It doesn’t seem too long ago that most ethnic restaurants were Chinese or Italian and served only a small selection of Americanized foods. Chinese menus offered Cantonese-style dishes, including chop suey and other standards, with the requisite wonton soup, rice and an egg roll. Things have changed. Now we can more easily sample the fare of Hunan and Sichuan, regions offering spicier and more complex preparations of meats and seafoods. You need not travel to Chinatown in New York or San Francisco to enjoy dim sum, the bite-size morsels that turn into gluttonous meals eaten on weekends for brunch by Chinese families. And the ubiquitous deep-fried egg roll is rivaled by pot stickers as the appetizer of choice.
Likewise, back in the day, Italian menus gave us brief descriptions of the various sauces served over spaghetti; veal Parmesan, chicken cacciatore and lasagna were the staples. Pizza, now as popular as the hamburger, has become the mainstay of the fast-food industry and isn’t even considered Italian by many people today.
It seems that our palates have been seduced by the new cuisine — more delicate, lighter, more subtly flavored, with more emphasis on the main ingredient, particularly when it is a mild seafood. This is not a bad thing. The emphasis is on fresh, for which there is no substitute. Fresh ingredients, simply prepared, make an expert cook out of a novice.
But let us not forget the past. Growing up eating hot, scrumptious bowls of spaghetti and meatballs can be a memory that defines comfort food. The dish might be a thing of the past for upscale Italian eateries that cater to the modern, more refined palate, but spaghetti and meatballs should not be relegated to the back burner. Tasty and satisfying, it’s a dish that will stir up memories of the good old days. It’s straightforward, simple food for the ages.
Below are recipes that will warm you on the most blustery of fall evenings. Both the sauce and the meatballs freeze well, so you might want to make larger batches.
1 1/2 pounds of ground beef or a combination of beef, pork, veal and Italian sausage
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs, plain or seasoned, soaked in 1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup of grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese
1/4 cup of chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon crumbled oregano
1/2 teaspoon finely minced lemon peel – optional
4 or 5 cups of tomato sauce
Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until just softened. If you like the onion and garlic flavor strong, omit this step. Squeeze the milk out of the breadcrumbs and mix all of the ingredients together with your hands. The meatballs will be lighter if they are not overworked (don’t use a food processor).
Shape the meat into balls about the size of a golf ball. There are various ways to proceed from here. First, you can fry a little bit of the meat and taste to check the seasonings. If you chill the balls for 30 minutes, they will hold their shape better and be easier to sauté. You can either sauté them in a few tablespoons of olive oil until they are brown but not cooked through or bake them in a 350 degree oven for about a half hour.
Heat the tomato sauce in a pan. Once baked or sautéed, use a slotted spoon to place the meatballs into the pot of tomato sauce to finish cooking, simmering for a half hour. The meatballs and sauce can be served over noodles or placed on Italian bread for a great sandwich.
For noodles, cook spaghetti in a large pot of boiling, well-salted water. Be sure not to overcook. Drain the noodles and place into a warm serving bowl; pour the sauce and meatballs over the noodles. Add freshly grated cheese.
Tomato Garlic Sauce
1/4 cup of olive oil
3 or 4 cloves of minced garlic
1 cup of chopped red or other sweet onion
A pinch of red pepper flakes
2 28-ounce cans of peeled Italian tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, available at any
Salt and pepper to taste
Basil and oregano to taste, optional
Tomato paste to thicken, if you can’t wait for the sauce to reduce
Sauté the garlic and onion in the olive oil for three to four minutes, until soft. Add the remaining ingredients, breaking up the tomatoes with your hands as you add them. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered, stirring the sauce occasionally for about an hour. You can use the sauce as is — somewhat chunky — or put it through a food mill or into a blender or food processor. Wait until the sauce has cooled before placing it in the blender or processor. The thickness of the sauce can be adjusted by reducing it (by cooking it longer) or by adding a few tablespoons of tomato paste.
This sauce is perfect for pizza.Jeff Broder cooks and eats for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org