Mom and Me, 2012
Sundays are for suppers. Not just any suppers. Suppers made patiently, slowly, lovingly. Like the way your mother or grandmother used to do.
When I was a child, most Sunday mornings were spent rolling the meatballs. From the time I about four years old, I’d stand on my mom’s rickety yellow step stool, and eagerly dig my hands into the cold pork and beef mixture she had waiting for me on the counter top. I’d add the eggs (yes, I was an egg-cracking prodigy), the bread crumbs, the parsley, the grated cheese, and I’d being to squish and mash the mixture with delight. That is, until my hands turned purple from the cold. Then my mom would run my hands under warm water, rubbing them with her own, before she’d let me start rolling the meatballs again.
If you think 4-year-olds love to bake cookies, give them a crack at rolling meatballs — you can keep them occupied for hours. I’d roll about 40 meatballs every Sunday, filling large rimmed baking sheets end to end. Every Sunday my mom would invariably say, “Honey, are you sure your hands aren’t too cold? You want me to roll the rest?” And I’d say, “Nope, I’m fine.” Why would I want to leave the kitchen? I loved being there. Everything — the sizzling of the hot olive oil, the sharp smell of garlic, the many “sweeties,” “good jobs!,” and “loves” I received from my mother — was perfect. I would have chosen making meatballs with my mom over playing with my my play-dough. And I loved my play-dough.
Over 35 years later, those Sundays remain some of my most delicious memories. When my husband I are missing home, or I’m just missing my mom, we do what always makes us feel better: we make a big batch of meatballs. And meatballs are only as good as the meat that goes into them. While most people make meatballs with all beef, my mom always said that pork gave meatballs that “extra oomph!” So her meatball recipe consisted of half ground pork, half ground beef, 100% goodness.
Everyone knows you can’t eat meatballs without tomato sauce, or as we Italian -Americans call it, “gravy,” so you’ll find my family’s recipe below. (Gravy is a separate story for a separate post.) Even though it’s just my husband and me now on Sundays, we still like to have our Sunday suppers. Our Sunday suppers aren’t as grand as my mom’s used to be, but they’re still special, particularly when meatballs are involved.
Italian Meatballs with Tomato Sauce
Recipe by Susan Russo
Makes 6 to 8 servings
This tomato sauce is a quick marinara as opposed to a long-cooking Italian-American gravy made with sausages. In a pinch, you can use bottled sauce, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
2 (28-ounce) cans San Marzano tomatoes
1 (14.5-ounce) can plain tomato sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 whole garlic cloves
1 large yellow onion, minced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground beef
1 cup plain breadcrumbs
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh, flat-leaf parsley
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/8 cup olive oil
1/8 cup canola oil
1 pound spaghetti or pasta of your choice
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
7 to 8 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
Pour the tomatoes into a large bowl, and crush them with your hands (or use a blender or food processor if you prefer). In a large, heavy pot over medium-low heat, warm 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add garlic cloves and onions, and saute for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown and aromatic. Discard the garlic cloves. Pour in the tomatoes (with their juice), tomato sauce, crushed red pepper, and salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer, and cook 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened. Stir in fresh parsley and basil.
Place the meat in a large bowl. Add breadcrumbs, cheese and parsley. In a small bowl, beat the egg with some salt and pepper; add to the meat mixture. Mix the ingredients with your hands until the consistency is moist and the meat holds together well. If it’s too dry, add a bit of water or another beaten egg. If it’s too moist, add more breadcrumbs. Once the consistency is right, using your hands, roll the meatballs into 1 1/2-inch balls. It should make about 22 to 24 meatballs.
Mix the olive and canola oils in a large skillet over medium heat. Fit as many meatballs in the skillet as you can without overcrowding so you have room to turn them. Cook about 2 to 3 minutes until browned, then turn over and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, until all sides are evenly browned. Place on a paper towel-lined plate to absorb any excess oil. Repeat. Add the cooked meatballs to the sauce after it has simmered for 20 to 25 minutes. Simmer for an additional 25 to 30 minutes. If the sauce becomes too thick, then simply add small amounts of water until the desired consistency is reached.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain. Add to the pot of sauce and meatballs, stirring to coat. Transfer to a large serving platter, and sprinkle with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and chopped fresh basil.
Note: The meatballs can also be baked if you prefer not to fry them. To bake them, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place meatballs on a tinfoil-lined baking sheet (for easy clean up) and cook for 20 minutes, or until browned.
Photo credits: Top two photos, Susan Russo; last photo,FCC: MrUsaji