It's funny what inspires me to make certain dishes. I really want to be the kind of cook who, while perusing the fresh produce at a farmers market, lets the ingredients spark the imagination. Believe me. But I just don't feel like I'm there yet. I don't quite feel confident enough in my skills to see, say, an eggplant and then roll through the options of what one can do with an eggplant and then go from there. I sort of need to see the finished dish and as such I tend to prefer cookbooks full of glorious color photos. It's why I watch so much Food Network. And more than several meal have been inspired by the food I see people eat in movies.
A couple years ago, after watching Something's Got to Give, which features a totally food porny scene, in which Jack Nicholson, Amanda Peet, and Francis McDormand all gather in Diane Keaton's gorgeous, sun-filled Hamptons dining to share a casual meal of linguine with clams. Well after that movie, I simply HAD to make linguine with clams. This weekend I was consumed with a similar urge. Mark and I met up with his cousin, her husband and their little 6 year old son to go see Disney's latest glossy, computer animated film Meet the Robinsons at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood. In 3-D. A key scene in the film features the kooky Robinson family sitting down to a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. The meal ends with a food fight, computer animated meatballs being hurled around the dining room, off the screen and right into audience's faces. Despite the fact that the spaghetti and meatballs were not real, something about how they were rendered was awfully appealing. After the movie, in the car on the way home Mark remarked "I'm sort of in the mood for spaghetti and meatballs." I turn to him, eyes wide and smiled "ME TOO!"
This recipe comes from Susan Spungen's minimally titled book Recipes. For those who are unfamiliar with her, Ms. Spungen has quite the pedigree. She was the founding food editor of a little magazine called Martha Stewart Living. Perhaps you've heard of it. Her book is really interesting, as it is organized by cooking technique, such as grilling, roasting, baking, etc. Although now I don't remember what chapter this recipe came from. One on sauteeing? I'm not sure. Either way, what I found enticing about her version of the classic meatball is that fact that it includes an entire cup of ricotta cheese, as well as a cup of Parmesan cheese and 4 to 5 slices of bread soaked in milk. How could these meatballs not be fantastic?
(For the meatballs)
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground veal
4 to 5 slices white bread, crusts cut off
1/2 cup milk
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup flour
(For the tomato sauce)
2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 medium carrot, grated (the carrot adds sweetness, balancing out the acidity in the tomatoes, and grating it allows it to cook down faster)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh marjoram, chopped
(For the spaghetti)
1 pound spaghetti
freshly grated Parmesan
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
First make the meatballs. Tear the bread slices into small pieces and place in a medium bowl. Pour the milk over the bread and press down so that all the bread gets moist. Squeeze out any excess milk. Place the pork and veal in a large bowl and add the bread, the Parmesan and ricotta cheese, beaten egg, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. With your hands, mix all the ingredients together until evenly distributed.
Next form the meatballs. It's a matter of personal taste how large or small you want them to be. I made about an inch and a half to two inches in diameter. Since I am kind of anal, to keep them all uniform sized, I used a 1 tablespoon size spring handled ice cream scoop and I used about 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture per meatball.
I was able to get about 43 meatballs. But again, the amount depends on how large you want to make them. Anyway cover the meatballs with cling film and chill in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes. During this time it would be a good idea to make your tomato sauce. I happened to have some left over from a really good recipe I'd made a couple nights earlier and will post about at some point in the future, but either way, I'll walk you through the steps.
Pour the whole tomatoes and their juice or sauce or whatever you want to call it into a large bowl. With your hands, break the tomatoes up into small pieces. Be careful. It might splatter. Don't do this while wearing white. Meanwhile in a medium pot, heat about a 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium heat. When the oil glistens, add the onion and the thyme. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onions have become soft and translucent. Add the garlic, grated carrot, some salt and pepper and cook for an addition minute or two. Then add the tomatoes, stirring to combine everything. Turn the heat down a little and let simmer for maybe 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings. It will likely need more salt. Add the chopped marjoram and you are done.
Back to the meatballs. Remove the meatballs from the fridge. In a large saute pan (I find nonstick works really well for this) swirl in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Heat over medium heat until the oil is very hot.
Dredge the meatballs in a shallow bowl filled with flour and then shake off any excess. The flour will give the meatballs a nice crust on the outside and helps in preventing them from sticking to the pan. Add as many meatballs as you can without overcrowding the pan. You don't want the meatballs touching each other. Cook the meatballs for a couple minutes until they've gotten golden brown. Then using a pair of tongs, turn the meatballs and continue to cook until all the sides have gotten some nice color. Occasionally I give the pan a few shakes back and forth to keep the balls rolling around and to help them keep more of a round shape.
Remove the meatballs to a plate lined with paper towels to drain off any excess oil while you continue cooked the rest of the meatballs. (I cooked about half the meatballs I made. Any leftover can be frozen) When all the meatballs are cooked, pour out any left over oil and wipe out the pan. Pour in the tomato sauce. Add the meatballs to the sauce and let simmer, covered for about 10 minutes. This way any juices from the meat can seep out and further flavor the sauce while the meatballs can soak in the sauce.
Meanwhile, cook 1 pound of spaghetti in a big pot of salty, salty water. When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it in a colander and then toss it in with the meatballs and sauce. Serve the spaghetti and meatballs in wide shallow bowls, showered with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, a sprinkling of parsley, and a thick slice of warm garlic bread. I however, served it with toasted rosemary ciabatta bread that I slathered with some amazing black truffle butter that I got from the most beautiful Italian market called Carluccio's in London. It really makes an otherwise homey dish into something really sophisticated.
I've sort of forgotten how something as simple as spaghetti and meatballs can be so freaking good. Like eyes rolling back in your head good. And what I especially love about this version is that it's at once familiar and just a little bit unexpected. Let's start with the tomato sauce. It's a very basic sauce. I did not add red pepper flakes but you could and I might the next time. Oregano is very typically used in a sauce like this but I thought it would be nice to use oregano's neglected little sister marjoram. It's similar but different. A little bit sweeter than oregano but with the same sort of woodsiness. And now, the meat balls. Ah, the glorious meatballs. So light and tender, with great flavor from the fresh herbs and a really nice moistness thanks to the milk soaked bread. The duo of cheeses are a really nice touch. The Parmesan adds a salty kick while the ricotta lends a mild, milky flavor and also serves to lighten up the meat, both in texture and taste. These would be great nestled in a toasted roll and draped with melting mozzarella cheese. How good would that be? It's a good thing I have so many meatballs left over. I may have to make that happen.
If you have issues with veal, I suppose you could switch it out with more pork, chicken, turkey, or just regular ground beef. But I highly recommend the pork veal power duo. Not one to advocate any sort of cruelty to animals, rest assured that the veal I used was raised in a posh spa surrounded by meadows in which they could frolic.
The sauce and meatballs can serve 6 to 8, but you'll need to make more than 1 pound of pasta.