pepper.

Mix the ingredients together by hand until small meatballs that hold together can be formed. Aim for anywhere between 16 and 24 meatballs, depending on the size you make them (I try to make them ping-pong ball-sized). Keep in mind that the smaller the meatballs, the better they will hold while cooking, but don't make them too small either or they will overcook!

Heat up the olive oil in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Add the meatballs and slightly brown them on all sides (use tongs or a shallow cooking spoon - proceed in batches if you need to). This is the trickiest part of the recipe, and only practice (and a big enough pan) makes perfect.

The meatballs may get a bit deformed and a few pieces may fall off, but it's almost inevitable, so don't sweat it. Add the remaining parsley, the garlic and the onion, and cook until the onion starts to soften.

Pour in the crushed tomatoes, the chili flakes, the paprika and some salt and pepper. Let the sauce come to a light boil, turn down the heat and let it simmer for 30 minutes, stirring a couple of times.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the spaghetti according to the package instruction. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Drain the pasta and separate between pasta bowls. Add a few meatballs to each bowl (3 to 5, depending on their size and your appetite) and spoon some sauce over the pasta. Serve with some Parmigiano Reggiano for sprinkling.

If you have a checkered tablecloth and old chianti bottles, now is the time to bring them out, along with your Dean Martin records! The rustic look and deliciously retro taste of the sauce and meatballs is an absolute win if you are craving a slurpy pasta feast.

The hint of heat from the chili flakes and paprika is perfect for a cold winter night, but you can also use a sweeter tomato-basil sauce if spicy is not your thing:

4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 cup fresh basil, sliced
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a large saucepan, sauté the garlic and 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat until it starts to sizzle. Stir in the tomatoes, basil, oregano, red wine vinegar, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Pour over the browned meatballs and proceed with the recipe.

If you are in a hurry, every element of this recipe can be made in advance and assembled quickly: prepare your meatballs and your sauce separately, refrigerate or freeze everything and simply heat up and mix together when you are ready to eat! This is when it comes in handy to double the recipe and put the extra away to have an easily prepared meal later.

You can also use those meatballs in a wrap or sub, or serve them in their sauce with some crusty bread and sharp cheese. And here is a great meat-free alternative you can use if your New Year resolution is a change of diet:

12 ounces tempeh
1 (15 ounce) can black-eyed peas
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Several pinches of freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup whole wheat bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon salt

Prepare a steamer for the tempeh. Break the tempeh into bite-sized pieces and steam for 10 minutes. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a large cookie sheet with parchemin paper. In a mixing bowl, use a fork or potato-mashers to mash the beans. They should be well mashed, with no whole beans left, but not completely smooth, like a puree. Add the garlic, herbs and spices, soy sauce, tomato paste and balsamic vinegar and mix well. Add the tempeh to the mixture and mash well. When the mixture is cool enough to handle,  add the bread crumbs and salt (the batter may be a bit bitter: it will mellow out when baked). Using about 2 tablespoons of the mixture per ball, roll the mixture into walnut-sized balls, placing them on the baking pan. Spray with an ample amount of nonstick cooking spray and cover loosely with tin foil. Bake for 15 minutes, flip the balls and bake for 10 more minutes, uncovered.

Make you basic tomato sauce separately, and mix them together before serving on your spaghetti.

It is a cliche of a dish, but what a delicious cliche! Serve these with a rustic Italian red wine and make sure to eat it watching "Moonstruck".

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