Friday, April 3, 2009

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Thus far I've been very transparent with my recipes, but when I told my family I was going to publish my spaghetti sauce recipe, they nearly assaulted me. I guess there are a couple of my culinary secrets that will remain secrets.

However, I'll give you my turkey meatball recipe, talk about garlic butter, and give you a couple things to think about with respect to classic spaghetti sauce, or "red sauce".

Spaghetti and Turkey Meatballs
Italian Bread with Olive Oil

Red sauce is akin to French "mother sauces" - it's a foundational element in Italian cooking, especially Italian-American. Its origins lie in various regional tomato-based sauces in Italy, most notably Ragu Bolognese, which involves slow-cooking over a long time with chunks of pork and sausage flavoring the sauce, plus fresh herbs like rosemary, oregano and basil, and of course, garlic. The texture may be chunky or smooth, oily or lean, thinner or thicker, simpler or more complex and layered with flavors.

[Did you know: tomatoes originated in North America, and were not found in Italy or anywhere else in Europe until after it was brough back by merchants and explorers? Can you imagine Italy without the tomato? Yet it was so until the 17th Century.]

My family has forbidden me to reveal the secrets of my sauce, but suffice it to say it was a work of about 10 years of testing and improving (it's been the same, now, for about 7 or 8 years). My mother-in-law, Lillian, is a first-generation Italian American, her father having immigrated here at 16 years old. Her large extended family is full of wonderful cooks and restaurateurs, including the late Nick Mancini, proprietor of Mancini's Char House on 7th Street in St. Paul. I've received some coaching from members of her family, plus deduced little tricks and secrets from sauces I've really liked in restaurants. And I've experimented with my own adjustments as well.

Ultimately, red sauce is very personal, tied to family traditions, childhood memories and personal tastes. Maybe it's one of those things each of us has to make a personal quest, rather than having it handed to us.

Turkey Meatballs
1 lb. ground turkey (I get 7% fat, not 1% fat...a little fat is needed, in my opinion)
2 eggs
3/4 c. bread crumbs (not seasoned...make your own from rock-hard bread in a blender)
2 cloves garlic, crushed to a pulp (I use a chef's knife on a cutting board, not a garlic crusher)
1/2 tsp dried oregano
~1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (adjust depending on desired heat level)
generous quantity freshly ground black pepper
1/4 c. minced fresh parsley leaves (optional)
1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly toasted and coarsely crushed in a mortar and pestle (optional)
olive oil (for cooking)

Thoroughly mix all ingredients in a large bowl with your bare hands. Enjoy's one of the great things about cooking: all of the rich tactile experiences. Check for seasoning (salt level). This is controversial...I taste a little raw mix, which I'm sure will give me some horrid disease one day and I'll die from it. You will too if you do this, but nonetheless that's what I do. Alternately, you can pinch off a bit and fry it in a little oil, then taste it when it's cooked. The latter method will tell you how salty the final product will be, which is an advantage. If you taste it raw, keep in mind that the salt will intensify slightly during cooking as fat and moisture cook off and the mix is concentrated a bit.

Roll into balls of desired size, and cook slowly over medium-low heat in a little olive oil. Turn the meatballs frequently, and brown on all sides. This should cook them through unless they are very large, in which more time may be needed. You can tell when they're done because they firm up. Throw them into the sauce during the last 15 minutes of cooking and they will flavor each other.

These meatballs freeze very well. I make a whole batch at a time and freeze half. A half-batch is about right for a family of 4.

I use Barilla brand boxed pastas most of the time. I find them to be high-quality. I also love to make fresh pasta, and do so fairly often, so you'll get that recipe sometime soon. Either way, cook the pasta in salted, slightly-boiling water, to desired tenderness. I almost never buy packaged fresh pasta. I'm not sure why, but packaged fresh pasta is rarely much better than boxed. Homemade fresh is dramatically better than either, so if I want fresh, I make my own.

Garlic Butter
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter, room temperature
1-2 cloves garlic, mashed to a puree
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 T buttermilk

I didn't make garlic bread last night, but I'm feeling guilty about the red sauce, so I'll throw this in. I make garlic butter quite often, and use it to make garlic bread or in cooking (e.g., to coat the crust on homemade deep dish pizza).

Mix all ingredients well with a fork. It will keep in the fridge for a few days, or in the freezer for a few weeks, but wrap it well - it smells garlicky!

Nothing special here today.

Twice today I called for garlic crushed to a pulp or puree. Here's the method: peel the husk off the cloves and cut off the end that attached to the bulb. working on a plastic cutting board, crush the cloves with the flat of a chef's knife by applying pressure with the heel of your hand on the top of the knife. Take care not to cut yourself on the exposed edge! Next, rough chop the garlic with the knife. Now, sprinkle a couple pinches of coarse salt, such as Kosher salt, over the garlic, and using a rocking motion, crush and cut the garlic. This is hard to describe, easier to demonstrate, but I'll try to say more about how it works. Push the chopped garlic into a little pile. Hold the handle of the knife in your dominant hand (right for me), and lay it flat over the pile with the sharp edge of the knife away from you. Place the fingertips of your non-dominant hand (left for me) near the knife's sharp edge, and apply downward force. Now, work backwards (toward you) over the garlic, mashing and cutting it by alternatingly forcing the knife blade down to the cutting board through the garlic, then rocking it back up as you slide back over the rest of the pile. Repeat this process 3-4 times until the garlic is a fine puree.

This sounds more complicated than it is. Once you're good at it, you'll find it takes less time than mincing, produces a wonderful fine texture, and liberates all of the oil from the garlic, greatly intensifying it.


  1. Sounds great! I have this weird aversion to meatballs, even though I know I would like them, but turkey meatballs sound good. :)

  2. I've been looking for a good recipe to use with turkey. Thanks