Spaghetti and meatballs were a childhood comfort food, but it’s a meal that until recently I rarely made or ordered. I loved it as a kid, and it was the only thing I’d go for at an Italian restaurant. But as the years rolled on, the fond memories of my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs (she used to make them from scratch back in those days) were replaced by traumatic memories of institutionalized clods of meat product in a watery red juice that were unceremoniously plopped atop a tangled nest of flaccid, oily spaghetti served by indifferent cafeteria workers in drab gray dresses and hair nets.
Grades changed. Schools changed. States changed. Girls got pretty, and boys got hairy.
The spaghetti and meatballs remained awful.
Wednesdays were “Prince Spaghetti Days” at school: one lunch period a week sponsored by the Prince Spaghetti Company. What a coup for Prince Spaghetti! They got their brand into every school and home in New England with that little slogan. I’m sure their spaghetti is just fine, but they way it was prepared, dressed and served by passionless cafeteria hands has scarred me for life. Pro tip: if you want to pimp your food brand into a school, or any other such large institution, make sure that it’s prepared in a manner consistent with your company’s vision.
Like what happened with pot roast, spaghetti and meatballs ceased to exist for me for many years. My brain just edited it out of my consciousness. Only recently did I take an interest in it again. But instead of going to the nearest restaurant ending in o, i or a, I decided I would craft my own. I wasn’t worried about the spaghetti part. Anyone should be able to make decent spaghetti, even with Prince. As long as it’s not drowning in vegetable oil and smothered in a metallic-tasting sauce that’s sold in 55-gallon drums, spaghetti is pretty basic. But the sauce and the meatballs were another matter entirely. They would require some study.
I started playing around with recipes, and I would always brown the meatballs before plopping them into the sauce for their final simmer.
And then I came across some crazy guy on the internet (shocking, right?) who claimed that meatballs shouldn’t be browned first, but rather dunked raw right into the sauce and simmered for 3 hours.
What the heck, I’ll try almost anything once. So I tried it with my next batch. And it was a revelation!
Oh my Gawd! He didn’t sear his balls!
I never thought it would have come to this.
I’ve spent my whole adult life pontificating on the importance of searing meat. Oh, not because it “seals in the juices” – that’s a total load of horsecrap that’s been thoroughly debunked my modern science – but because it adds a ton of flavor through a chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars called the Maillard Reaction. I won’t bore you with the science, but that’s why a brown steak tastes better than a gray one. But you’re not going to brown these meatballs.
Seriously madam, I can hear your screeching from here!
I repeat – you don’t need to sear your balls. Not for this recipe. Try it once my way. Then try it another time your way. Could you tell the difference in flavor? I bet not, though your seared balls may be a little chewier. That’s the beauty of these balls! They are tender and delicious and are way easier to make than seared balls.
One more thing – don’t overwork your meat. Be gentle. Mix it with your hands just enough to combine all the ingredients. Ditto when you’re rolling the balls. Roll only enough to get them into shape. Nobody likes chewy meatballs.
I hope this recipe re-acquaints you with an old childhood favorite like it did for me. Oh, and this recipe makes a lot of meatballs and sauce, so you’ll have enough for a dinner party, for leftovers or to freeze for another time. Enjoy!
Let’s get to it. Printer-friendly recipe at the end of the post.
for the sauce
2 (28) ounce cans tomato puree
1 (35) ounce can of peeled whole Roma tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 yellow onion, finely diced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
10 cloves (not garlic, but spice cloves)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
for the meatballs
2 pounds ground beef (I like 80%)
1 cup bread crumbs
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese (don’t sub Parmigiano Reggiano – it won’t have the same flavor)
1/2 cup milk (I use whole milk)
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
small handful fresh parsley, chopped
Start by making the sauce. In a large pot, combine all sauce ingredients, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cover.
For the meatballs, combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and gently mix together with your hands until all the ingredients are combined. Gently roll meatballs the size of golf balls.
Add meatballs to sauce, cover pot and simmer for 3 hours. Yes, you have to simmer for the full 3 hours. Trust me. 🙂