Looking for the Perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs?

Updated on July 7, 2017
Carb Diva profile image

Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes... one ingredient at a time.

What is "The Best Part"?

Is there anything more indulgent than a thick, rich, tomato-y spaghetti sauce studded with slivers of sweet garlic and flecks of fragrant basil?

Or perhaps you favor the meatballs—plump juicy orbs of salty-spicy meat—dense enough to hold their shape but tender enough to cut with the side of a fork (no knife required!).

And some people are rapturous when given a perfectly cooked plate of pasta; transcendent pasta is not mushy or sticky. Our best plate of spaghetti boasts individual toothsome strands enrobed with rich sauce; it is sturdy enough to support hearty meatballs but delicate enough to not overshadow a light shower of shredded Parmesan.

Are you getting hungry yet? Let me show you how to create the perfect plate of spaghetti and meatballs.

This recipe was given to me decades ago by a dear co-worker/friend--a sweet first generation Italian-American woman named Teresa who introduced me to authentic Italian gravy with homemade meatballs.

Teresa's recipe is easy for even a beginning cook, but does require a long simmer-time--it is the perfect choice for a leisurely weekend meal.

The Sauce (also known as Italian Gravy)

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely minced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 6-oz. cans tomato paste
  • 36 oz. (4 ½ cups) chicken broth
  • ½ cup sliced black olives
  • 1 tablespoon fresh minced basil
  • 2 whole bay leaves
  • ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Heat a heavy 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute more.
  2. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes.
  3. Add the chicken broth to the tomato paste and stir until well blended.
  4. Add the remaining ingredients.
  5. Carefully add the meatballs (see recipe below), but not the pan drippings. Treat them gently because they are very fragile. Make sure that all of the meatballs are totally submerged in the “gravy”.
  6. Cover and cook over low heat for 2 hours.
  7. Remove the bay leaves before serving.

Next, the Meatballs

Oven-baked meatballs
Oven-baked meatballs

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 lbs. lean ground beef
  • 1 lb. lean ground pork
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 whole eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. black pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Combine bread crumbs and milk in small mixing bowl to make a panade. Let sit 5 minutes.
  3. In a large mixing bowl combine the ground beef and the ground pork. Stir in the moistened bread crumbs and the remaining meatball ingredients. Combine.
  4. Form the meatballs and place on a lightly-greased baking sheet (you want them to be a little larger than a golf ball).
  5. Bake about 20 minutes or until the meat begins to brown and firm up.

What is a Panade?

A panade (pan-AHD) is a mixture of bread and liquid (usually milk, broth, or water) which is gently stirred into ground meat. The addition of a panade will make the ground meat less dense, thus creating a more tender, light meatball, burger, or meatloaf.

And Finally, Cooking the Pasta!

If you are a baby-boomer (one born after the Second World War) you probably ate Franco American spaghetti.

I could call this 'concoction in a can' many things, but spaghetti is not one of them.

Canned spaghetti always features sickeningly sweet tomato-ketchup flavored sauce and pasta that was rendered far beyond anyone's hope for al dente an hour ago. 'Al mush' is a more accurate description.

If this is your concept of good spaghetti, you probably will not appreciate what I have to say about properly cooking pasta. However, if you don't like the gloppy noodle-in-a-can, keep reading.

Oh No, Not This!

This is the Right Way to Do It

It isn't rocket science, but there are a few things you need to know:

The Pot

  • Use a large pot and lots of water.
  • A pound of pasta requires a pot that holds at least 5 to 6 quarts.

The Water

  • Start with cold water and bring to a rapid boil over high heat by COVERING THE POT WITH THE LID.

Salting the Water

  • Add about 2 tablespoons of kosher salt per pound of pasta
  • Do not add the salt until the water has come to a boil (salted water takes longer to come to a full rolling boil)

Cooking Oil?

  • NEVER EVER EVER add oil to the water. "Why?" you ask. It's really quite simple. Oil and water don't mix (you knew that), so the oil offers no help in keeping the pasta separate. (The only thing that does that is stirring.) However, the oil sitting on top of the water does find its way onto those yummy strands of pasta when you are draining it. Pasta sauce does not want to cling to oily pasta--it just slides right off.

And Finally, Cooking the Pasta

  • Spaghetti should be cooked just before serving--make the sauce wait for the pasta; never make the pasta wait for completion of the sauce
  • Add the pasta all at once and keep the heat high so that the water will return to a boil as quickly as possible
  • Stir frequently to prevent sticking
  • Do NOT cover the pot
  • Start timing your pasta once the water has returned to a boil. Spaghetti usually cooks in 8 to 12 minutes

Testing and Draining

  • Begin testing your pasta after it has boiled for 5 minutes. How do you test it? Remove a small piece and taste it--it should be tender but still firm. The Italian phrase for this is al dente (ahl-DEN-tay) which means "to the tooth". Your pasta should have a slight resistance (feel chewy) when you bite into it. I call this "Goldilocks" pasta--not too soft, not too hard (in the center), but just right.
  • Before draining your spaghetti, remove and set aside about 1/2 cup of the pasta water. You will use this when assembling your finished dish.
  • Drain your pasta immediately when it reaches the perfect 'al dente', but do NOT rinse it. (Exception--if you are cooking flat sheets to use in lasagne or preparing pasta for a cold pasta salad, then rinse to remove the starch on the outer surface)

One Final Step

NO, NO, NO!!
NO, NO, NO!!
Yes please!
Yes please!

