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Throwdown! A Quest for the Perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs


Perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs

Spaghetti and Meatballs. Such an unassuming yet classic Italian dish. And who doesn’t love it? Everyone seems to have their own recipe – not only for the sauce, but for the type of pasta they prefer and of course the meatball is the key ingredient that makes or breaks the dish – at least in my opinion. I was never too fussy about sauce in the past, but as I’ve grown in my culinary tastes and techniques (and the influence of my Italian boyfriend), I’ve come to like a simple tomato sauce made with nothing but tomato and basil and garlic and a dash of olive oil, salt and pepper. As far as pasta goes, I’m pretty open minded, but when it comes to meatballs – it either needs to be classic spaghetti or a rotini pasta, something with an edge or ridges that hold the sauce.

Now here comes the tricky part: the perfect meatball. I have had some of the most delicious meatballs in my life and some that more resembled old sponges than the delightfully bouncy and rich texture I think a humble meatball deserves. Not to mention the flavor – a bland meatball is about as pleasing as a piece of cardboard. It’s all about the ingredients that go inside that make it or break it.

So the other night I decided to go on a quest for the perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs recipe and after carefully researching my options, dug up a recipe by Bobby Flay, another by Molly Wizenberg, and another from my Williams and Sonoma cookbook “Comfort Food” (which I am cooking my way through this Winter so expect quite a few comforting recipes on my blog in the next few months!)

recipe throwdown

I analyzed each recipe with a fine tooth comb; and they were all similar but different enough to be unique and have a flavor of their own. Two used pork and veal and beef for the meatballs, one used just ground beef and pork. One called for a cup of finely ground Parmesan cheese, two fresh grated cheese. Molly cooked her meatballs in the sauce, Bobby fried his in a pan and then finished cooking them in the sauce, and Williams-Sonoma baked their meatballs in the oven first and finished them in the sauce. The sauces were varyingly different versions of a Marinara, one used red wine and a bay leaf, one used only tomatoes, butter, onions and salt and the other used a small cubano chile for some extra kick.

ingredients

After comparing all my options, I created my own version (based on what I thought would work for me in terms of flavor and what I had on hand!) I have posted links to the original recipes at the end of my post if you’d like to check them out for yourself, but mine takes the ingredients from three brilliant chefs/authors/culinary legends and makes the perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs recipe. Mission complete!

San Marzano Tomato and Basil Sauce

1 can Tuttorosso Crushed Tomatoes and Basil
2-3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp crushed garlic (or 2 cloves, minced)
1 tsp dried oregano (Spices and Tease gourmet brand is the best!)
1 tsp. Kosher or Sea salt
¼ tsp. Fresh ground pepper

Meatballs

1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
½ c. panko breadcrumbs
¼ c. milk
½ c. finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 large eggs
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced (2 tbsp)
¼ c. finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
½ tsp. Gourmet Garlic and Parsley Salt
½ tsp. Kosher or Sea salt
¼ tsp. Fresh ground pepper

1 16 oz. container of Fresh Direct San Marzano Tomato and Basil Marinara Sauce with 1 tbsp Italian tomato paste stirred in (For those of you with no access to Fresh Direct sauces, simply make the homemade San Marzano sauce and cook the meatballs in that sauce when simmering)

1 lb. pasta (of your choice)

MEATBALLS

sauteed garlic

Measure 2 tbsp of olive oil and sauté minced garlic in a pan for about 1 minute until soft and lightly golden (not to high of a heat or the garlic will burn). Remove from the heat and let the garlic cool.

panko breadcrumbs

In the meantime, mix the breadcrumbs with the milk and let stand 10 minutes until moistened.

Fresh Direct San Marzano sauce

At the same time, put the Fresh Direct San Marzano sauce in a Dutch oven over low heat to start warming for the meatballs later on.

Parmesan, Parsley and Garlic

Chop fresh parsley, measure garlic and parmesan cheese.

Egg, Parsley, Cheese

In a separate mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, garlic and parsley, cheese, salt and pepper until combined.

Meat Mixture and Breadcrumbs

Add the beef and pork to the egg mixture and gently mix until ingredients are combined, slowly mix in the breadcrumbs to the meat mixture using a claw-like gesture with your hands. Do not overmix. Chill in the refrigerator for up to an hour (at least 15-20 minutes).

Meatball prep

After the meat mixture has chilled, roll the meatballs into golfball size balls (should make about 20 meatballs) and arrange on a pan.

