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Column Tue Feb 23 2010

Spaghetti and Meatballs: Comfort Food for the Masses

I love to cook. And I have a bit of a tendency to be a control freak when I watch other people cook. This is a new thing for me and seems to have come on slowly. However, when I'm at home and my mom is cooking, I tend to keep a tight lip on the cooking advice.

Or so I thought.






I went home to visit the family, and my mom suggested we make spaghetti with meatballs since it would be easy to make a lot, and it would be easy for people to have seconds (or thirds). However, my mom suggested this after she'd gone to the grocery store, so we didn't have the ingredients I would have used to make my "gotta go over the top"-style meatballs. And I didn't have a recipe (sorry, not trusting what was on the back of the box of pasta), but my mom knew we could just throw in some spices and make it work. And since I had to impress my mom and the rest of my family, I decided to spend just a few minutes thinking about what I needed to do, and not let myself get freaked out over it.

I knew I didn't really need many tools to make this dish. Thankfully my mom had a cast iron skillet, so I had some comfortable ground to stand on. Other than that, I needed bowls and a pair of tongs for turning the meatballs. So on the hardware front, I was stocked.

On the ingredient front, I was a little less comfortable. No fresh garlic, herbs (I swear some of my mom's dried herbs have lived with her for years) or parmesan cheese--just canned, pureed tomatoes and one small onion to turn into a hearty sauce.

I decided to tackle the meat first. We had one pound of ground chuck, so I knew it was going to lose a lot of grease as it cooked (but at least the meat would be flavorful). I turned to my mom's dried herbs and pulled out basil, oregano, and parsley, along with marjoram powder, garlic powder, pepper, and Lawry's seasoning salt. But instead of dumping this straight into the meat, I cracked one egg for each pound of meat and whisked it briefly in a bowl. I added the dried herbs and spices to the eggs and let them sit for 10 minutes.

I knew that if I could rehydrate the spices and herbs I'd get more flavor from them. So I needed liquid, but I wanted the meat to stick together well, so I didn't want to add anything liquid that wouldn't act as a binder. While the herbs for the meat started soaking up the egg, I turned to the tomato sauce. I knew that I'd be adding the same types of herbs to the sauce, but since the acid in the tomato sauce would prevent the herbs from hydrating, I instead added the herbs to a bowl and poured 1/4 cup of hot water over top of them. Not enough to ruin the texture of the sauce, but enough to help squeeze out flavor.

With my herb "tea" going strong, I added the meat and egg mixture into a large bowl and began to massage the two together. My mom questioned me adding salt to the meatballs, but I told her that while adding salt to hamburger patties would make them tough and rubbery, adding some salt to the meatballs and then cooking them right away would help the meat hold together in the frying pan. She wasn't convinced, but I think an entire batch of meatballs that didn't fall apart may have convinced her I was right.

Average Meatball

I knew I wanted the meatballs to cook as quickly as possible so I wanted to make them a reasonable size. But I also knew that I didn't want to make thousands of tiny meatballs so I settled on meatballs that were about 0.75-1 ounce each. I knew how much they weighed by taking my pound of meat and dividing it into 16 equal portions. But, honestly, they were about the size seen in the image above.

So, if you've got your crave on for some Spaghetti and Meatballs, the recipe is below.

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Meatballs
1 egg
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil
1 teaspoon ground marjoram (a cousin to oregano)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Lawry's seasoning salt
1 pound of ground beef
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Whisk the egg with a fork in a small bowl. Add the herbs and spices to the egg mixture and let it sit at room temperature for 10 to 20 minutes. Once it has set, place the ground beef in a bowl and pour the egg and spice mixture over the top. Use your hands to combine the egg and spice mixture into the meat. You should be able to see the herbs evenly distributed in the meat.

Place a skillet over medium heat. Once it is heated through, add the oil. Begin to form meatballs, rolling them between your hands to get as round of a ball shape as possible. They don't have to be perfect. Place 10-12 meatballs in the skillet evenly spaced apart. Once the first one has cooked for 4-5 minutes, use a pair of tongs to gently turn it to the other side. You may have to wiggle it gently if it has stuck to the pan. Do not turn the balls before 4 minutes has passed or you will have stuck meatballs. As the meat cooks, it will actually be less stuck to the pan surface. Slowly turn the meatballs, taking the same amount of time between turning as you did to place the balls into the skillet.

Let the meatballs cook on the second side for 4 minutes. If they're not quite cooked all the way through, it's okay because you're going to place them in the sauce to cook for longer as well. Once the balls are cooked on the second side. Place them on a plate lined with paper towels and repeat with the second half of the meat. Let them drain and sit until you place the pasta into the sauce. Letting them cook in the sauce for 6-8 minutes should let them finish cooking if necessary and will bring them back up to temperature.

Meatballs cooking in a skillet

Sauce
1 teaspoon oregano
2 teaspoons basil
1/2 teaspoon ground marjoram
1 teaspoon garlic powder (or salt)
1/4 cup hot water
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon oil
28 ounces of tomato sauce
1 5 ounce can of sliced mushrooms

1 pound dried spaghetti

Place the herbs and spices in a small bowl. Pour the hot water over the herbs and let them sit for 10-15 minutes. Place a large pan over medium heat and add the onion and oil. Stir it frequently for 3-5 minutes, or until the onion just starts to turn translucent but hasn't started to soften. Pour in the herb mixture, the tomato sauce, and the mushrooms. Let it begin to bubble and reduce the heat to low. Let it cook while you make the meatballs. Stir it frequently so it doesn't stick.

Once the meatballs have cooked, remove the skillet from the stove and place a large pan of water over the burner. Increase the heat to high, cover, and let it come to a boil Once the meatballs have drained, remove them from the paper towel and add them to the sauce. Use a spoon to gently stir the meatballs into the sauce.

Cook the pasta according to package directions and drain using a colander. Return the past to the cooking pan and add 2 or 3 spoons of sauce to the pasta. Use a pasta fork or tongs to toss the sauce on the noodles. This will keep them from sticking together. Serve while warm and let people determine how much pasta, sauce, and meatballs they want.

This should make 4-5 healthy servings (or not so healthy, if you're a nutritionist). The leftovers will freeze easily, and like many things, they'll taste better the second day.

 

Yu / February 23, 2010 8:41 PM

Your bemused scientific tone reminds me of Cook's Illustrated--love it!

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