Dinner #1: Spaghetti with Meatballs

There are some meals that I can cook in my sleep, with one hand tied behind my back.  Spaghetti is one of those meals.  Long ago, when I when I was just establishing myself as a home cook, I had a very limited repertoire.  It wasn’t because I lacked a willingness to experiment and it wasn’t due to a lack of creativity, training or knowledge that curtailed my culinary endeavors to a mere handful of recipes. 

Being a parent of very young children changes a person in many ways and one of those inevitable changes is a parents’ diet.  I don’t regret anything about having children.  One of the greatest things about having children is watching them grow up to become living, breathing, free-thinking adults.  I wouldn’t trade the experience of raising children for anything.

Young children don’t have refined, educated palettes.  Surprise!  For a long time, my wife and I didn’t even think about making something like Steak with Roquefort Cheese Sauce, Bratwurst with Sauerkraut or Tandoori Chicken.  Heck, we were lucky if we could sneak a vegetable past our kids every now and then without them noticing. 

We realized pretty quickly that our meals repeated week after week.  Four or five basic recipes stayed in constant rotation.  It got to a point where I assigned a number to the meals.  Monday nights were spaghetti and Friday nights were homemade pizza so, Spaghetti became Dinner #1 and Pizza became Dinner #5.  Dinners 2,3 and 4 varied over the years and they entered and exited the rotation as young taste buds changed.  They included simple meals like, chicken nuggets and tater tots, tacos with salad and fish sticks, with macaroni and cheese.  Our weekends were “anything goes” days.  It might be barbacoa tacos, pan fried chicken or a pasta casserole.  We made sure to include fresh fruit as often as possible, especially because the only vegetable our kids would willingly eat was raw carrot sticks. 

Eh, they survived.  And, so did we.  I look back on those days fondly.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and Dinner #1 is still one of my favorite go-to meals.  I have made spaghetti over 1,000 times in my lifetime.  That’s not a guess…that’s real math at work! 

Now that my children are grown, I have more free time which means I can add flair to simple recipes, like spaghetti and meatballs.  For this version, I used homemade tomato sauce.  I also employed some extra tricks to make this meal a little more special.  Plain tomato sauce tends to be acidic.  I could have added a few tablespoons of sugar or honey to balance the sauce but I used Marsala wine, roasted garlic and fire roasted bell pepper, which provided all of the necessary sweetness and it gave the sauce an additional depth of flavor.

This recipe will feed about 6 people.

Ingredients:

24 oz tomato sauce (store-bought sauce is perfectly fine)

1 whole garlic bulb

¼ cup fresh basil

½ red bell pepper

½ onion

¼ cup Marsala wine

1 lb. ground beef (80/20)

½ cup bread crumbs

1 Tbs dried oregano

2 tsp dried rosemary (ground)

2 eggs

¼ cup grated, dry Parmesan cheese

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp salt

½ cup grated, fresh Parmesan cheese

For the spaghetti noodles:

4 quarts water

12 oz dry spaghetti noodles

1 Tbs kosher salt

1 bay leaf

1 Tbs olive oil

Directions:

If you are using store-bought tomato sauce, feel free to skip to the section on Preparing the Meatballs.

Otherwise…

Heat an oven to 300°.

Prepare the herbs, onion, garlic and bell pepper.

Roughly chop the basil and set aside.

Chop the onion into ¼” pieces and set aside.

Separate the garlic bulb in half.  One half of the garlic will be roasted in the oven and the other half will be minced, fresh.

Wrap one half of the garlic bulb in aluminum foil and place on the rack, in the oven.

Rest the half bell pepper on a stove burner and char the pepper over low heat.  Rotate the pepper for several minutes to all the pepper to char on all sides. 

Wrap the pepper in foil and put it on the oven rack, with the garlic.

Allow the garlic and red pepper to bake in the foil for about 20 minutes. Remove the garlic and pepper.

Unwrap the red pepper and allow it to cool for a few minutes.  Rinse under water to remove the charred parts. 

Slice the top and stem of the pepper and discard.  Lay the remaining red pepper on a clean surface and dice into ¼” pieces.  Set aside.

Remove the roasted garlic from the foil and squeeze the soft garlic from the papery husks.  Mash the garlic into a paste with the broad side of a kitchen knife and set aside.

Mince the cloves of the other half of the garlic bulb and set aside.

Preparing the Meatballs:

In a large mixing bowl add the ground beef, bread crumbs, eggs, dry Parmesan cheese, oregano, rosemary, salt and pepper. 

Mix until all of the ingredients have combined. 

Form into 1” balls and leave the meatballs in the mixing bowl. 

In a large skillet, set the heat on the stove to low and add a tablespoon of olive oil.  Add the onions and sauté until slightly softened.  Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. 

Add the meatballs and cover the pan.

Simmer the meatballs for about 5 minutes at low heat and then turn them over.  Cover the pan and cook for another few minutes.  Keep turning the meatballs every few minutes until they become firm.

Strain the meatballs to remove the grease.  Return the meatballs to the pan. 

Add the tomato sauce to the meatballs.  Stir the meatballs in the sauce and add the Marsala, roasted garlic, roasted bell pepper, fresh garlic, chopped basil, oregano, rosemary, salt and black pepper.  Stir briefly to incorporate.

Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. 

While the sauce is finishing, prepare spaghetti noodles in a large stock pot.  Add the water to the pot and bring to a boil.  Add a tablespoon of salt, a bay leaf and 1 tablespoon of oil.  Add spaghetti noodles and cook until the noodles are al dente.

Serve with fresh Parmesan cheese, garlic bread and salad.

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