"You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces-just good food from fresh ingredients." Julia Child There is much to be said for simplicity in all things, especially in food. As much as I love being able to master a complicated recipe, I am finding myself experiencing greater pleasure in making 'simpler' food taste and look wondrously jaw-dropping. Who does not want to serve their family and friends a simple memorable meal? The kind that lingers on their palates and memories for days, weeks, or even years; where the anticipation causes almost unbearable heart-racing excitement, and never ever fails to disappoint. Don't we all?
Yet, often when we find that 'perfect' meal, we (or more to the point when I) are reluctant to make it with a high degree of frequency. Are we trying too hard not to be characterized as being 'set in our ways'? Do we have one set of predictability values for 'life' and another for 'food'? Or do we believe there can be 'too much of a good thing'? Maybe, maybe, and definitely not. Ironically, it is almost heart breaking when our favorite restaurants is out of that one special we never seem to tire of.
With life pulling us all in a million different directions, there is often only one day of the week where everyone can sit down together as a family, immediate or extended. Where everyone lingers at the table because both the food and conversation are that good. In my world that day would be Sunday. While I am not quite ready to commit to making the same weekly meal, I think I finally have come around to the idea that a 'monthly' meal tradition (aka 'the house special) would be a good thing. And for me this would something satisfying like a large platter of pasta and meatballs tossed in homemade tomato sauce (or gravy depending on your frame of reference).
The pasta sauce used in this Bucatini and Meatballs is slightly different than the ones used in the Three Cheese Baked Rigatoni with Spinach, Salsa Marinara aka Marinara Sauce, Penne Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce or Roasted Eggplant Parmesan. With the exception of the fresh tomato sauce, there are some similarities between all of these sauces. I jumped on the canned San Marzano tomatoes bandwagon awhile ago and don't anticipate jumping off anytime in the foreseeable future. To give more texture to a sauce I prefer to use a 2:1 crushed to diced tomatoes ratio. Whether she intended to or not, chef, television personality, and cookbook author Alex Guarnaschelli convinced me to use Aleppo pepper instead of red pepper flakes in my tomato sauces. Onions, garlic, kosher salt, pepper, and fresh basil remain as key ingredients. The one significant change in this sauce was the addition of two tablespoons of butter at the end to give it a velvety finish. I have now officially become 'there must be butter in the tomato sauce' convert.
The savoriness of these meatballs comes from the use of beef, pork and veal. Some will say adding veal to meatballs may be a 'waste' as beef and pork will overpower the delicate flavor of veal. But I prefer not to listen to them.
Baked or fried? The answer is 'it depends on whose meatballs you loved eating during your formative years, which chefs you hold up on your culinary pedestal, or how much of your discretionary time you like using for cleaning up the kitchen.' Regardless whether your choice is made based upon preference, heritage, taste, flavor, and/or food chemistry, most of us belong to one meatball making mafia or the other. Although there are always a few outliers who refuse to take a strong stance (aka those who believe meatballs aren't eligible to be put to the black/white decision making matrix). While watching a food show one day, one of my childhood friends, who happens to be Italian, was aghast when the chef used the baking method for the meatballs. The limits of a friendship stemming back to elementary school may have been tested had she been in my kitchen while I was making these meatballs.
Whether it's because there is no detectable trace of Italian heritage in my DNA, I decided to ignore the meatball making advice of both my childhood friend and favorite chefs. I decided to go with the baking method. And after baking them, I had to ask myself 'would I bake them again?'. And the answer is...drum roll please.... 'it depends'.
On the advice of the chef creating this particular meatball recipe, I baked the meatballs at 350 degrees but for 12 instead of 10 minutes. When braised in the sauce, they were tender, moist and had really good flavor. However, if I baked them again (and I might), I would increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees to get an even darker, oven browned sear to them (and still bake them for somewhere between 10-12 minutes). But I am also open to frying them briefly before finishing them in the sauce. If the amount of their flavor exceeds that of the baked meatballs, then I will seek to become an official member of the first fry, then braise meatball mafia. That is, if I will be allowed to join.
