Looking for the Perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs?
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's the perfect choice for a leisurely weekend meal.
The Sauce (also known as Italian Gravy)
- 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
- 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.
- Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes.
- Add the chicken broth to the tomato paste and stir until well blended.
- Add the remaining ingredients.
- 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.”
- Cover and cook over low heat for 2 hours.
- Remove the bay leaves before serving.
Next, the Meatballs
- 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
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Combine bread crumbs and milk in a small mixing bowl to make a panade. Let it sit for 5 minutes.
- 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.
- Form the meatballs and place on a lightly-greased baking sheet (you want them to be a little larger than a golf ball).
- 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.
This Is the Right Way to Do It
It isn't rocket science, but there are a few things you need to know:
- Use a large pot and lots of water.
- A pound of pasta requires a pot that holds at least 5 to 6 quarts.
- 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)
- 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 the 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
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 stovetop).
- 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.
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© 2016 Linda Lum