Although a giant Thanksgiving lunch destroyed any need to taste sage in the coming months, it apparently did not kill my taste for big heavy meals. Because the next day I decided to make spaghetti and meatballs.
I used to be devoted to this recipe, which appealed to me because it was turkey based. In my head, turkey implied health–and that meant these were everyday meatballs. I could eat them every day! And they had enough flavor to make up for the fact that the turkey I used–whatever almost-fat-free variety I could find–basically sucked. I cook meat less often now, so when I do I want it to be a treat. And, as it turns out, rather plain–plain enough that I can actually taste the meat I’ve purchased.
So byebyes to Martha. I enjoyed her recipe, but I’ve moved on. The formula below is monk-like in its seasonings–salt, pepper, cheese. A handful of parsley if you have it, but I didn’t (and didn’t regret it either). A dash of cinnamon–weird, I know. I stole the idea from a Marcella Hazan recipe. My father I’m sure is looking for a chapter in Leviticus that says, Please don’t put sweet spices in my meat. But it doesn’t make the meatballs taste like cinnamon. As Julia Child says about the nutmeg in your bechamel, or whatever, you shouldn’t taste it and think, Mmmm, nutmeg. The cinnamon adds a warm depth that you can’t identify as cinnamon. It just tastes round.
The thing that distinguishes this meatball recipe from all others is the ratio of meat to bread and liquid. Because you use a lot more liquid than most recipes call for, this meat mash is very loose, bordering on annoying. Add the liquid gradually–you can’t take it out. The mixture should be very moist but able to hold its shape a little. Your meatballs will fall a few degrees short of being cylindrical, but it’s a small price to pay for the tenderest meatballs you’ve ever eaten. So don’t lose hope (or if you’re inclined to lose hope, add less liquid). Because of their constitution these meatballs, like most, have a tendency to stick to the pan a little. Don’t lose hope on that front either–just be wise with your choice of implements (I found a big tablespoon worked well for turning them) and have a sharp spatula on hard for particularly recalcitrant meats.
In keeping with my plain-is-better motto, the sauce is super basic. But it benefits from gently oil-poached garlic cloves (which I buzzed in with my immersion blender) and from the bits of meatball that have stuck to the pan. I asked Glenn to buy vaguely expensive spaghetti on his Whole Foods run, and he obliged–I recommend this. Back in my Martha turkey days, I just used Barilla Plus, my go-to pasta. But if you’re going to the trouble of mixing meats, fretting over their moisture content, and gently flipping them with the kindest of spoons, I think you want some nice all-white flour pasta. This is not the time to up your protein and fiber intake for the day. The spaghetti Glenn found was particularly smooth and toothsome, and I was very glad he bought it.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
adapted from Rao’s Cookbook
serves 6 (makes 18 medium-sized meatballs)
1/2 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. ground pork
1 C fresh coarse breadcrumbs
1/2 C water
1/2 C milk
1/2 C fresh parmesan (plus extra for serving)
1/2 clove garlic, grated or finely chopped
1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1/8 t cinnamon
1/4 C olive oil
2 28 oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano, preferably)
3 whole cloves garlic
1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 lb. spaghetti
In a toaster oven (or the big one) at 250, dry out the breadcrumbs on a sheet pan for 10 minutes, or until they’re toasty. With a big serving fork, break up and gently mix the ground meats in a big bowl. While you’re making the meatballs, heat up the olive oil in a big dutch oven over medium heat and toss in the whole garlic cloves. Turn them over from time to time–you’re just trying to infuse the oil with a little flavor and poach the cloves.
In a smaller bowl, warm the water and milk in the microwave. Add the breadcrumbs and let the mixture sit for 10 minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, garlic, cheese, salt and pepper, and cinnamon. Pour this mixture into the meat bowl, followed by the soaked bread, which you dig out of its mire with a spoon, reserving the soaking liquid for later. Mix the meatballs with your hands very gently. Don’t worry about making the mixture homogeneous–since you’ve already mixed the seasonings into the egg mixture, they will disperse evenly and you can afford to be less zealous at this stage. The meat should be almost too loose to make a meatball. If it’s not, use some of your reserved liquid. When I made the recipe, I used all the liquid and it worked out perfectly.
Fish the garlic cloves out of the oil (I also add the half clove left over from the meatballs, as soon as I’m done with it). They should be browned but not burnt. Save them for later. Start making meatballs and placing them into the oil–I like medium sized ones, about 2 inches in diameter. After five minutes or so, see if you can pry one off the pan for flipping. If not, give them a few more minutes. Flip them all and brown five minutes on the other size. (A big tablespoon works well for flipping in cramped quarters.) Remove the meatballs and let them rest on a plate.
Scrape up whatever brown bits have stuck to the bottom of the pan, and add the tomatoes, reserved garlic cloves, salt and pepper. Raise the heat to high and let the sauce come to a boil, then puree it with an immersion blender (if you don’t have one, puree the tomatoes in a blender before you add them to the pan, or just break them up with your hands if you like a more textured sauce). Add the meatballs back into the sauce and reduce the heat to medium. Simmer the sauce for at least 20 minutes, then check for seasoning.
Meanwhile, boil up a lot of water for the pasta and add a handful of salt. Cook the spaghetti according to the package, then drain it and add it back to the pan. Add two cups of the tomato sauce to the spaghetti and toss. Serve it up, adding more sauce and a few meatballs to each serving. Sprinkle with more parmesan.