Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs -- Easy and Eminently Italian American

When my grand kids come to visit, there is one favorite food. But their parents, and Christina and I, enjoy it too. The kids' choice, spaghetti and meatballs, is one of the common, and beloved, "Italian" dishes from my childhood. It is also surprisingly easy to make.

But it's not really Italian. It's actually more Italian American, something poor immigrants from southern Italy made with the ingredients available in New York and Philadelphia and New Jersey and New England.

Certainly meatballs, "polpette," are eaten in Italy, at least in southern Italy. But they're not nearly as common as their American reputation would suggest, and are not cooked in tomato sauce and do not accompany pasta.

Nonetheless, spaghetti sauce with meatballs is satisfying, plus it's economical and easy to make. Perhaps that's why it became an Italian American specialty.

While the sauce is simple, which tomatoes are used makes a big difference. I like canned "crushed" tomatoes -- canned without seasonings other than salt. Petite diced also work, but the kids don't like "lumps" in their sauce.

I find that of the American tomatoes, "Hunts" and Kroger's own brand are the best, the latter being the cheapest. Good Italian canned tomatoes are pricey. I've tried the economy brand at Kroger, but they are very watery.

Canned tomatoes need some sugar, since they are a little tart. American tomatoes do not seem as sweet as those from the Mediterranean.

There are two optional seasonings for the sauce. One is a small amount of whole fennel seeds, which I learned to enjoy from my Sicilian friends where I grew up, and which hints at the seasoning Italian sausage would give to the sauce if I used it. The other is a few leaves of fresh basil (never dried basil) stirred in at the end of cooking the sauce. That's an option in the summer when basil is common.

I never use black pepper in the sauce, since it was absolutely proscribed by my mother. On the other hand, there is black pepper in the meatballs.

Any of several meats can make good meatballs. I typically use ground turkey (as a substitute for veal) mixed with either pork or beef. My mother typically used ground beef or a mixture of ground pork and beef.

Here's my simple recipe. This makes enough for several meals, but the leftovers are popular, either for more pasta or for meatball sandwiches. The grand kids will love it. But so will high school and college students.

Which pasta to use is personal preference. Vermicelli or thin spaghetti (spaghettini) would have been the choice during my childhood -- and is the choice of my grand kids. But a short pasta, like penne or rigatoni, works well too.

Spoon on plenty of grated Romano or Parmesan cheese when serving.

This dish calls for a hearty red wine, if served to adults. A California red Zinfandel or not too pricey Cabernet Sauvignon, or an Italian Montepulciano d'Abruzzo go well.

Meatball Sauce for Pasta

Make the meatball mixture first:
2 eggs
2/3 cup quick oatmeal
1/2 cup dry unseasoned breadcrumbs
1 large clove garlic, finely minced or put through press
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 1/2 pounds ground turkey, pork or beef

In large bowl, beat eggs with all ingredients except meat. Then mix in meat and knead well with your hands. Hold until sauce is ready.

Prepare the sauce:
4 large cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds (optional)
2 large (28-ounce) cans crushed unseasoned tomatoes, Hunts or Kroger brand preferred
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Large pinch thyme or oregano
Large pinch crushed red pepper
6 fresh basil leaves (optional)

In large wide pot (not cast iron), gently fry garlic, and fennel if used, in oil until softened but not golden.

Stir in tomatoes and all other ingredients other than basil. Bring to a simmer and simmer 5 minutes.

With hands, roll meat mixture into similarly sized balls of your preferred size, anywhere from 1 to 2 inches in diameter. (The Sicilians I grew up with liked the smaller size). As you form them, drop them into the simmering sauce.

When all the meatballs are made, gently shake and swirl the pot to partially cover the meatballs. Some will be only partially submerged.

Cover pot. Simmer 15 minutes, shaking and swirling pot occasionally. Meatballs should firm up by then. Gently stir meatballs and sauce, scraping bottom of pot.

Simmer 15 additional minutes -- 20 minutes if using beef -- stirring occasionally.

Taste sauce and add salt if needed. Stir in basil leaves if used.

Remove from heat. Reheat to serve over freshly boiled pasta. Sprinkle with grated Romano or Parmesan cheese.


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