With the mercury falling faster than the stock market, I decided to bridge the gap between summer salad and winter braise using the last batch of tomatoes ripened under the waning summer sun to make spaghetti and meatballs. As usual when I'm making an old favorite, I went searching through my archives to see how I'd made them the last time. But when the search returned zero results, I realized that I hadn't posted a spaghetti and meatballs recipe. Could it be that I'd gone over four years without once making one of my all-time favorite dishes?
My lazy Sunday supper suddenly turned into an exercise in measuring, tasting, adjusting and photographing, a process I always go through when developing a recipe for this blog but one I'd hoped to avoid this Sunday. Thankfully all that effort was not spent in vain as this is probably the best version of spaghetti and meatballs I've ever made!
Now words like "best" are so subjective I should probably qualify it with what I value in a good meatball. For me, meatballs should be melt-in-your-mouth tender yet chock full of meaty flavor. Gently kissed with the verdant flavor of herbs and coated in a sweet sun-ripened tomato sauce, meatballs should never be greasy or heavy.
I knew that adding ricotta and bread crumbs make meatballs more tender, but because both are nearly flavorless, they tend to dilute the flavor of the meat. That's why I like to add some sautéed onions, garlic and tomatoes as well as a generous helping of parmesan cheese to give these meatballs some ummph.
Browning them in a frying pan, then preparing the sauce in the same pan incorporates the flavorful brown fond that develops in the pan as the meatballs fry. Simmering them with fresh tomatoes and onions not only helps distribute the flavors between the meat and the sauce, it also renders them tender enough to eat without a knife. Lastly I like boiling the noodles a little on the first side and combining them with the sauce so some of the sauce soaks into every strand of spaghetti.
- For the meatballs, fry the onions and garlic in olive oil until tender and starting to brown. Add the tomatoes then continue frying until there is no liquid left in the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool.
- In a large bowl, add the beef, pork, ricotta, egg, bread crumbs, parmesan, thyme, parsley, soy sauce, salt and pepper along with the tomato and onion mixture. Put some gloves on and use your hands to knead the mixture together until all the ingredients are evenly distributed.
- Use your hands to roll the meat into 1 1/2" balls. The mixture will be pretty loose, so if you have trouble forming it into balls, put it in the fridge for a bit to stiffen up.
- Heat a frying pan up over medium high heat, then add 2 tablespoons of oil. Fry the meatballs in batches, gently rolling them around with tongs to maintain their shape until browned on all sides.
- Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of oil then sauté the garlic and onions until translucent. The browned meat juices on the bottom of the pan is where the sauce get's its flavor, so be sure to scrape those up and into the onions. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf and salt then bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and add honey if it's too tart or you want it sweeter.
- Add the meatballs into the tomato sauce along with any collected juices. Turn the heat down to low and gently simmer until the sauce is thick and the meatballs are tender (about 20-30 minutes)
- Boil some spaghetti al dente according to the package directions. Drain the pasta, then toss the pasta together with the sauce. Plate the spaghetti, then top each serving with meatballs, minced parsley and parmesan cheese.