What Did The Connollys Have For Dinner Last Night - A Meatball Manifesto Special Edition!

Because "What's for dinner?" Is the most important question most of us answer every day.

Well, it happened again. Friday rolled around, as it seems to every six days or so, and just as reliably my thoughts began to turn to spaghetti and meatballs. Growing up in Brooklyn my family knew only two options for Friday night dinner: we either went to Snooky’s Pub (cheese sticks, burger in a basket;) or we had spaghetti and sauce.

Most of the time the sauce we made consisted of a large number of Italian sausages, both hot and sweet, chopped into chunks, fried in a pan and then moved over to simmer in a snazzed up pot of Aunt Millie’s jarred tomato sauce. While the sauce percolated my brother and I would keep watchful eyes on one another and balefully tattle to our parents each time we suspected the other had pinched a sausage hunk. Then, as soon as the culprit was being disciplined, we’d creep off to nab our own score-evening sausage.

One of the coolest things about food is how your perceptions of it vary from day to day and even from hour to hour. Probably the keenest example of this is Kennedy Fried Chicken. Kennedy Friend Chicken is, I believe, an exclusively Brooklyn-based enterprise, and they basically look like Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants that were knocked off by a third world counterfeiting operation. The colors and fundamental design are the same as a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the chicken is likewise reliably fried and cheap.

The most obvious departure between Kennedy and Kentucky Fried Chickens, of course, is in the name. The mind readily furnishes the basis of a link between Kentucky and fine fried chicken, whereas the chicken significance of “Kennedy” is a bit harder to imagine. The more important distinction, however, takes place on the menu board. Where Kentucky Fried Chicken basically just has chicken, Kennedy Fried Chicken has, well, everything else. Kennedy makes chicken, obviously, but they also have pizza, ribs, gyros, halal goat stew, Jamaican beef patties, hot dogs, ice cream, burgers, pork fried rice, tacos, fried pork skins, twenty-five cent drinks (or are they now fifty-cent drinks?) and just about every other cheap and fast foodstuff you could name. They’re also open until the wee hours of the morning.

When my brother and I lived in Bed Stuy in 2000 and 2001 there was a Kennedy Fried Chicken right outside our train station. Often, returning home after a late night on the town, we’d stop in and grab something to eat before passing out.

These ill-advised bedtime snack boxes are the sternest illustration of how food perceptions can change almost instantly. When you sat down to consume your fat feast it was, if not mouth-watering, at least desirable, but then, only seconds after you finished—and sometimes even before you finished—it transformed into a disgusting food nightmare you wouldn’t eat if it floated by you as you clung to a plank after a shipwreck.

In my work as Travel Writer I am often hosted by some pretty fabulous hotels and some very influential tourism boards. These happy associations lead to my experiencing a great number of “tasting menus.” The Tasting Menu, as I’m sure you know, is a wonderful way to eat. It’s when a kitchen prepares a lot of small plates of interesting things or things they consider to be their specialties, often pairing each course with a different wine.

Now, I love a tasting menu. I love a duet of fois gras and veal cheek spring rolls on a bed of pea shoots drizzled with 700-year-old balsamic vinegar so thick you have to cut it with a knife. (Damn! I just made that up, but it sounds awesome!) I love a tiny scoop of black pepper and olive oil ice cream served in a warm, honey-laced puff pastry cup on a bed of dandelion greens. (I’m on a roll, baby! Is someone taking notes?) But you know what else I love? Deep-fried cheese curds! You know what else I love? Jerk Pork cooked on a big slab of corrugated iron roofing material. You know what else I love? A fiery bowl of Pho at the airport in Saigon; white rice with butter; English muffins!

Food desire can change at the drop of a hat. It’s one of the greatest things about food that, depending on your mood, a baked potato can trump a grilled lobster tail. (No. Not really. Grilled lobster tail is the royal flush of food. But you get the point.)

I remember once being seated in restaurant high up in a Las Vegas casino. There were some heavy hitters at the table including a few well-known food writers, the owner of the casino, and both the head chef and the owner of the restaurant we were in. The (very charming) owner of this restaurant was a cognac collector—he’d travel the world buying up the cellars of recently-deceased other cognac collectors—and as the lights of Vegas winked up at us from all sides he brought out a bottle of cognac which, he said, represented the last remaining drops of a particularly distinguished vintage.

We’d feasted that night. We must have had at least a dozen dishes, each more intriguing and delicious than the last, and as the gallant restaurateur poured out the last five or six glasses of this hall of fame cognac that would ever be consumed in the history of the world I… was looking out the window at an In-N-Out Burger a few miles down the strip and wondering how late it stayed open.

Your stomach doesn’t lie. It wants what it wants without regard to what it’s going to get. Sometimes it wants a deconstructed kobe beef napoleon with shaved white truffles, and sometimes it wants a Gray’s Papaya hot dog with onions. (In my case, in fact, it always wants a Gray’s Papaya hot dog with onions.)

And whenever it’s Friday, no matter where I am in the world, my thoughts, or rather my stomach’s thoughts, inevitably turn to spaghetti and meatballs.

Spaghetti and meatballs is of very great importance to me as it represents not just Friday Night Dinner, but also Friday Night Monopoly followed by Friday Night Family Biathlon (BB Gun target shooting and “bopper” fencing with foam pipe insulator swords.)

Spaghetti and meatballs, in fact, is one of a small group of dishes I think of as “research recipes;” dishes I am on a lifelong quest to perfect. Each time I make spaghetti and meatballs I consciously and studiously attempt to improve on my last effort. I have tested dozens of spaghetti and meatball theories and discarded or adopted dozens of spaghetti and meatball techniques. What follows is a comprehensive and up-to-date look at the recipe my research has yielded so far.

Spaghetti and Meatballs: A Recipe/Philosophy
The Golden Rule of my spaghetti and meatballs recipe is as follows: Balls And Sauce Nary Shall Meet Yea Until It Be On The Serving Plate!

I know this will be a bit of a shakeup for you adherents to Long-Simmered Sauce Philosophies, but don’t worry, as you will soon see, I have you covered. But before I explain my theories on producing a meaty sauce without actually simmering the meatballs in the liquid, let me tell you why I prefer independent production of balls and sauce: It all comes down to crust.

If you brown your balls and them cook them in the sauce the best you’ll end up with is a meager vestige of a crust. However, when you cook the two items separately, uniting them only at the last moment, you never compromise the all-important texture contrast we crave in our meatballs.

“But Chris,” I hear you fretting, “doesn’t this approach diminish the meatiness of the sauce itself?”

Good question. Yes. It would. Except that you are going to designate what I call “A Sacrificial Meatball.” More on this in a moment.

Ball Construction

I make lots of different kinds of meatballs. The ones you see pictured here are turkey meatballs. I also make all-beef meatballs; half beef, half de-cased hot Italian sausage meatballs; and sometimes, when I’m trying to blow minds, half-beef, half de-cased hot Italian sausage meatballs with hunks of mozzarella encased inside. (Yeah. Take a minute and ponder that.)

But no matter what kinds of balls I’m making, I always use the same basic recipe: meat, hot pepper flakes (lots;) black pepper; a tiny bit of salt in the mix (because I resalt the formed meatball;) grated parmesan; and finally, breadcrumbs. I use a lot of breadcrumbs because I think they’re the key element to making true meatballs and not just small, round hamburgers.

I have done a lot of research, as you’d probably guess, into the science of meatball formation. Since crust is my overarching goal, I used to actually make meatcubes which I would sear on all six sides. This was a heady and, I must admit, somewhat reckless time in my life, but I was pretty sure I was onto something big. Unfortunately, after only a few meatcube experiments I realized that unless one made the cube absolutely enormous the protracted pan time required for six-side searing generally resulted in a finished product as crunchy as a crouton. It also took forever.

These days I’m a more modest and mature ball former. Having dabbled, over the years, with everything from cubes to oblong, ovular patties, I’ve now come full-circle and just make ball-shaped balls. I do press them down a bit in the pan to increase surface area, but my current theory is that when shaping your balls it’s best to keep things simple.

So, I sear the meatballs on all sides, rolling them around in the pan and pressing them down to ensure a hearty crust. Normally, of course, pressing down on things you’re cooking is a no-no because you’re squeezing out the juices, but I’d argue that in meatballs it’s a necessary step. First of all, the breadcrumbs allow the meatballs to retain most of their moistness; secondly, you’re going to serve the meatballs in a sauce, which adds more moisture; and finally, you want the meatballs to extrude a bit of juice into the pan so you can build your sauce.

When the meatballs have all been seared off I remove them to a second pre-heated pan in a pre-heated oven to finish cooking. (350 degrees will do nicely, thanks.) This, as you may remember, is pan-roasting, which is how I cook almost everything. (I also promised to talk about pan-roasting liquids, and that’s coming up in a second.)