Sauteed Meatballs

Heat ½ c. olive oil in a large metal pan over high heat and add the meatballs, frying until golden brown, turning to cook all sides evenly. Drain on a baking sheet lined with paper towels.

meatballs simmering in sauce

Add the meatballs (and any scraped up browned bits from the meatball pan) to the Dutch oven into the Fresh Direct San Marzano sauce and cover. Simmer on low heat for about 20-30 minutes until meatballs are cooked through.

SAUCE

Garlic

To make the additional tomato and basil marinara sauce, heat 2 tbsp olive oil and sauté garlic over very low heat in a medium sauce pan until slightly golden.

Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes

Pour the Tuttorosso Tomato and Basil Crushed tomatoes into the sauce pan, adding the other ingredients (salt and pepper, oregano, basil) and top off sauce with another tbsp of olive oil. Simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes.

San Marzano Tomato and Basil sauce

When the sauce is done simmering, add to the Dutch oven, mixing with the additional sauce and meatballs and let simmer on low for another 5-10 minutes. While the sauce and meatballs are simmering, cook your pasta in salted boiling water (and a dash of olive oil) until al dente, about 8-10 minutes.

Perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs

Drain pasta and serve in serving bowls, topped with the meatballs and sauce. Garnish with additional grated parmesan cheese and minced parsley if desired and serve with a bold red wine and some crusty garlic bread (recipe below). Now THIS, indeed, is the most perfect Spaghetti and Meatballs I’ve ever had – Mangia!

Serves 4-6.

GARLIC BREAD

Garlic Bread

Cut up some Italian bread and add butter and a sprinkle of some garlic and parsley salt. Bake in the oven on 350-400 until toasty and golden brown. Crunchy, garlicky – so good!

ORIGINAL RECIPES

Bobby Flay’s Spaghetti and Meatballs (source: Bobby Flay’s Throwdown cookbook)

Molly Wizenberg’s Spaghetti and Meatballs (source: Bon Appetit Magazine, October 2010)

Williams-Sonoma Spaghetti and Meatballs (source: Comfort Food: Warm and Homey, Rich and Hearty cookbook)

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Kristen in Wonderland: Eataly NYC


Welcome to Eataly – a journey through Mario Batali’s
Italian Wonderland

Ah, Eataly. The hottest buzzword in the New York food scene over the past few months. Grand Opening: August 31st, 2010. Mario Batali and Lidia Bastanich’s dream child venue – I needed to get there. Fast.

After hearing all the buzz about this grand Italian Wonderland, I decided to make several attempts to get a quick glance at this gem, but after two attempts of around-the-block lines of people, I started getting discouraged, as my anticipation grew to get a peek at this amazing palace, just taunting me with the sight of it. I could only peek through the windows with my jaws open, chomping at the bit to get in there. As if I were peering through the looking glass, into another land, surreal and far away from mine.

spices and tease

After waiting over a month to get in this place, I was determined to make my way in and begin my foodie excursion. One Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I went on a stroll to Madison Square Park, and on the way encountered a pop-up mini food festival and market. There we bought a variety of fresh herbs and spices and French salt concoctions, and then bought some artisan cannolis (Almond Joy coconut and chocolate, Pistachio Cream, and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup – um, heaven!) while taking in all the other food stand delights, all the while holding ourselves back to pigging out on fresh Bavarian pretzels, gourmet burritos and Fatty Cue BBQ, knowing our Eataly destination was next.

espresso machine

When we arrived at Eataly, the line was surprisingly non-existent and we bolted through the front door like a couple of kids in a candy shop. We walked in the Coffee Bar entrance, and immediately my eyes grew large and my blood started pumping, taking in the crowds and grandeur of this palatial food hall. First stop: the Cappuccino/Espresso Bar with its enormous, shiny espresso machine and customers milling around it as if they were sitting in a café on the sidewalks of Italy, crowding around the bar, sipping their strong shots of Italian roast, with not a care in the world but to laugh and tell stories with their friends for hours on end. A few counters down and across were imported chocolates and homemade fine desserts such as pastry tarts and mousses, tiramisu and the like. My heart was really pumping now.

desserts

As we passed down the hallway, the floor to ceiling shelves seemed to swallow us in with rows of Lavender Honey, Italian teas, nuts and other bite-sized delights that flickered before our eyes at every angle. I felt like I was Alice in Wonderland, who fell down the rabbit hole and woke up in a strange, new land – intriguing and familiar, enticing and strange. I wanted to explore more and this was just the beginning.