Do you place a mound of naked spaghetti on your plate and then cover with a ladel-full of sauce? If so, you are missing out on what really great pasta can taste like. Here's how to do it just like an Italian grandma:

  • Immediately after draining your perfectly 'cooked-to-al dente' pasta, return it to the cooking pot. Add about 1 cup of your homemade sauce (which, if you have been following along, was finished before you began cooking the pasta. It has been patiently been waiting on simmer on your stove top).
  • Toss gently.
  • Remember that 1/2 cup of pasta water that you rescued before draining the pot? Grab it now. Pour in about 1/4 cup and toss your pasta again.
  • Place the lightly sauced spaghetti in a large serving bowl, or dish up individual portions. Spoon some of that good homemade sauce and meatballs on top. Add a grating of Parmesan cheese and, if you are feeling particularly decadent, a sprinkling of fresh basil leaves and/or a drizzle of good-quality extra virgin olive oil.

Buon appetito!

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Lum

    Comments

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      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        bravewarrior - You are the 2nd person to ask me about why you should not put oil in the water in which you cook the pasta. I'll explain it here, and I guess I should consider providing an explanation in the hub as well -- oil and water don't mix (you knew that), so the oil offers no help in keeping the pasta separate. The only thing that does that is stirring. However, the oil sitting on top of the water DOES find its way onto those yummy strands of pasta when you are draining it. Pasta sauce does not want to cling to oily pasta--it just slides right off.

      • bravewarrior profile image

        Shauna L Bowling 2 years ago from Central Florida

        Hmmm. I didn't know to wait until the pot comes to a boil to add the salt. Makes sense, tho.

        Why do you say never add oil to the water? My son likes to add olive or grape seed oil to the pot when he makes pasta so the noodles don't stick.

        I'm also guilty of adding the sauce to a naked plate of pasta. The reason I did that is because I like very little sauce on my skets, while others may want it soupier. However, the way you present dressing your pasta in this post suits everyone (and doesn't look amateurish). I get my barely covered pasta and everyone else can add more if they prefer.

        I always learn something from you, Diva. I've been cooking for decades and thought I had it going on. Just shows to go ya that even the best cooks can learn a thing or two if they pay attention.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Lawrence, just a week or so ago I wrote about rice, so with this hub you have everything you need. Thanks for stopping by.

      • lawrence01 profile image

        Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

        Meatballs with rice is how we have them, they're great 'comfort food'

        Lawrence

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Lawrence, you can do the sauce with a gluten-free pasta. I have friends who cannot tolerate gluten, and they find that the corn-based pastas have the same "substance" as wheat pastas. I hope your family can find something that works for you. (And, you can always prepare meatballs with sauce and serve over cooked rice if need be).

      • lawrence01 profile image

        Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

        Linda

        This used to be a favorite in our household. Sadly we're on 'gluten free' now (by necessity) so the pasta is mostly out but the meatballs, that's another story!

        Great hub, making me hungry!

        Lawrence

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Kaili - Thank you so much. I'll be cooking it tomorrow. Please let me know when you try it. I'd like to hear your thoughts after cooking/eating it.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Peachpurple - Tomorrow is my husband's birthday. When I asked him what he wanted for dinner (he doesn't like to eat out--wonder why?) he said "your spaghetti and meatballs".

      • Kaili Bisson profile image

        Kaili Bisson 2 years ago from Canada

        Ha! Too funny...billybuc, I am eating mac and cheese for lunch while reading this :-) Though I did add curry...

        Carb Diva, love this hub. I especially like the Italian gravy recipe and am marking this page so I can find it again.

      • peachpurple profile image

        peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

        simply delicious, I am getting hungry now

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill, that's one of the nicest things you could have said. The whole idea is to make you hungry and WANT to cook that meal right now! My job here as a write is done.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

        Well shoot....anyway, I said the worst thing about your articles is that I'm instantly starving after reading them. I was eating macaroni and cheese when I read this and suddenly I couldn't even look at my plate without being disgusted.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill, some of my best comments die in the ethernet, I swear. I would love to see your comment again, if you can somehow resurrect it.

      • Carb Diva profile image
        Author

        Linda Lum 2 years ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric - Oil and water don't mix (you knew that), so the oil offers no help in keeping the pasta separate. The only thing that does that is stirring. However, the oil sitting on top of the water does find its way onto those yummy strands of pasta when you are draining it. Pasta sauce does not want to cling to oily pasta--it just slides right off.

        And, you're welcome!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

        I left this really cool comment and I don't see it....patience, Bill, patience!

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 2 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Hmm, why no oil to the water?

        Great stuff for adjustments to my practice. I think I will do better thanks to you. Thank you.

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