08 February 2013

Spaghettis et boulettes de viande

This is a food post just for the pleasure of it. Nothing exotic. Nothing particularly French. In fact, it's particularly American, by way of Italy. We all grew up eating and loving spaghetti and meatballs.

This is not Chef Boy-Ar-Dee spaghetti and meatballs.

Even me. I grew up in a small town in the American Southeast, on the coast of North Carolina. There were few if any Italian immigrants there. We started getting Italian food in the 1950s, about the time I started school. I remember Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Italian dinners in cardboard boxes — some pasta, a can of sauce, and a little cellophane package of grated cheese (I'm sure it wasn't really parmesan). Pizza makings in a box too: "Crust Mix, Pizza Sauce with Pepperoni & Grated Parmesan and Romano Cheese Topping," the Chef Boyardee web site says.

Then the management and cooking in our school cafeteria was taken over by a woman from New York City. Her name was Lorraine, and she passed away recently. She was my aunt's neighbor, so we knew her. And she made spaghetti, New York style. She also made lasagne. We loved the school cafeteria when she ran it, planned the menus, and supervised the cooking.

I took advantage of the drive-up butcher's visit to buy a big piece of lean beef on Tuesday. As I've said, all the meats he sells are of the best quality, but they are expensive. Buying from him is a once-a-week treat. I asked him what cut of beef he would use to make meatballs. He said basses côtes. I think that might be what we would call a chuck roast.

We have a meat grinder attachment on our stand mixer, and we almost always grind meat ourselves instead of buying ground meat at the supermarket or from the butcher. That's what we did this time. I cut the meat into strips and Walt ran it through the grinder. It weighed two pounds (900 grams).

Meanwhile, I chopped up three shallots and a hot banana pepper (which we grew in the garden and put up in vinegar). I added some Mexican oregano, which I brought back from N.C. a while back — there's a Mexican grocery store there now. I think the Mexican oregano tastes like thyme, really, and I like it.

I had about a handful of leftover cooked brown rice so I put that into the meat mixture, and I also added about half a cup of coarse polenta (corn meal), uncooked. It would absorb liquid and plump up as the meatballs cooked, making them lighter and juicier.

That was about it, I think. Oh, I pressed in a couple of cloves of garlic, and added salt and pepper. And some celery seed. I also put in a squirt of tomato paste out of a tube (we buy it in tubes, like toothpaste — very handy), and two beaten eggs. I mixed all that up with my hands and weighed it again: the scale read 46 oz.

I wanted to make fairly small meatballs, and I arbitrarily decided they should be one ounce each. I made one and weighed it, using one ounce of the meat mixture, and it looked about right. Then I just had to make 46 meatballs of that size. To do so, I weighed out, for example, 16 ounces of meat, shaped it into a log, and cut it into 16 pieces. Then I rolled each chunk of meat into a ball.

That's more than you ever wanted to know, I'm sure.

In a big non-stick skillet, I sauteed the meatballs in two batches in olive oil, covering the pan with a lid so that they would steam through and hold together. Then I drained them on a rack before putting them on to cook slowly in about 6 cups (1.5 liters) of tomato sauce. We have sauce in the freezer that we made last fall with tomatoes from our 2012 vegetable garden.

I called this "spaghetti" (often in France you see it written as « spaghettis », with an -s because it's plural) and meatballs, but actually we cooked linguine to go with it. Grated parmesan cheese. Olive oil. Good.

So what to do with the leftovers? The two of us obviously couldn't eat all that at one sitting. Today we're having meatball-and-tomato-sauce pizza.


  1. It's fun to think of you as a kid, already appreciating good food... and in the school cafeteria, no less!

  2. Comfort food! Delightful post Ken. I never had meatballs with this combination of ingredients. You are such a good cook, I know they were wonderful. I bet the pizza was delicious too!

  3. Judy, spaghetti and lasagne were so exotic when I was eight years old!

    Nadege, I guess the shallot and Mexican oregano combo is pretty unusual in Italian meatballs.

  4. Well that is spooky ken, I had just got meatballs from the freezer which I made a while back which we are having for dinner this evening, last night I made Thai green curry which I have posted on my blog, like you say, nothing exotic but enjoyable and all the more so because it is home made, bon appétit and have a good weekend

  5. When I was a teenager growing up in Louisville, there was only one pizza palror in town. The spices used there were exotic to us.

    When I made those Chef Boy ar dee pizza, I usually added hamburger and green olives. They were special treats in our day.

  6. When Chef Boyardee came out with pizza-in-a-box it was so novel, and my grandparents' way of living--their big vegetable garden, henhouse, turkey pen, milk and beef cows--seemed so dated. We, most of us anyway, lost sight of taste and freshness for a long time. In a sense we're back to the old days, and I'm glad.

    But I doubt that my grandmas ever went to the trouble to produce 1- oz meatballs!

  7. Once a week my Mom said I could buy lunch at school (during the winter I took my lunchbag and on nice days in the spring I went home for lunch) but the only days I knew the food was good were the days pizza or spaghetti were on the menu! If my memory serves me right, it would not be to my taste, now. Pretty bland, and not even up to the Italian spaghetti my Mother made at home, but compared to the other choices, that was what I asked for.
    Yours sounds fabulous. I've never ground my own meat, but my Mother did occasionally.

  8. Chef Boyardee was/is so bad!

  9. Meatballs freeze so well. I like to take 6-8 out at a time for a quick dinner (with pasta) mid-week. Of course, you don't have the time crunch of us working stiffs.


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