Pan-Roasted Tomato Sauce
You may have wondered why I make my sauce in an Americanized version of a wok. (It’s Americanized in that it has a flat bottom, rather than the rounded bottom of a classic Asian wok, the flat bottom being better suited to flat American burners.) I like the wok because I bake my tomato sauce and the wide mouth allows more sauce-to-heat contact. The reason I like to bake my sauce is because when you do so, you effectively “roast” the surface of the sauce and this artificially ages it so it tastes like something you cooked for a really long time.

So, at this point your meatballs are baking in the oven and you have a big wok full of yummy brown bits. Now’s where you’re going to introduce the meaty favor into the sauce.

Remember the Sacrificial Meatball I mentioned above? This is where he comes in. When you slid the meatballs into the oven, you took one little guy out and placed him back in the wok. Now, take a sharp metal spatula and chop him up into little bits, or alternately, remove him to your cutting board and wack him there.

You will probably feel kind of bad for this poor fellow because he won’t get to be enjoyed as nice, crusty, stand-alone meatball, but you can rest easy knowing that he’s making the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good.

Once the meatball has been dispatched and browned, move his remnants to the sides of your wok, or, if you don’t have a wok, your frying pan, and put garlic and whatever spices you want to use in the center of the pan to toast. When the garlic just starts taking on some color, scoop one small can of tomato paste into the wok and mix everything together.

In a rather recent development I have now decided that working the tomato paste a tad is a very crucial thing. I like to turn the heat up fairly high and cook the paste until you start to see a little halo of oil seeping out of it and it chars a bit around the edges. I think doing this effectively “toasts” the paste and adds to the overall richness of the sauce.

After that, deglaze your wok/pan with wine (I like to use white wine because it adds a little sharpness, but I often use red as well,) then, stir in a good couple tablespoons of honey. (This will make your canned tomatoes taste sweeter and “fresher.”) After the wine simmers for about 45 seconds, stir in a large can of crushed tomatoes, bring the sauce to a boil and then put it into the oven to roast.

About 20-25 minutes of roasting at 350 will produce a sauce that tastes like you started cooking it slowly about 2 days before. Somehow, this “pan roasting” dries the sauce out somewhat and makes it feel more substantial on the tongue.

Because, if you were to roast your already-mostly-cooked meatballs for another half hour, they’d come out like charcoal, as you put the sauce in the oven, take the meatballs out and leave them on the stovetop. You can put them back into the oven to reheat in the last five minutes of sauce roasting. Do not cover them or they will steam and lose crustiliciousness


Because this recipe produces such a thick, clingy sauce, I think it goes best with linguini. Sadly, linguini is a very frustrating noodle for three-year-olds, so we’re currently going with some chunkier pasta shapes. I usually let Oliver pick the pasta out at the store, maintaining, of course, veto power over asinine choices like angel hair, Spider Man Mask pasta or elbow macaroni.

I always cook my pasta in my largest pot in a lot of salted water. I start the water on a back burner as soon as I start the meatballs, and then transfer it to the main burner once everything else is off the stovetop.

I don’t have any secrets about cooking pasta. It’s a pretty simple process. One thing I do is grate parmesan cheese onto the noodles once they are drained. I heard someone say once that this helps the cheese adhere to the noodles and infuses the whole dish with a more uniform, cheesy taste. I have never actually tested this out, but I do it anyway just in case it’s true.

Reunited And It Feels So Good
Okay, to finish off your masterpiece, take the sauce out of the oven and stir in a handful of fresh herbs. You may find a ring of charred sauce around the edges of your pan/wok. This is tasty stuff in limited amounts and I usually try to stir about a quarter inch of it down into the finished sauce.

All that’s left now is to heap your noodles into serving bowls, top them with a couple meatballs, a spoonful of sauce, and some additional cheese. (Although you have already thoughtfully ensured your customers’ pasta cheesiness, the visual effect of snow-like grated cheese is essential to the visual appeal of spaghetti and meatballs.)

I have many various versions of this master sauce recipe—some include the sausage hunks of my youth, some use fresh tomatoes, once, I even grilled mushrooms, sausages, onions, garlic and meatballs over charcoal then combined them in a pot of crushed tomatoes on the stovetop to produce what may have been the world’s first grilled tomato sauce!—but the master principles of my sauce are always the same: safeguard your crust, toast your paste, bake your sauce, and most importantly of all, feel the love!

Thank God it’s Friday.


Joshua said...

Man I could listen to you talk about your hot and crusty balls all day!

Anonymous said...

Have you ever tried raisins in your balls?? Adds a nice sweetness.

Cousins Ali and Jackie said...

FYI - We left the last post.