With the stove set to simmer, the baked meatballs were braised in the sauce for almost 45 minutes. While this length of time may seem 'too long', these meatballs remained moist and the release of their juices deepened the flavor of the sauce.
There are a number of pasta options for this dish. I happen to love the texture and look of bucatini. But linguini, spaghetti, spaghettini, fettuccine, tagliatelle, or even penne would pair well with the tomato sauce and meatballs.
Whenever given the choice between using fresh basil and dried basil, my preference is go with the fresh basil. Yes I know, I have a strong basil bias yet I can't make a meatball making decision.
Before tossing the pasta into the sauce, I removed the meatballs to ensure the pasta would be coated as well as to avoid breaking up any of those 'baked' meatballs. What I should have done (but didn't) was remove about a cup of the sauce before adding in the pasta in order to have a bowl of extra sauce at the table. Next time. In addition to bringing that bowl of extra sauce, don't forget the freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano.
After tossing and plating the pasta, I drizzled it with some extra-virgin olive oil and some additional julienned basil.
A platter of Bucatini and Meatballs, a loaf of bread, a large tossed salad, some really good wine, and a great dessert may just be the perfect, satisfying, regularly served Sunday dinner. I am pretty sure this meal would never get boring. Buon appetito!
Bucatini and Meatballs (slight adaptation to Daniel Bellino Zwicke's Spaghetti and Meatballs recipe in his cookbook Sunday Sauce: When Italian Americans Cook)
2 - 28 ounce cans of San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1 - 28 ounce can of San Marzano diced tomatoes
7 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or crushed red pepper)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh chopped basil
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound ground beef (ground sirloin or ground chuck)
1/2 pound ground veal
1/2 pound ground pork
4 Tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 onion, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 Tablespoons plain bread crumbs
2 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
1 - 2 teaspoons kosher salt (to taste)
1/2 - 1 teaspoon black pepper
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
One pound package of bucatini, linguini, fettuccine, or spaghetti
Extra-virgin olive oil for finishing
1. In a large saucepan, heat extra-virgin olive oil. Add onions and sauté over a low flame for 3-4 minutes (or until they begin to soften). Add chopped garlic and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking and/or burning.
2. Add crushed and diced tomatoes. Turn up heat to medium.When sauce begins to bubble, turn heat back down to simmer. Continue cooking for approximately 45 minutes. Note: Stir occasionally.
3. Add salt, pepper and fresh basil. Stir in two tablespoons of butter.
Notes: If not adding meatballs, remove from heat and remove one cup of sauce. In pan, toss remaining sauce with drained pasta. Transfer to a platter and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.
1. In a small bowl, combine milk, eggs and breadcrumbs. Let mixture sit for 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, add beef, pork, veal, chopped parsley, finely minced onion, grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, salt and pepper.
3. Add egg/milk/bread crumb mixture and mxi well with your hands.
4. Shape meatballs into 1 1/2 inch balls. For uniformity use an ice cream scoop.
5. If baking the meatballs, coat the bottom of a baking sheet with olive oil. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and bake for 10-12 minutes (meatballs should be lightly browned).
6. If frying, fry meatballs in olive oil only to a get a browned crust on the entire meatball. Cook meatballs in batches.
7. Add meatballs to sauce and simmer over low heat for approximately 45 minutes.
1. Remove meatballs from sauce, placing temporarily in a bowl.
2. Remove one cup of sauce from pan. Set aside.
3. Cook pasta slightly al dente. Drain pasta (reserve pasta liquid) and toss in tomato sauce. If pasta is not well coated, add pasta liquid (1/4 cup at a time until desired consistency).
4. Transfer pasta to platter and arrange meatballs on top/sides of pasta.
5. Finish dish by drizzling extra-virgin olive oil and additional julienned basil over top.
6. Serve immediately with side of sauce and freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese.
The mid-October landscape at Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois.