My Classic Meatballs and Marinara

Meatballs: I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t like them. My daughter—who can sometimes be quite picky—has loved them since she was old enough to chew, even requesting them for two of her birthday party meals—so much better than pizza! I made these a couple weeks ago on a night each of my kids had a friend sleeping over (it wasn’t as scary as it sounds). 4 kids with clean plates: if that doesn’t sell my recipe I don’t know what will.

Unsurprisingly, I always make mine a little differently, but I finally wrote down my ingredients, and I actually used measuring devices this time! This is my “classic” version. Just a really good, moist, flavorful Italian meatball. Comforting and familiar—the kind of food people want to eat.

I often make them with turkey to lighten things up, or for my friends who don’t eat pork. There are some great Italian turkey sausages out there, and you’re not sacrificing any flavor if you choose to use turkey, but these are the real deal: beef, pork, and Italian sausage. You can substitute whatever meat you like, just make sure the total amounts are the same: two pounds of turkey, one pound of turkey Italian sausage; two pounds beef, one pound sausage; you get the idea. I really, really like the sausage addition—turkey or pork. It adds so much flavor, but if you aren’t a fan of sausage you could omit it and just replace it with a pound of something else. Use this recipe as a guideline, and experiment to find your classic.

This is a very large recipe. Because I like this meat combo, and it’s kind of hard to find any ground meat in less than 1 pound packages, I just go for it and make a huge batch. I cook what I need, and freeze the rest on sheet trays, then transfer them to resealable plastic bags. They are a great thing to have in my arsenal, and I cook them right from the freezer—either browning them slowly or adding them straight to simmering sauce. That’s my kind of frozen convenience food.

A funny thing about this recipe—most meatball recipes, really—is that it’s basically a meatloaf. You could take this exact mixture, form it into a loaf (or two) and bake it: Italian meatloaf! That might sound a little nutty, but that’s how I cook, and how my mind works in the kitchen. I love having recipes, but I really love when they’re versatile enough that I can let my imagination loose on them. Here’s my recipe; I hope you love it.

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Classic Italian Meatballs

(Makes approximately 60 medium-sized meatballs)

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 1 lb mild Italian sausage
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano–grated
  • 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano–grated (alternatively, you can use a full cup of either cheese, rather than the mixture)
  • 1/2 yellow or white onion–grated or very finely minced
  • 3 cloves garlic–minced
  • 1 cup dry seasoned Italian bread crumbs
  • 1 cup milk
  • handful of parsley–chopped (about 1/2 cup chopped)
  • tablespoon dried oregano
  • tablespoon fresh rosemary–finely chopped

To prepare: In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except the meat. Mix well to combine. You will have a very wet mixture. Add the meats, and mix really well to completely combine. I use my hands and squish away until it becomes one homogenous mixture. I can’t stand meatballs that have big chunks of ingredients that weren’t mixed through properly. So, if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, now is the time to use them!

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You can make your meatballs any size you like, I use a medium sized ice cream scoop, which makes meatballs a little smaller than a golf ball. (Side note: this scoop is one of the most versatile tools in my kitchen. I use it for cookies, muffins, meatballs, sliders. One of my favorites). Portion out what you want to cook and in a large skillet, melt a couple tablespoons of butter and a drizzle of olive oil over medium heat and add the meatballs.

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Brown on all sides. At this point, you can either use your own sauce or a good jarred marinara. If you want to make your own sauce, remove the browned meatballs to a plate or bowl and follow my recipe below.

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If you use a jarred sauce, just pour it in with the browned meatballs (if you have lots of fat in the pan remove it before adding the sauce), and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Then serve with spaghetti, or your favorite noodle, lots of grated parmigiano, and really good bread.

Quick Marinara

(enough for 30 meatballs and 1 lb of spaghetti)

Ingredients:

  • 1 large can of crushed tomatoes (28 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (optional)
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock or water
  • 1/2 onion–chopped (I use the other 1/2 of the onion from making the meatballs)
  • 2 garlic cloves–minced
  • teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • tablespoon of sugar
  • teaspoon salt

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To Prepare: Saute onion in the same pan you removed the meatballs from, (if you haven’t just made meatballs, just cook the onion in some olive oil). Cook until softened, about 5 minutes, and add salt, garlic, red pepper, oregano and cook another 30 seconds. If using the wine, add it now and allow to bubble for a minute or two before adding the tomatoes, water or stock, and sugar. Add the meatballs back to the sauce, and simmer for 15-20 minutes until cooked through.

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Traditional Bolognese Sauce

After a week of slinging quick-cooked dinners at my family, I absolutely love having the luxury of lazy weekend days to cook whatever I feel like. I crave the opportunity to doodle around in the kitchen all day, making a recipe that just gets better with time. A traditional Bolognese sauce is just that. One of my favorite weekend recipes–especially when it’s chilly outside–it’s about a 3-4 hour process, but most of the time it’s just bubbling away making my house smell amazing. I imagine if I had an Italian grandmother, this is what her house would always smell like.

Once you gather the ingredients it doesn’t take long at all–maybe 45 minutes to get to the point where you can just ignore it. This recipe makes a nice big batch, and it freezes beautifully. I like to serve it with pappardelle or tagliatelle, but linguine or fettuccine is good, too. Really, any noodle you choose will be perfect. My kids love “little ears” (orecchiette) because the sauce gets stuck inside them. It also makes the best (best!) lasagna. But that’s another post…

A few important notes:

First, make sure you really, really brown the meat and veggies. Like, get the meat to the point where it’s sizzling and popping, even sticking to the bottom of the pan and scaring you a little. This caramelization is how you get the deep, rich flavor in the finished sauce. It is important to use separate pans as it allows you to get the veggies and meat going at the same time, while also allowing them to brown individually–veggies have a lot of water, and it would be very difficult to get the meat properly browned if they were combined, and by the time the meat finally browned the veggies would undoubtedly burn. It’s only one extra pan to wash… I promise it’s worth it.

Next, I know this might sound weird, but I rinse the dried porcini before I soak them in the stock. I know everyone says, “don’t rinse mushrooms,” but 1.) They’re going to soak anyway; and 2.) Porcini are notoriously gritty, and I’m not wasting 4 hours making a gritty Bolognese. So there. Also, even if you don’t think you like mushrooms, you have to trust me, these will be ground up so small that, texturally, you won’t notice them. When it comes to the flavor though, they are so important. They add such a depth and richness and really round out the flavors.

Here’s how I make mine.

Traditional Bolognese Sauce

(This recipe makes enough to dress 2 lbs of pasta)

Prep time–about 20 minutes

Active cooking time–45 minutes

Inactive cooking time–3-4 hours

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Ingredients:

  • 4 ounces pancetta–diced (if you don’t eat pork, you can leave this out)
  • 1 ounce dried porcini (Two .5 ounce containers, which seems to be the standard)
  • 4 cloves fresh garlic
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 large or a few small carrots
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 1 lb ground pork (again, if you’re not a pork eater, just use all beef)
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 small can tomato paste (6 oz)
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 4 cups chicken stock (homemade if you can; choose a good all-natural, low-sodium one if store-bought)
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • Parmesan cheese rind
  • 2 bay leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • tablespoon fresh rosemary–chopped

To Prepare:

In a small sauce pan combine 4 cups of stock with the rinsed porcini. Bring to a simmer while you begin to prep the veggies.

Roughly chop onion, celery, carrot and garlic and add to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until all ingredients are finely minced. Preheat a large Dutch oven with a few tablespoons of olive oil, sauté pancetta for a minute or two before adding the minced veggies, rosemary, big pinch of salt (teaspoon) and a few grinds of black pepper.

Once porcini are soft, carefully scoop them out (reserving the stock for later) and add them to the same food processor bowl. Pulse until very finely minced and add to the Dutch oven with the veggies. Slowly sauté while you get the meat started.

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*if you don’t have a food processor, just mince the veggies by hand–I often chop them by hand and I do have a food processor.

Preheat a separate large skillet over medium-high heat with a few tablespoons olive oil (at least a 12 inch skillet, but larger if you have it). Add meat, 2 teaspoons salt and about a teaspoon of black pepper. Break it up with a wooden spoon and stir every few minutes. This process should take at least 20 minutes, but up to 30 to get the proper caramelization. Take your time, channel your inner Italian and have a glass of red wine. Enjoy the process.

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Once your veggies are really soft and beginning to brown (should take about 20 minutes), add tomato paste and cook for another minute.

Once the meat is really brown (should take about 20-30 minutes), add 1 cup of red wine to the skillet and scrape the pan, getting all the brown bits off the bottom. Add the meat to the Dutch oven with the veggie/tomato paste mixture, and add another cup of red wine. Give it a big stir, and allow the wine to reduce for about 5 minutes, then add crushed tomatoes, stock, milk, bay leaves, and parmesan cheese rind. Bring to a simmer and cook very gently for 3-4 hours–you want it barely bubbling. Stir occasionally. Remove the bay leaves and Parmesan cheese rind when finished.

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This sauce gets better as it sits, and is even more delicious the next day and the day after. It is so rich and satisfying.

When you’re ready to serve, cook your favorite noodles just a little under al dente, and reserve a cup of the pasta water. The Italian trick to finishing pasta is to cook the noodles with the sauce and a little pasta water for the last few minutes. It makes a huge difference, and is so much better than just plopping sauce on top of noodles. So, transfer the sauce you aren’t using to containers, and when your pasta is done add it directly to the sauce along with a little pasta water and cook over medium heat for a few minutes until it is thick and glossy, I just toss it around with tongs until it looks right. You want plenty of sauce, but not so much that the noodles are drowning in it. Serve with basil and freshly grated parmesan or pecorino romano.

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Enjoy!

Pasta Carbonara

This recipe is special to me for a few reasons. The first and most special is that it comes from my dad, and it’s one of the first things I make when I’m really missing him. The next reason is that it was the subject of my very first food article. I recently wrote it as a trial article (on a whim of course!), and was so excited and shocked when it was published. You can find the original article on DcFüd.com. Check out the blog while you’re at it; it’s full of great articles and recipes, as well as product and restaurant reviews, and info on events in the DC/MD/NOVA area. And finally, although it comes from my dad, I have fiddled with it to make it my own. As a result of my fiddling, I have allowed people to successfully make a recipe they had previously written off after having disastrous results. Since my original post, I have heard from several family members and friends saying they made my version, and were thrilled with the results. I love stuff like that!! Helping people enjoy the cooking and eating process is one of my favorite feelings. I’m so proud of it, I’m just going to re-post my article (plus, my dad told me I had to). I apologize to my friends and family who have already read it. But if you would just go and make it already you’d forgive me. Promise.

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Dad’s Pasta Carbonara

Tuesday: I left my house at 7 am, had classes all day, a granola bar for lunch, raced off campus at 2:45 to make it to my daughter’s gymnastics class and blew in the door at 5:30 with my two hungry kids. I did not plan ahead for dinner; there was nothing happily simmering away in a crock pot on my counter. My answer, as it so often is, was pasta. But not just any pasta… My dad’s pasta carbonara (with a few of my small tweaks). I grew up eating it, it’s not fancy, it’s not quite traditional Italian–although pretty darn close (Please excuse me for not stopping at Wegmans to buy cured pig cheeks). Anyhow, in the time it takes to boil the pasta, I can assemble the rest of the ingredients. It all gets tossed together and served. It really is that simple. This dish proves that comfort food doesn’t have to take all day, and that busy people don’t have to resort to take out, frozen food, or sauce from a jar. My son refers to it as “that creamy bacon pasta thing” and my daughter just likes anything involving noodles and/or bacon. It is a less than 30 minute meal that satisfies deeply and I can almost guarantee most people have the few ingredients it requires in their kitchens right now. And who doesn’t love the smell of bacon at the end of a long, crazy day?

Cook’s note: Before getting started I recommend pouring yourself a cold glass of Italian Pinot Grigio. It helps make the experience more authentic… That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb of any long slurping noodle such as spaghetti or linguine fini
  • 8 ounces bacon (thicker cut the better) cut into small strips
  • 1/2 yellow onion very finely diced
  • 1 or 2 garlic cloves smashed
  • 4 egg yolks (place in a medium sized mixing bowl)
  • 1 1/2 cups parmigiano and romano-finely grated (or just one or the other-whatever you have or prefer)
  • 1 cup of reserved pasta cooking water
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • handful of chopped parsley (optional)

Instructions:

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Once boiling salt generously and cook your pasta according to the package directions.

While waiting for the water to boil, begin crisping the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat stirring occasionally.
When bacon is crisp, remove to paper towel lined plate to drain and pour off excess bacon drippings, leaving about 2 tablespoons in the pan along with any brown bits.
Return pan to heat and add onions and garlic, cook until softened, but not brown-about 5 minutes.
turn heat off and leave onion/garlic mixture to cool slightly.

Meanwhile:
When your pasta is almost cooked, scoop out a cup of the water, and very, very, VERY slowly drizzle the hot water into the egg yolks while whisking constantly. If you pour the hot water in too quickly, or without whisking, you will have scrambled eggs.

When your pasta is cooked, drain it in a colander or scoop directly from pot to pan with tongs, and add it to the skillet containing the onions and garlic, grind in as much black pepper as you can stand, I like about 20 grinds from my pepper mill (they don’t call it coal miner’s pasta for nothing; the black flecks are said to resemble flecks of coal). Quickly add the egg mixture, cheeses, bacon, and parsley if using and toss immediately with tongs until the mixture clings to the noodles and becomes silky. At this point the hot pasta will cook the eggs, but not curdle them, so it is very important to add the egg mixture to the noodles as soon as they come out of the water. Let this sit briefly, one or two minutes, and stir once again before serving.

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Chicken Marsala Pasta

I have been food obsessed my entire life, and, as a result, I have lots of little notebooks full of thoughts, recipe ideas, flavor combinations, and doodles. I found one the other day where I had scribbled “Mushrooms+marsala=Love.” It made me laugh and shake my head at myself, but it’s so true. They are such complimentary flavors; they belong together.

Mushrooms are one of those things… I know many people who don’t love them, but I am a long time mushroom lover. I was the weird child who begged my grandmother to make homemade cream of mushroom soup. I grew up within walking distance of a river, and my dad used to take me mushroom hunting along the mossy fern-covered trails that led to it. He even had a little mushroom field guide to make sure we weren’t coming home from our adventures with a bundle of poisonous fungi. I loved it, and I always felt like we were being sneaky and living dangerously…

So last night, I came home and assessed what I had in the fridge. I had three chicken breasts that I pulled out of the freezer the night before, not knowing what I would use them for, and two containers of cremini mushrooms. I thought “hmmmm…. chicken marsala?” I love good chicken marsala. (Isn’t it silly when people say things like that? As if anyone would ever love bad chicken marsala.) But, anyway, I love it. It is such a flavorful dish, made up of just a few simple ingredients that work harmoniously together. Knowing I had a bottle of marsala in my trusty pantry, my mind was made up (I keep an inexpensive bottle around, just for cooking, it comes in handy). So, I started to wonder what I would serve it with, and pasta was the obvious choice, as you need something to soak up the yummy juices. Then I decided I would combine them, rather than cook the chicken and serve it atop the pasta.

It was a really good idea… Here’s how I made it.

Ingredients:

  • 3 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 1 to 1 1/2 lbs worth) cut into bite size chunks
  • two 8 oz containers of cremini mushrooms cut into quarters or slices (I keep them in quarters because, sadly, I live in a house divided. Two mushroomers and two anti-mushroomers, they can pick around them if they’re bigger)
  • sprig of rosemary, leaves removed and finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
  • A few sprigs of thyme, leaves removed and chopped (about 1/2 tablespoon)
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • 1 cup marsala wine
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup of heavy cream
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan (Which usually ends up becoming a cup when I start grating…)
  • few tablespoons chopped parsley (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • olive oil
  • 1 lb of your favorite pasta

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To Prepare:

Get a large pot of salted water boiling for your pasta of choice. You can use any kind you like, I used penne, but I would also love this with a long, flat noodle like fettuccine or linguine (mental note!). Begin preparing the recipe, and when the water boils add your pasta and cook for the recommended amount of time while you finish the sauce.

Generously season your chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet (mine is 12″) with two tablespoons of butter and a few swirls of olive oil until the butter has melted and foamed and it’s HOT, it’s fine if the butter browns just a little, this will help the chicken get nice and brown, (get your pans hot before you add meat! Don’t be afraid of the sizzle!). Add chicken to the properly heated pan, in a single layer and allow to brown on all sides, tossing as needed to get even browning, about 7-10 minutes. Remove to a plate or bowl.

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Lower heat to medium, add another tablespoon of butter, and swirl of oil to the pan. Add the mushrooms, cook until they release their juices, become soft, and begin to brown, about 5 minutes (I sometimes cover my skillet to speed up the softening process, then uncover to get them browned).

Add the garlic and herbs to the mushrooms, stir and cook for about 30 seconds until fragrant. Add marsala to the mushrooms and scrape the bottom of the skillet to release all the good brown bits. Reduce the marsala by half.

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Next, add chicken stock and cream and allow to thicken slightly for 2-3 minutes before adding the chicken back in. Cook for a few more minutes to get all the flavors re-acquainted.

With the pan still over medium heat, add your cooked pasta and toss to combine, coating the noodles in the creamy, mushroomy sauce (this will not, and should not, be thick like an alfredo sauce but will thicken up with the pasta, as well as when you add the cheese). Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water if it seems too thick, this is really a matter of preference. When the sauce clings to the noodles, add the cheese and parsley off the heat, toss to combine, and serve!

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Enjoy!