One day, many years ago, my mother was given an offer she can’t refuse. She had the chance to learn how to cook spaghetti and meatballs, from an actual Italian woman.
Ok, I don’t actually know if there’s any Hollywood-worthy story behind this spaghetti, other than the fact that my Italian godfather’s mother (whose parents I believe grew up in Sicily?) taught my Mom how to make this classic dish from scratch. Isn’t America grand? I’m the daughter of Asian immigrants who has an Italian godfather, and my Filipino mother knows how to make Italian spaghetti, not the sweeter Filipino kind with hot dogs (which I also enjoy).
This recipe reminds me that so much that home cooking is trial-and-error, and about the importance of tasting as you cook. My mother has made this spaghetti for years, and I always remember it being wonderful. Yet Mom says that she didn’t get it right for awhile, that it took quite a few tries and learning how to taste in order for her to get it right. I’ll be completely honest with you too, I haven’t yet made this on my own. I imagine that when I do try it myself, it’s just not going to taste the way it does when my Mom makes it. So if you try this, don’t be discouraged if you’re not entirely happy with how it turns out. I’m sure as what happened with my Mom, if you keep trying it you’ll eventually get it right.
This recipe has been passed down through word-of-mouth, and with lots of standing in the kitchen together. I’ve never met my godfather’s mother (I’ll just refer to her as “great-Godmother”). But what I know of her – that she was a great home cook – my mother told me as she cooked this dish. I love that cooking with someone, especially someone older and more experienced in the kitchen than you, also often means story time. I learned a lot, and not just about food.
It was a little difficult for me to interpret what I was observing into measurements and words, which is why some of these measurements are estimated. So for you, this may need some experimenting and adjusting. I like the sauce a little tangy and slightly sweet, and thick and rich. You may like more of an herby flavor and a thinner consistency. Experiment, and of course taste, taste, taste. And if you have any questions feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My great-Godmother’s Italian Meatball Recipe
- 1/3 lb. 80/20 beef
- 1 lb. 92/8 beef
- 2-3 slices white bread (can substitute with hot dog buns or even hamburger buns)
- 1/3 cup milk
- finely diced ½ large onion or 1 medium onion
- 1 egg
- grated parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons dried sweet basil
- 3 tablespoons dried parsley
- 1/3 cup milk
- salt and pepper
Toast the bread/buns so that they’re easy to crumble. Meanwhile, mix the 80/20 beef with the 92/8 beef in a large mixing bowl. Add the onion, milk and egg. Crumble the toasted bread with your hands into the bowl with the beef mixture. Add the parsley, basil, and about 1 tablespoon each salt and pepper. Using your hands, mix everything until well incorporated. Form small meatballs with the mixture, about 1-inch in diameter. This will make about 22-24 meatballs. You’ll cook the meatballs in the spaghetti sauce recipe below.
Great-Godmother’s Spaghetti Sauce
- 2 6-ounce cans of tomato paste
- 1 15-ounce can of tomato sauce
- 1 diced large onion
- 3-4 large, whole garlic cloves
- dried parsley
- sweet basil
- salt and pepper
- red cooking wine
- cooked spaghetti
In a heavy pot, heat 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the onion and allow to sweat until they’re soft and transparent. Add all the contents of the tomato paste cans, and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add all of the tomato sauce and cook for a few minutes, occasionally stirring.
Add about 4 cups of water to the sauce – the sauce will thicken, so if it’s too thick to your liking, add a little more water as it thickens. Drop in the garlic cloves. Add about 1 tablespoon each of the herbs and spices: salt, pepper, sweet basil and parsley. Add ¼ cup of red wine and about a teaspoon (a small pinch) of sugar. Stir the sauce to incorporate everything thoroughly. Taste the sauce and add more seasoning to adjust to your taste.
Carefully drop the meatballs into the sauce and shake the pot a bit to make sure they’re fully immersed. Turn the heat down to medium and allow the meatballs to cook for an hour.
If the sauce thickens too quickly, turn the heat down to low. Remove the garlic cloves from the sauce (no one wants to accidentally bite into one…). After about an hour, add about a tablespoon (or more, to your liking) of grated parmesan cheese. Allow the sauce to simmer further on low (if you haven’t already turn it down to low), for about another hour. Toss the cooked spaghetti in a ladleful of sauce, then serve the spaghetti with a good helping of sauce and meatballs on top.
Did anyone “unusual” teach you how to cook? What’s a dish you’ve always loved since childhood?