Jenny and I took our moms to Italy several years ago. My favorite part of the trip was the glorious countryside of Tuscany, where we stayed just outside magnificent Montepulciano, a short hop from Florence down the A1. In the background you might just be able to make out the rustic bed and breakfast where we stayed.
While I can’t make it to Tuscany on a moments notice, I can, thankfully, recreate at least one thing – the cuisine. It’s one of my favorite ways to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon. Open a bottle (or two) of wine and congregate in the kitchen while I make one of my favorite dishes – spaghetti and meatballs. The tastes and aromas bring back memories of our trip. This recipe, borrowed from America’s Test Kitchen, with just a few of my own modifications, is fast, easy, and best of all, delicious.
We start with the wine. Our favorite is one of the remarkable reds from Chateauneuf du Pape (southern France). Sadly, despite our best efforts to be disciplined, we finished the last of those months ago. If you do get the chance to stock up while there, you can take back 6 per person, and save yourself $70 a bottle. For today, any red in the $15 – $25 range should do. Today’s is a Malbec, conveniently left from a previous dinner.
What separates this recipe from others I’ve tried is the meatballs. The biggest questions with meatballs are: How do keep them in one piece while remaining tender, what are they made of, and how do you cook them? Meatballs are tricky little devils. Make them too soft and they fall apart in the sauce (many of my Ragus started as meatballs). Give them structure (usually with bread crumbs) and they lose some moisture and tenderness. The solution is replacing bread crumbs with high-quality white bread, which helps add stability while maintaining the right texture. Another dilemma is what meat to use. I’ve tried ground pork, turkey, and beef, but the flavor was always bland. Then Jenny suggested hot Italian sausage (pork or turkey), mixed evenly with ground beef. The result is incredible flavor. Lastly, the cooking method. Frying on the stove is very messy and the results are inconsistent. This recipe eliminates those issues by first baking the meatballs before they’re put in the sauce.
There are 3 components to the recipe: The onion mixture, the marinara, and the meatballs. For folks in a hurry, a store-bought sauce is acceptable, with just a couple of embellishments, which I’ll cover below.
We’ll start with the onion mixture. This will be used in both the sauce and the meatballs. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven (I prefer Le Creuset for the even heat conduction), medium high until the oil shimmers. Add the minced onion, stirring occasionally until golden, 10-15 minutes. Stir in the garlic, oregano, and pepper flakes until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer half the mixture to a large bowl and set aside. Use a food processor to save time and tears.
Next is the marinara. Add the tomato paste to the remaining onion mixture in the pot and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine and cook until thickened slightly, about 2 minutes. Stir in the water and tomatoes and simmer over low heat until the sauce isn’t watery, about 45 minutes. Stir in the cheese and basil and season with salt and sugar to taste. The recipe calls for Parmesan in the sauce, I’ve found it unnecessary.
For the meatballs, heat the oven to 475 degrees. Cut the mozzarella into quarter-inch cubes, about 50 will do. Mash the bread and milk in the bowl with the reserved onion mixture. Add the sausage, beef, Parmesan, eggs, garlic, and salt and mash to combine. As you begin to form the meatballs, insert 3-4 of the mozzarella cubes into the center and close the meatball around it (you should have about 16 meatballs). Place the meatballs on an oiled and rimmed baking sheet, and bake until well browned, about 18 minutes. Transfer the meatballs to the pot with sauce and simmer for 15 minutes.
Overall this takes an hour or so, from start to digging in. The food processor can save you 5-10 minutes, depending on how quickly you can chop. Replacing the marinara with a store-bought version saves another 5-10 minutes. This last time, I substituted 3 jars of my favorite sauce and just included the basil, and onion mixture. The sauce is enhanced by adding the wine, but personally I prefer to drink it. As for the cheese you insert in the meatballs, get creative, almost any soft cheese will do. I’m going to try Brie next time.
- 1/4 cup olive oil.
- 3 onions, minced.
- 8 garlic cloves, minced.
- 1 tbs dried oregano.
- 3/4 tsp red pepper flakes.
- 1 (6-oz) can tomato paste.
- 1 cup dry red wine.
- 1 cup water.
- 4 (28-oz) cans crushed tomatoes.
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated.
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil.
- salt and sugar to taste.
- 4 slices white bread, torn into pieces.
- 3/4 cup milk.
- 1 1/2 lbs hot Italian sausage.
- 1 1/2 lbs lean ground chuck (85%)
- 1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated.
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten.
- 2 garlic cloves, minced.
- 1 1/2 tsp salt.