In less than 30 days, we’re leaving for Italy. It hasn’t quite set in yet, even though I’ve been swamped with securing lodging, booking reservations for the busier sights, and familiarizing myself with three very different cities for our 12-day vacation. I’ve found a cute apartment (with a kitchen I’m planning on using) in Rome a couple of blocks from the Piazza Campo de Fiori (which has an outdoor morning market) where we’ll be for four nights. Then we’re off to Sorrento near the Amalfi Coast for three nights so the menfolk can wallow in all that’s Pompeii & Vesuvius and I can oogle over the vistas with some limoncello. We’ll finish up in Florence, or right outside of Florence in an old, old farmhouse.
Yours truly is our travel agent, and let me tell you, it’s a lot of work!
So how are we getting ready for all of this? With food, of course. Italian food. And although I’m attempting to find recipes that are related to the cuisine we may find in each of the areas we’ll be visiting, as long as it’s Italian, we’re fine. It will be truly interesting once we’re there to compare authentic Italian cuisine with what we’ve always thought it’s been and know we’re in for some surprises.
In celebration of that, I’m starting with a recipe I found recently for Spaghetti & Meatballs. It seemed appropriate to begin with something so many are familiar with, and with a recipe that varies from one family to the next, each with its own secret ingredients.
My family is not Italian — at least not that I know of, but there are a few skeletons in our many closets! The spaghetti we had for dinner when I was growing up was looked forward to even though it was made from ground beef, a can of tomato paste, a package of Shilling’s spaghetti mix, and some water. We’d ask for spaghetti noodles, but most often ended up with penne or ziti, my mother not especially wanting to deal with the mess we’d have made slurping long, tomato sauced pieces of pasta.
When I saw Angelo "Squatty" Coschignano’s Meatballs with Billy’s Sauce in the April issue of Gourmet, I couldn’t pass up the recipe. And true to my sorry form, I hadn’t planned it in advance, but was able to pull it off with what I had on hand. Okay, so not exactly the recipe, but good enough for me to imagine what the real deal must taste like.
To die for.
Angelo Coschignano & Billy — whoever you are, thanks. Thanks very much!
Papardelle & Meatballs
For the Sauce
2 1/2 c. water
1-1/2 tsp. good chicken bouillon
1/2 oz. dried porcinis
1/2 lb. piece top round (whole)
chicken parts (neck, gizzard, liver, heart)
1/3 c. olive oil
5 bacon slices, coarsely chopped
2 lg. onions, coarsely chopped
coarsely chopped fresh basil
1/4 c. coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
garlic cloves, smashed
(28-oz) cans diced tomatoes in juice
14 oz. marinara sauce (jar)
c. dry red wine
2 T sugar
1/4 c. grated Parmesan
Hydrate the porcinis with 1 c. of very hot water and let sit for about 20 minutes. (You may need to filter the water to remove sediment before using it.) Heat the remaining 1-1/2 c. water and add the bouillon, stirring until dissolved.
Heat the oil in a large, deep pot, and when hot, saute chicken parts and piece of sirloin until beginning to brown. Add bacon and continue to fry until soft, 3-5 minutes. Add the onions and saute about 7-8 minutes, until soft and golden.
Add the basil, parsley, and garlic, stirring it in, about 3 minutes.
Stir in all the tomatoes and sauce, then add the wine, sugar, mushrooms, and their water, as well as the chicken bouillon and mix well, cooking until it reaches a simmer. Add the parmesan all at once and stir it in.
Let sauce simmer over a very low flame for about 2 hours until very thick. Add salt and pepper to taste.
For the Balls
1 lg. garlic clove, chopped
3/4 lb. ground veal
1/2 lb. Sweet Italian sausage
1/2 lb. ground sirloin
2 T chopped fresh basil
1 T chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/3 c. grated fresh Parmesan
1/3 c. Italian seasoned fine dry bread crumbs
1 lg. egg
1/2 c. olive oil
1 lb. papardelle
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
About half way through the sauce simmer time:
Mix all ingredients except olive oil in a large bowl. Use your hands to squeeze everything through your fingers making sure all is incorporated. Dampen your hands, and make about 18-20 nicely rounded balls.
In a skillet, heat the olive oil until very hot and brown the balls in small batches until browned on all sides.
Place the browned balls in a large baking dish and cover them with 1 qt. of the tomato sauce. Cover the dish with foil and bake about 30 minutes until the balls are cooked through.
Pour over cooked papardelle and sprinkle on some parmesan.
Notes: Okay, so I have no idea where to get veal neck bones, which is what the original recipe called for. I don’t exactly keep those things in my freezer. Not only do they make me feel a bit squiggy around the edges, but there’s just no way I’d end up with them left over from something else. I do, however usually have other less squiggy odds and ends in my freezer for any number of reasons, and decided that a chunk of top round and some chicken parts I would work just fine.
And the mushrooms? Well, the original recipe called for porcini bouillon, and I spent about two seconds marveling over the idea that such a thing existed before I remembered that I had a packet of dried porcinis in my cupboard. You know what they say about a well-stocked pantry, right? Well. Actually, I purchased these in Virginia while visiting my sister last Christmas and wasn’t about to leave them there. There’s no way she’d use them ever, and how sad is that? So I packed them up and brought them home and see how handy they were?
Other substitutions? Oh yes. The top round. Instead of chopping it, I decided it was all about the flavor, so cooked it and the chicken parts in the sauce and then removed them. All that nice caramelly brown stuff on the bottom of the pan was able to flavor the sauce just fine. As much as I can say that the beef was very nicely cooked and shredded easily after simmering in that lovely tomato sauce(the menfolk picked at it until it was gone), there was no way I was going to leave it in the sauce since the sauce was destined for meatballs. Who ever heard of pouring a meat sauce over meatballs? Okay, I’m sure someone out there has, so the line forms at the left and you can set me straight.
What else? Well. The original called for day old Italian bread soaked in 1-1/2 cups of milk, squeezed, then the milk tossed. Not only did I not have Italian bread, I couldn’t bring myself to even use a stale loaf of sliced bread and then throw out all that milk. Sorry. No criticism on the original recipe, because I have soaked dried bread before, but the liquid went in the sauce.
I know there’s something else…OH! The tomato paste. I actually didn’t have any. So much for my well-stocked pantry, right? But I did have half a jar of very good marinara, and so used that instead figuring that the intensity of the flavor would be a somewhat decent substitute.
So the outcome? The sauce was very good. It was thick, and a pleasant combination of tomato tartness, mellowed to a rich, bacony lusciousness. The balls? The jury said they weren’t juicy enough, but the outspoken part of that jury was my mother, and she thinks everything needs a ton of fat in it. I am wondering what the bread would have added to these, thinking it may have lightened them up a bit.
The sauce recipe makes about 2 quarts, so you’ll have lots of leftovers to experiment with.
Like one of the grilled pizzas we had a few days later. Mmmmmm…..