Barefoot Bloggers: Real Spaghetti and Meatballs

It seems ironic, in an admittedly Alanis-Morrisette-kind-of-way, that after having spent a week waxing poetic about the glories of non-traditional meatballs and straight-up dissing standard Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs, the first of this month’s Barefoot Bloggers challenges would be just that. Touche, fate. You win this time.

Really, there is absolutely nothing wrong with basic spaghetti and meatballs, at least not when they are made right. I’ve certainly enjoyed quite a few plates in my time. There’s just something homey and comforting about this dish that I think makes everyone feel just a little bit childlike at heart, no matter what their age. As Ina would say, how bad can that be?

And so, I will admit to approaching this recipe with quite a bit of excitement. Any excuse to eat pasta and red sauce is a-ok with me, and when you start throwing ground meat around too? Sign me up.

Super Meatball Scooping Action Shot! Just want to insert here that of all the invaluable tips and tricks I’ve picked up from the great Alton Brown, using an ice cream scoop (or disher, as he calls it) to evenly portion out things like meatballs, muffin batter, and really anything other than ice cream, is one of my favorites. Probably a close second to brining just about any meat that isn’t beef before cooking. You’re my hero AB!

As usual, I made a few small changes to Ina’s recipe. For the meatballs, Ina calls for a 4-1 ratio of fresh white bread crumbs and dried seasoned breadcrumbs to be added to the meat mix; I didn’t realize until the night I made this that I was out of dry bread crumbs, so I just used extra fresh crumbs and tossed in a bunch of dry italian spices (granulated garlic and onion, some parsley and oregano) to compensate for the missing seasoning. I also soaked my breadcrumbs in a bit of milk for 10 minutes, then pulsed them in the food processor with the egg to make sort of a paste which I then added to the meat mix. I can’t remember where I picked up this trick, but it invariably creates a more moist, tender meatball with none of the mealiness that you sometimes get with just ground meat and dry breadcrumbs. I just really like the texture when they’re made this way. It also saves me from having to remove the crust from my bread, which would have been particularly difficult considering I made my crumbs from a soft semolina roll rather than slices of white sandwich bread.

Mmm, golden brown deliciousness.

I also adjusted the basic meat proportions, using an even 1-1-1 ratio of beef, pork, and veal, where Ina called for twice as much beef as pork and veal. I’m pretty sure I had just under a pound of each, because that just happened to be the size of the pre-packed meatloaf mix they were selling at the grocery store. Don’t worry, the finished meatballs were still sufficiently beefy.

The sauce recipe that Ina pairs with the meatballs seemed a little boring, so I amped it up a little with some fresh torn basil leaves and a handful of chopped sundried tomatoes for sweetness. I also pureed the sauce with my stick blender after cooking, because I prefer a smooth sauce with long noodles – chunky sauces, in my world, are relegated to short cuts of pasta like penne, gemelli, or rotini.

Finally, I used some fresh linguine in place of the usual dry spaghetti, mostly because I’d bought some on a whim at this great natural/organic market that we discovered on the weekend’s trip to Huntington. I used the cooked pasta to create sort of a nest on each plate, perched three steaming hot meatballs on top, and finished with a ladle of sauce and a generous grating of parmesan.

All in all, I have to say that this was pretty much what I want and expect from a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. The flavors weren’t terribly complex or exciting, but they WERE delicious. The bread-milk-egg slurry in the meatballs did its job well, as they were indeed moist and tender and not the least bit mealy. Next time I would make them a bit smaller, as Ina’s 2″ round specimens didn’t quite cook all the way through in the time indicated. The sauce was certainly not the best I’ve ever had, but it served its purpose and paired quite well with the richly-flavored meatballs and salty parmesan. It was a bit too thick for my tastes, even after blending, and I wish I’d thinned it out with some beef stock and tomato juice or puree afterwards.

Oddly enough, the only real off note in the meal was the pasta – I just wasn’t thrilled with it. This particular brand had a strange aftertaste that I found unpleasant, and I had to be sure to have a little bit of sauce and meat on every bite of pasta to cover it up. The texture was perfect, as is usually the case with fresh pasta, but I would never be able to eat this pasta with anything less than a robust sauce or ragu, so I don’t think its worth the money. I’ll just have to try another brand, or (gasp!) finally get around to making some myself.

Ooh, you saucy noodles you.

In the end, though, I really enjoyed this. On a cold and gray winter Monday, after a long day of work, a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs was more than welcome. The meal was warm and soothing and evoked more than a little bit of nostalgia for my childhood, and I know I was smiling a little on the inside as I ate.

The best part is that we now have a big tupperware container of meatballs and sauce in the freezer. (Even making the meatballs large, I must have gotten around 16 meatballs out of my mix, and since J and I only ate 3 apiece, that left a LOT of leftovers.) So someday soon, when we have another cold and dreary day, I can take them out and fix up the sauce to get it just right, and serve it over some better pasta, and we’ll have yet another spaghetti and meatballs dinner that’ll be even better than the first.

Thanks to BMK of Reservations Not Required for this great recipe selection!

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