Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Spaghetti and meatballs

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 Spaghetti and meatballs Is it Italian? Maybe. But it's surely Italian-American comfort food, and I expect it's comfort food much of the world around.
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Spaghetti and meatballs

Spaghetti and meatballs ... could there be a more Italian treat? Well, maybe. Actually, in frequent travels to Italy, I don't think I've ever been served a bowl of steaming long pasta topped with tangy tomato sauce and beefy meatballs and a sprinkle of Parmigiana, the way we know and love it in the U.S.

But it's surely Italian-American comfort food, and I expect it's comfort food much of the world around.

Chances are that the recipe has drifted a bit from its Italian roots in Sicily and Calabria in Southern Italy, from where so many immigrants came to the U.S. (and Argentina) during Ellis Island days. But barring such innovations as "Parmeejun" cheese from the green can - and most likely, if you're reading these pages, that's not your style - the basic dish still speaks of sunny Italy for most of us, and warms both our tummies and our hearts.

Many recipes call for spicy meatballs, and most require dark, sweet, long-simmered tomato sauce. I'm fine with that. Today's version, though, goes off in a completely different direction. It features simple, pure, unadorned flavors: quality beef and fresh tomatoes, sweet browned onions and garlic and al dente spaghetti, with grated cheese added optionally at the table. Of course you can start with these fundamentals and doctor it up almost ad infinitum with herbs, spices and other good things; but sometimes simplest is best.


(Serves two)

Thick slice of sweet onion, enough to make 1/4 cup chopped
1-2 cloves garlic
Dried red pepper flakes
3/4 pound (360g) lean ground beef, the best quality available
2 tablespoons (30 ml) olive oil
1 cup (240ml) tomato sauce (see note)
4-6 ounces (120-180 g) spaghetti
Black pepper
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese


1. Chop the onion fine; peel and mince the garlic. Season with a discreet shake of dried red-pepper flakes.

2. Form the ground beef into small meatballs about 1 inch in diameter; 3/4 pound of beef should be enough to make about 15 to 20 meatballs.

3. Put the olive oil in a skillet or saute pan large enough to hold all the meatballs in a single layer. Turn heat to medium-high and cook the chopped onions and garlic and dried red-pepper flakes until the onions are aromatic and starting to brown around the edges.

4. Put in the meatballs and saute, shaking the pan frequently and turning the meatballs occasionally, until they're just browned. Reduce heat to medium and pour in the tomato sauce. When it starts to bubble, turn down heat to very low and leave to simmer for 10 minutes or so while the pasta cooks.

5. Cook the spaghetti in a large saucepan with plenty of salted water until it's al dente. When the spaghetti is almost done and foam is floating on top of the pasta water, stir a couple of wooden spoons full of the foamy water into the tomato sauce; if you haven't tried this old Italian home-cooking trick, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the way it thickens and flavors the sauce. Check the sauce for seasoning and add a little salt and pepper only if needed.

6. Drain the pasta well and stir it into the simmering sauce with meatballs, and serve immediately in large, warmed bowls. Pass grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese for use at the table if you wish; crusty Italian bread and a green salad make a fine accompaniment.

ABOUT THE TOMATO SAUCE: I used a thawed cup of the frozen fresh garden tomato sauce that I discussed in the Aug. 2, 2007 FoodLetter, Fresh tomato sauce; if you made some of your own, you should do the same. Alternatively, fashion a quick tomato sauce by heating canned San Marzano tomatoes and their juice (or your choice of quality canned tomatoes) with a little onion and garlic browned in olive oil, then blend the result into a puree. If you're in a hurry, a decent brand of canned or tetra-pack commercial tomato sauce will work in a pinch.

WINE MATCH: A hearty, fruity and acidic Italian red - a Chianti or cousin - would be perfect, but a French alternative - the Château Beauchêne 2005 Côtes-du-Rhône Villages featured in the Nov. 5 Wine Advisor - fit a similar flavor profile and worked just fine.

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