leave your inhibitions at the door
They say food is love. Especially the Italians. As if this fact needs proof, consider where my Aunt Rose recently found some childhood letters I’d sent to my Grandmother Vincentia. Aunt Rose had been looking for a biscotti recipe in my deceased grandmother’s recipe collection, when out of an old cookbook slipped three letters. Why would Grandma stash letters in a cookbook? When you’re Italian, food is love, so why not?
Aunt Rose pulled me aside at Thanksgiving and handed me the letters. “Don’t read them until you get home—we don’t want things to get maudlin,” she whispered, knowing my proclivity to cry like a baby at weddings, funerals, and apparently, sentimental letters. And the letters were very sweet: two written when I was 11, and the third a homesick letter I had mailed from California when I was in college. I had written, “I miss the holidays at ‘Grandma’s House’, with spaghetti and all the trimmings.”
Food is embedded in many happy memories around my mother’s family, the Italians. There was Grandpa Sam’s massive garden, meticulously tended in their postage stamp backyard in East Detroit: a maze of tomato plants for canning, zucchini, eggplants for parmigiana, bushy basil and parsley plants, apricot trees, vines of grapes for homemade wine, and possibly figs, which Grandma Vee would have used for her cuccidati, a popular Christmas cookie that’s like an Italian fig newton. There was Grandpa pulling bulbs of spring onions from the earth and eating them whole between slices of bread and butter, which totally grossed out us grandkids. He’d crunch on his raw onion as we grimaced (that was known as funghi face) and say, in his quiet way, “It’s good for you.” (Yet with his halting English and Sicilian accent, it ended up sounding more like, “Eeeees gooforyou.”)
It’s funny how childhood memories are made up of detailed snapshots. Like going to the Italian American festival in Detroit when I was 7 and eating grilled sausages and peppers on a sub roll, wearing a “Kiss Me I’m Italian” button, and getting a ride back to my grandparents’ on my uncle’s motorcycle, the car next to us blaring Elton John’s “Honky Cat” at a stoplight. Or sitting in my Aunt Rose’s car driving somewhere—possibly the beach on Lake St. Clair—a big smile on her teenaged face as she belted out the words to a popular ‘70s song by the band Chicago on the radio, putting particular emphasis on the last line of the verse:
Saturday in the park
I think it was the Fourth of July
People talking, people laughing
A man selling ice cream
Singing Italian songs
Grandma was often in her big kitchen basement, her considerable arms kneading and punching bread dough. If your curious head ventured too close to her working space, she’d deftly slap the tip of your nose with flour, bursting into her high-pitched giggle. Her bread was awesome, naturally, often made into rolls and sprinkled with nutty, golden sesame seeds, which went great with her pasta with sauce.
That was the heart of our family food love—pasta and sauce, usually served with meatballs. My brothers and I collectively agree on our fondest memory of our grandparents’ home: the smell of Grandma’s sauce—rich, sweet-tang of tomato with top notes of garlic, basil, and olive oil—wafting up from her big basement kitchen, an olfactory greeting as we stomped down the steps to join Mom’s big Italian family for another holiday. In our own home in Ann Arbor, Mom made pasta (usually spaghetti) with meatballs and sauce every week when we were kids. Maybe Dad got tired of it, but us half-breed Italian kids never did.
I won’t see most of my family at Christmas, as my parents have left for their winter place in Florida, and my brothers have their own family plans. Yet recently we were all together–to celebrate my cousin’s wedding–and met the next day at my parents’ for dinner. The vote was unanimous on the menu: Mom’s pasta and sauce with meatballs.
My son, 12, ate a huge portion. A few days later, he asked, “Mom, can you make pasta and sauce with meatballs, but make it EXACTLY like Grandma’s?” Sadly, that’s not possible, as pasta sauce is never identical, even within a family. Like the curve of a lip or the cup of a cheekbone, the sauces made by the women across our family’s generations have similar characteristics yet are not exactly the same. In fact, unless you make sauce every week like my Mom or Grandma, it’s going to be slightly different every time.
That’s probably because none of us measure. We’ve watched and absorbed what our mothers did in the thousands of pots of sauce and meatballs made when we were kids. No need for measuring cups or spoons; a handful of fresh parsley is about a ¼ cup, and a quarter-sized mound of dried oregano perched in a palm is a about a teaspoon. Sauce and meatballs are food made with love, not measurements.
Still, my sauce is very similar to my Mom’s. What my son really wanted was tube noodles, like penne, as my Mom had used that day (I almost always use spaghetti). So last night I made penne pasta with meatballs and sauce, which my son inhaled with gusto.
I asked him it was just like Grandma’s. “No, not exactly. But just as good in a different way,” he said. I then suggested he write a letter to his Grandma about how much he’ll miss her pasta with sauce and meatballs at Christmastime. And maybe, some day, someone will find it tucked within a cookbook.
Pasta with Sauce and Meatballs
(I forced myself to measure in order to share this recipe, but don’t worry much about exact measurements. Total prep and cook is about 2 ½ hours, but can be made a day or two ahead—in fact it’s even better.)
– 2 lbs of equal parts ground veal, pork, and beef (sirloin or chuck), or 1 lb. each of ground pork and ground beef (Please don’t use all ground beef. That’s what people who pronounce Italian as “Eye-talian” do. I have used ground turkey, too, which is good and somehow not as shameful as all ground beef.)
– ½ cup milk
– Two eggs
– 1 cup seasoned Italian breadcrumbs (such as Progresso)
– ½ cup finely chopped Italian (flat leaf) parsley
– ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
– 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
– 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
– 1½ teaspoon salt
– Freshly ground pepper (1/2 to 1 teaspoon)
– Extra-virgin olive oil
– 1 whole garlic clove
Sauce and Pasta
(Note: you can start with a traditional marinara with diced onion, garlic, and carrot, sautéed in olive oil in the same skillet you cooked the meatballs, before adding tomatoes, and I’ve done that before. But it’s not really necessary as so much flavor comes from the meatballs that cook in the sauce for 90 minutes.)
– 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
– 1 16 oz. can plain tomato sauce
– 1 12 oz. can tomato paste (plus three cans of water)
– 1 teaspoon (or more) dried oregano
– 1 small bunch (about 10 leaves) fresh basil
– 2 dried bay leaves
– ½ teaspoon salt
– Freshly ground black pepper
-1/2 teaspoon (or more) of red chile flakes
– 1 teaspoon or more of fennel seed that’s been crushed/chopped with a knife (optional)
– 1 lb. of pasta (Tubes such as penne work best for a family or crowd, as they don’t get sticky. This is enough pasta for at least four people, with leftover sauce and meatballs for using later in the week or freezing. For a larger crowd, cook 1 1/2 to 2 lbs. pasta; you should have enough sauce and meatballs.)
– A chunk of good quality parmesan cheese
– A chunk of pecorino romano cheese
1. First make the meatballs. Whisk together the eggs and milk, and add to the ground meat in a large bowl. Mix with your hands. Add remaining ingredients, one at a time and spreading out, adding with one hand and mixing with the other.
2. Set aside one-third of the meat mixture. Cover the bottom of a large skillet with olive oil, and heat on medium-high heat. Smash the whole clove of garlic with back of knife and add to oil. When the garlic starts to fry up, and oil is nice and hot, gently form the remaining 2/3 of the meat into golf ball-sized meatballs and place in skillet. When meatballs are nice and brown on one side, turn and brown the other. Remove meatballs and drain on plate covered with several sheets of paper towel. Do not cook meatballs all the way through, just brown them. Repeat until all meatballs are browned (about two batches–about two dozen meatballs total).
3. Drain off all but about 1 tablespoon of oil from pan. Add remaining meatball mixture and break up with a wooden spoon. Keep cooking until browned and crumbly. Add tomato paste and deglaze pan. Fill the tomato can three times with water, and add each can of water to the pan. Keep stirring until blended into a sauce.
4. Pour sauce mixture into a large soup pot. Add the oregano, optional crushed fennel seeds, the crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, salt, chile flakes, bay leaves, and some freshly ground pepper, and bring to a soft boil. Add the meatballs to the sauce, and bring back to a soft boil (this will take at least five minutes). Lower to soft simmer, cover, and cook sauce and meatballs for about 90 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. (If after about 20 minutes the sauce looks too thick, add a cup of water. A little red wine is fine, too. Also, you can cook longer than 90 minutes, but only if you keep the sauce very, very low temp after 90 min.)
5. Meanwhile, cut parmesan and pecorino romano into chunks and put in mini food processor, pulsing until grated. (Or hand-grate the cheeses and combine.)
6. About 30 minutes before you want to eat, heat pasta water to a boil. Just before you drop in the pasta, it’s time to finish seasoning the sauce. Roughly chop fresh basil and add to sauce. Check for other seasonings: does it need more oregano? Salt? Freshly ground pepper (likely)? Some garlic powder? More chopped fennel seed? Anything else you want to throw in there? Do it. And if the sauce is a tad sour (which can happen depending on the tomatoes), add a few pinches of sugar. Then cook pasta in another large soup or stock pot according to package directions in salted boiling water.
7. When pasta is done, drain and return to pan. Immediately add a few ladles of sauce, to prevent sticking, and gently stir. Ladle pasta into bowls or plates and top with sauce, meatballs, and grated cheese.