salumi

We made our way down to the Salumi area and picked up some Italian Proscuitto, spicy Sopressata and a big block of Parmigiana Reggiano – hmmm, appetizers for our Italian feast I have already started creating in my mind. Fontina, Romano, sheeps milk cheese, the selection was endless and daunting. The seafood counter was next, with shiny silver, pink and red whole fish, smoked salmon, baby octopus, clams, mussels, shark and swordfish. Some of the creatures were a bit eerie and scary, but fresh and beautifully displayed on ice with handwritten signs describing the fare.

seafood

Next we entered The Piazza – the grand food hall in the center of Eataly with grand arches and domed ceilings carved in fine architectural detail. You could feel a buzz in the air and the energy of a European outdoor marketplace where the Italians gather with family and friends for an all day feast. It emanated a sense of awe and drama, with its tall ceilings, food and wine stations in every corner, a bar and tall tables with stools in the center, as the waiters flew by with massive platters of gourmet cheese, fresh sliced meats, crusty bread and tall flowing glasses wine. I felt a bit claustrophobic as people were fighting their way through the crowds to get a seat in this hectic maze of food heaven.  I was excited. Amazed. I felt as if we had arrived at the Queen’s palace in all its glory and I wanted in.

piazza

We sat at the bar and ordered an Italian dry red, as we sampled some bread and cheese on a cutting board, watching the other patrons eat and drink with a zest for life. In one corner there was a fresh Mozzarella bar, around the corner “Il Pesce”, the seated counter raw bar and antipasto area. We took our wine glasses with us and made our way to the book store near the beer and wine area, and down to La Pizza & La Pasta, a seated counter and table area that serves artisanal dried and fresh pastas and Napoleon 10” pizzas. The smell of baked bread and garlic overwhelmed us as my hunger grew to find my own tasty morsels to whip up an Italian feast at home.

fresh pasta

We made our way to the shelved dry goods, an array of pastas, olive oils, imported cans of tomatoes, capers, artichokes and balsamic vinegars and my hunt became full on for the perfect ingredients for our feast. We bought some whole Cherry tomatoes, Extra Virgin olive oil and garlic, fresh Italian bread, artichokes and jarred basil pesto. I felt dizzy by the overwhelming selection of imported goods, and eventually our shopping cart was so heavy, we needed to take a quick rest from all the madness. We found a hidden kitchen in the back corner of the venue, where Lidia Bastanich holds cooking demos and classes and wine tastings, known as “La Scuola”. This kitchen was stocked and fit for a King as we sat in awe, sipping our wine.

balsamic vinegars

Our journey was slowly coming to an end, 2 hours later, and we passed through Manzo, the formal dining, and meat-centric restaurant, headed up by chef Mike Toscano. It was dark and moody, with a quiet elegant atmosphere. We felt a bit out of place as we snuck through to get back to the main hall to find our way out. We passed the Rotisserie meats bar, eyeing the roasted chickens and meats, and stood at the crossroads signage trying to figure out where to check out. With a slight head buzz from our wine, we passed through the gourmet hall once again, eyeing the chocolates and coffees and desserts. I resisted as the tiramisu and layered cakes and tarts taunted me from the countertops, as my taste buds said yes, and my wallet said no. Pure Torture.

rotisserie chicken

We finally made our way out and headed home, anxious to savor our Italian goodies and prepare our feast. Cracking open a bottle of red, we crushed the cherry tomatoes and garlic, sautéed the zucchini in olive oil, and threw in the parsley and garlic salt we bought from the Spice vendor in the park and our sauce was underway. Sipping our wine and waiting for the Spinach penne and Garlic bread to cook, we nibbled on breadsticks and basil pesto and smiled at each other as I grated the fresh Parmigania Reggiano for our pasta dish.

spinach pasta with cherry tomato sauce

I felt proud and accomplished, as if I had gone to a strange land on an adventure and learned something new. Bettered myself in some way. A fantastical getaway, if only for a moment…I was happy and complete. It felt good to be in the comfort of my own home, enjoying a homemade Italian meal with my man on a Sunday evening. Check. Mission Complete.

Check out all the pictures from my foodie excursion here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=314572&id=775480967 or in my Flickr Photo album here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/artfulgourmet/sets/72157625504117944/

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