Sunday, August 30, 2009

Spaghetti & Meatballs

Last week, Troy requested I make spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. Well, with the frenzy of baby shower preparations, it sort of fell by the wayside. I decided to make it for Sunday dinner instead.

Confession: I don't make spaghetti sauce very often because I'm lazy and it's just so easy to open a jar (the Barilla brand sauces are particular faves in our house). But my sister-in-law recently told me about a super easy recipe that mostly involves dumping everything in the pot and letting it cook. I wasn't sure if her exact recipe would work with meatballs too, but I figured using that methodology, I could throw something together on my own. So here's my recipe for spaghetti & meatballs. Note that there was lots of improvisation with the ingredients, based on what I happened to have on hand.

1 c. bread crumbs
1/2 c. milk
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
1/4 hot Italian sausage
3 eggs
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp. dried parsley
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
olive oil

1 large onion, chopped (1 1/2-2 c.)
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 large cans crushed tomatoes
dried oregano
dried parsley
dried basil
1 bay leaf
salt & pepper to taste

1. Soak the bread crumbs in the milk until all the liquid has been absorbed and bread crumbs have softened.

2. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly - it's easier if you use your hands.

3. Form the meat mixture into balls. The size is up to you. I prefer larger meatballs because I think they tend to be more moist & tender, but if you're in a hurry or prefer small ones, that's fine too.

4. Heat a large, heavy pot over high heat until almost smoking, then add the olive oil. Brown the meatballs on all sides, working in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Remove the meatballs and set aside. (I use my Le Creuset dutch oven. A thick-bottomed stainless steel stockpot would work too. I don't recommend nonstick because you won't get a nice sear on the meatballs.)

5. In the same pan, you should have at least a couple tablespoons of oil from browning the meat. If not, add some more olive oil and add the onions. Saute until they become translucent. Add the garlic and herbs. The combination and amount of herbs you add is up to your personal preference. I added about 1 tsp each of oregano & parsley, and about 1 tbsp of the basil.

6. Add the 2 cans of tomatoes and the bay leaf. Make sure you scrape up all the good bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Bring up to a boil and then add the meatballs back in, including any juices that may have come out of them.

7. Reduce heat to low, cover and let simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. You may need to simmer longer if your meatballs are very large.

8. Season with salt & pepper to taste and serve over spaghetti.

My notes:
As mentioned before, I normally prefer to use fresh herbs, but to be honest, I don't often have them on hand unless I make a special trip to buy them for a particular recipe. I tried to grow my own, but I guess I have a black thumb because I cannot seem to keep them alive.

In my opinion though, dried herbs are perfectly acceptable in a dish that's going to be simmered for a long time, as long as they haven't been hanging around in your cupboard for the last year or two. I buy mine in small quantities from the bulk section at either Central Market or Whole Foods. That way they stay fresher, and you'd be shocked at how much cheaper it is too! I've refilled what was originally a $5 dollar container of brand-name thyme with 75 cents worth of bulk thyme. But I digress.

I don't normally put sausage in meatballs, but I happened to have that little bit of fresh bulk hot Italian sausage left and I wanted to use it up. Actually, I prefer a mix of beef, pork and veal in my meatballs, but I didn't see any ground veal at the store last week and didn't have time to go on a hunt for it.

My meatballs were fairly big - about kiwi-sized, but rounder. I ended up with about 18 of them, and they were cooked in about 45-50 minutes. It might have been less, but that was more or less the minimum time I wanted to simmer the sauce.

The verdict:
For an improvised last-minute meal, this turned out great! The only minor complaint I had was that both the sauce and the meatballs needed more salt, but then again, I'm a bit of a salt fiend.

I thought the sausage added a teeny tiny bit of heat to the meatballs, as well as some nice flavor, especially from the fennel. As I mentioned before, the sausage was thrown in on a whim, but I'm really glad it was in there since it also added some much needed fat. Both the pork and beef I used were relatively lean, and I think that on their own, the meatballs would have been dry.

Troy enjoyed this meal quite a bit, although he did say he wished the sauce was thicker and/or chunkier. He also thought it needed more seasoning, and maybe even more onions. His quote: "I've come to the conclusion in life that I don't think there can be too many onions in spaghetti sauce." But he otherwise declared it perfect. Go figure.

I think the true seal of approval came from our 2 1/2 year-old daughter, who ate THREE giant meatballs and two bowls of pasta! That's a definite rave in my book.

Changes for next time:
I will definitely use the Italian sausage again. The stuff I used today was from a local grocery store that makes their own fresh sausage, and it is far superior to any of the pre-packaged stuff.

I may use whole canned plum tomatoes next time and crush them up myself for a chunkier texture, and maybe leave the lid off at the end too to let it cook down some. I will also likely add another onion. I actually almost threw another in today, but I worried about making it too onion-y. I may try and throw in some ground or minced carrot too, both for an added veg factor and for a little more sweetness.

Adding a pic shortly...

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