Real Meatballs and Spaghetti

Real Meatballs and Spaghetti  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Real Meatballs and Spaghetti | Image: Laura Messersmith

Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

Episode: “Boss for Dinner”

The Set-up: The “top brass” from House Beautiful magazine are coming to Ina’s for dinner, including her “dear friend” and editor in chief, Stephen Drucker.

The Menu: Real Meatballs and Spaghetti, Garlic Bread, Ice Cream Sodas

0:38 – Ina says she want’s to “dazzle” her guests, but most of all she wants them to go home saying, “wasn’t that fun?” These are good goals.

1:29 – Contrary to expectations of a fancy dessert, Ina is serving Ice Cream Sodas with chocolate and raspberry sauces.

2:15 – There really is something about childhood desserts – don’t get me wrong I love elegant recipes like crème brulee, but sometimes a brownie sundae just hits the spot.

3:22 – Of course Ina is making her own sauces, no Hershey’s Syrup here!

4:10 – I’m a little surprised that the chocolate sauce uses cocoa powder and not melted bar chocolate. Maybe it would harden?

5:23 – Interesting. I thought the raspberry sauce would include the whole fruit, but instead Ina has pressed the sauce through a sieve to just get the juice.

6:35 – Quick field trip to Villa Italian Specialties in East Hampton to pick up some antipasti for a platter and adhere to Ina’s Rules for Easy Entertaining: never make more than two things. Works for me! 

10:47 - The unofficial theme of “Surprise! This Fancy Dinner Isn’t Fancy” continues with the main course - Real Meatballs and Spaghetti.

11:13 – Pro Tip #1: A combination of fresh breadcrumbs and dry breadcrumbs will keep the meatballs tender while also helping them to bind together.

12:06 – Ina has an interesting way of thinking about meatballs – the ingredients fall into two camps: flavoring and binding.

12:52 – Remember when I said I wanted to make Rao’s meatballs? Well, one of Ina’s tricks is from their playbook: warm water!

13:45 – Meatball sautéing montage. What a delicious turn of events…

14:27 – Now onto the tomato sauce montage, which appropriately includes a lot of onion and garlic chopping.

15:33 – Ina’s recipe also calls for red wine, which I’ve seen in things like boeuf bourgignon but not in a pasta sauce.

19:10 – Onward to the Garlic Bread made with fresh oregano and ciabatta!

20:25 – The garlic bread involves an olive oil and herb sauce that almost seems like a really loose pesto, without the parmesan and pine nuts.

21:51 – Ina says that once the bread goes in the oven that the whole house will smell like garlic. Sounds like heaven. Sigh.

22:48 – Out into the garden where Ina is setting the dinner table with a green striped cloth, beautiful bunches of fresh herbs, and white tulips. Again, heaven.

23:20 – Ina leaves the guests speculating on what dinner will be. Their hints are "Italian" and "oregano."

24:49 – Final assembly montage as Ina cooks the pasta, slices the garlic bread, and lifts the lid on a bubbling pan of meatballs and sauce. I am officially hungry.

27:27 – Ina arrives in the backyard with the most enormous footed serving bowl I’ve ever seen full of Real Meatballs and Spaghetti. If these people aren’t excited they must be dead inside.

28:36 – Back inside to set a tray with the ice cream soda makings. Note to self: anything looks elegant in silver bowls and parfait glasses.

29:14 – Guest Barbara goes first and chooses a chocolate soda with espresso ice cream. Well done Barbara, a woman after my own heart!

Final Thoughts:
My fate is sealed. It’s time to make meatballs!

I am absolutely on board with doing simple “home cooking” for important guests – it’s so much more relaxed that way.

At the close of the episode Ina asks for a raise and Stephen tells her she can have a meatball. Which actually sounds like a pretty good deal to me…

Real Meatballs and Spaghetti   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Real Meatballs and Spaghetti | Image: Laura Messersmith

Real Meatballs and Spaghetti   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Real Meatballs and Spaghetti | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
It seems like meatballs are every where all of a sudden, so it was time to tackle them for myself. Here's what I learned from  Real Meatballs and Spaghetti. Meatball Assembly – I’m a little meh about veal, so I used equal parts ground pork and lean ground beef (90/10). I also didn’t have seasoned dry bread crumbs, so I added 1 teaspoon each dried basil, oregano, and garlic powder to compensate. Other than that I followed the recipe exactly, including the nutmeg. It’s tough to roll them all exactly the same size, but it’s worth it to try. I’d also recommend the “PlayDoh” technique – slightly rounded palms, gentle pressure when forming them.

Meatball Cooking – This is another time to practice your oil heating. Remember that shimmer from the Chicken Piccata recipe? Same deal here – you want the oil good and hot before adding the first batch of meatballs. Resist the urge to crowd the pan – too many meatballs and the oil temperature will drop making them greasy. A baking sheet alternately lined with aluminum foil and paper towels was super helpful during the rolling and sautéing processes.

Sauce Cooking – They say necessity is the mother of invention; well, the timeframe for the final 30 minute cook of the meatballs and sauce coincided with Maddie’s late-afternoon walk. Luckily, or was it by design?, I was using my enameled cast iron French oven. Covered and put in a 350 degree oven it took about 35-40 minutes for the meatballs to braise and cook through – thank you meat thermometer – plenty of time for a spin around the block with the dog. Honestly, with no bubbling, spattering pan on the stove top to worry about I’d do it that way again in a heartbeat.

Real Meatballs and Spaghetti   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Real Meatballs and Spaghetti | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Fairly, more so than I’d expected. I don’t have a sauté pan large enough for 16 meatballs AND sauce, so I used my trusty 5.5 qt French oven for the meatball sautéing, sauce preparation, and final cook. I also needed a second large pot for the pasta, a colander, medium mixing bowl, a baking sheet (useful during the meatball rolling & sautéing process) and medium cutting board. For utensils, a dinner fork, wooden spatula, two rubber spatulas (gentler than tongs) a liquid measuring cup & measuring spoons, a microplane grater, and an instant read meat thermometer.

The Verdict:
OMG. Real Meatballs and Spaghetti are so, so good. The meatballs are tender and the accompanying sauce has incredible depth thanks to the Chianti. Mike rarely is interested in having the same meal multiple days in a row – but in this case he was more than willing to revisit this dinner. I think it’s because they seem to grow in power – Day 2 and Day 3 might even be better than Day 1. Please set aside a lazy weekend afternoon to make this recipe – you will not be sorry and whoever you choose to share with will be eternally grateful. Trust.

Real Meatballs and Spaghetti   | Image:   Laura Messersmith

Real Meatballs and Spaghetti | Image: Laura Messersmith