Recently, we had a birthday in our family. The Boy turned TWELVE (cue dramatic singing of “Sunrise, Sunset” here). We have a family tradition in which the birthday boy or girl is awakened with birthday cake and presents. It really sets a festive mood for the day. Seriously, what better way to wake up than with candles, cake and your family singing to you (and bringing presents!)? Neither my sister nor I knew that this was not the norm until we were adults. College birthdays were a bit of a rude awakening for both of us. It’s taken YEARS to train Chef J to do this for me! So we woke The Boy with his birthday doughnuts (did I mention he hates cake?) and set out to start the best day ever.
He got lots of presents from family near and far, gorged himself on jelly doughnuts and then plopped down in front of the tele to watch cartoons (ah, Saturday birthdays) for a few hours. I interrupted the vegetazation of my child to ask what he wanted for his birthday dinner. We weren’t doing the “real” celebration until the following day because Chef J had to work so I planned on either taking him out or cooking in for him. It was a dreary, rainy day and he suggested breakfast for dinner – sausage, eggs and toast. But I wanted to really FEED him. Eventually, he landed on spaghetti and meatballs. Still not super fancy but the heart wants what it wants, right?
I actually make meatballs several times a year (and I do occasionally buy them from the butcher department). I never really use a set recipe though and I wanted this to be special for him. A quick perusal of recipes revealed to me that my non-recipe recipe was actually pretty standard. But I decided to measure and write it down once and for all. One thing I did do a little differently this time was chill the meat mixture for a little while to allow the flavors to meld. It really makes a difference. With that said, I don’t think this is so much a weeknight recipe (unless you start the sauce and meatballs the day before) but more of a Saturday or Sunday night meal.
Both The Boy and Chef J prefer the meatballs browned before cooking in the sauce so you could absolutely bake or fry them before transferring to the sauce to simmer, but I like the ease of this method. hope you enjoy this recipe as much as the boy and I did! It was a great way to celebrate a quiet birthday at home.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
- 1 1/2 lb ground beef (or beef and pork mixture, often called meatloaf mix at the supermarket)
- 2 slices white bread ripped into small pieces
- 1/2 C whole milk *
- 1/4 C chopped fresh parsley
- 1/2 C fresh grated or ground parmesan *
- 1 1/2 t coarse kosher salt
- 1/2 t black pepper
- Scant 1/4 t crushed red pepper
- 1/4 t nutmeg
- 1 large egg beaten
- 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1/4 C olive oil
- 1/2 large onion, chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 T tomato paste
- 1/2 C red wine
- 2 28 oz cans good quality tomatoes (San Marzano if you can get them), rough chopped
- 1/4 t crushed red pepper
- 1/2 – 1 t coarse kosher salt
- 1/2 t pepper
- 1/4 C fresh chopped parsley
- 1/4 C chopped fresh basil
- 1 lb spaghetti (or bucatini as I used here)
- Fresh grated Parmesan *
In a small bowl, soak bread in milk. Let stand about 10 minutes.
In another small bowl, combine egg and garlic. Let stand about 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, place meat, parsley, nutmeg, salt, peppers, Parmesan and egg mixture. Gently squeeze milk from bread, reserving remaining milk. Add bread to meat. Combine gently with a fork or with your fingers. Don’t work it too much. You want it evenly combined but not overworked. I’m usually a big proponent of using your hands, but in this case a fork is probably better. Cover and refrigerate for about an hour.
While meatballs are chilling, heat oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and saute until softened and beginning to brown, about five minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook about one minute. Stir in tomato paste and cook another minute. Deglaze pan with wine, scraping up any brown bits on bottom. Simmer for three to five minutes to reduce slightly. Add chopped tomatoes, parsley and red pepper. Simmer for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally. I typically blend mine with an immersion blender at this point. You still want your sauce a little chunky and not completely smooth. Taste and then add salt and pepper, as needed. Sometimes, I’ll also throw a big knob of butter in there but it’s not necessary at all. Continue to simmer while you put the meatballs together.
Moisten your hands with a little of the reserved milk. GENTLY roll meat mixture in to golf ball sized balls arranging them evenly in the simmering sauce. Continue to moisten hands with milk as needed. Simmer 15 -20 minutes, gently turning meatballs occasionally. (This is where you will stop if you want to make it ahead. You would simply cool in the refrigerator, uncovered, then cover and keep for one or two days. You can pull it out and reheat it while you start the water for boiling another night.)
Heat large pot of water to boil. Salt generously. Cook pasta according to package directions, stopping maybe a minute before desired tenderness. Drain well.
Using a spider strainer or slotted spoon, remove meatballs to a serving bowl. Add cooked pasta to sauce and combine well. I usually let it go in the sauce for a minute or so (so the pasta soaks up some of the yummy sauce). Mix in chopped basil.
Divide pasta among six bowls. Top with meatballs. Sprinkle with Parmesan and garnish with basil.
* To adapt this to be kosher, replace the milk with beef or chicken stock and leave out the cheese. I like the nutty, slightly pungent note that the Parmesan adds, but it’s not totally necessary.