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.
Equipment You Will Need
- Food processor
- large mixing bowl
- rubber scraper
- small bowl and spoon for mixing water and baking soda
- measuring cups and spoons
- liquid measuring cup
- cutting board and knife for cubing bread
- large rimmed baking sheet
- aluminum foil
- baking racks for elevating meatballs
- large pot for simmering sauce
- large stock pot for cooking pasta
So, Let's Begin at the Beginning--The SAUCE
I am going to give you two recipes today--one was presented on America's Test Kitchen. It is a easy recipe that can be completed in less than one hour.
The second 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 equally easy, but requires a longer simmer-time--it is the perfect choice for a leisurely weekend meal.
Tomato-Based Spaghetti Sauce (America's Test kitchen)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- One 15-ounce can tomato sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Place minced garlic and olive oil in a large pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until garlic is fragrant--about 30 seconds.
- Add crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and salt. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered 10 minutes.
- Add pre-baked meatballs (see recipe below) to sauce. Simmer, uncovered 5 to 10 minutes more to allow flavors to blend.
Italian Gravy (Teresa's Spaghetti Sauce)
- 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.
Meatballs (america's test kitchen version)
- 12 ounces Italian sauce (hot or sweet--your choice)
- 12 ounces ground pork
- 4 teaspoons water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 slices white bread, crusts removed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
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.
- Prepare baking sheet by lining with foil. Place wire racks on top of foil.
- Preheat oven to 500 degrees F.
- Place the ground pork in a large mixing bowl, and the 4 teaspoons of water, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in a small bowl; stir to combine. Using your hands massage the water/baking soda mixture into the ground pork. Let sit for 10 minutes.
- Place remaining ingredients (bread cubes through red pepper flakes) in bowl of food processor to make a panade. Pulse to combine. Add ground pork which has been resting for 10 minutes. Pulse to combine. Remove half of this mixture to a large mixing bowl.
- Add Italian sausage to the food processor. Pulse to combine.
- Shape panade/pork/sausage mixture into 24 meatballs. Place on the wire racks.
- Bake in preheated oven 15 minutes.
Meatballs (Teresa's Version)
- 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 small mixing bowl. Let sit 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.
And Finally, the PASTA!!
Oh No, Not This!
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.
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 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
Serving the Spaghetti
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.
© 2016 Linda Lum