Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs

by Patrick Barabe

You could call this two recipes, but in my family, spaghetti doesn't really exist without meatballs. I recommend serving over regular spaghetti noodles or spaghetti squash (I usually go for spaghetti squash these days). Adjust as you like. It works best on Sundays.

This recipe is an ancient family secret, so don't tell anyone about it.

Prep time: 4 to 5 hours

Ingredients

Note: Since this is a "recipe" I've included quantities of things.
But you should know I don't actually measure spices when I make this.
I just add things until they look and taste right.

Rules of thumb:

  1. Use half as much oregano as basil. Unless you REALLY love oregano. Then do what you want, but remember I warned you.
  2. When the sauce is new in the pot (ie. Step 1 below), you'll want to see spices speckled throughout or you haven't used enough. They'll essentially be invisible by the time the sauce is done.
  3. It's pretty hard to use too much garlic.
  4. Read rule 3 again.

Meatballs

Note: Ground beef or pork work best.
Ground turkey can work, but you may find it a little dry without adding a bit of lard or bacon fat.
You probably shouldn't use ground turkey.
I prefer 1 lb ground beef plus 1 lb pork Italian sausage, in which case I don't add any salt.

Sauce

Note: Add or replace some of the dried basil & oregano with fresh herbs, if you like, but make sure to use at least half dried spices for best results.
I know I know, Anthony Bourdain said he couldn't understand why anyone would use dried herbs.
But he didn't know what he was talking about.
I like fresh herbs, too.
But dried herbs make the best sauce.
Trust me.

Step 1: Start the Sauce

Empty all your cans (and your diced tomatoes) into a large saucepan or pot and place on medium-low heat (be sure to use a pot large enough for more than double the volume of the cans).
Fill the sauce and paste cans with water and stir to dissolve all remaining sauce/paste, then empty into the pot.
Add the dried spices (basil, oregano, onion, and garlic), but no salt.
Stir until thoroughly mixed.
Reduce heat when it starts bubbling.

Step 2: Make Your Meatballs

Put the ground meat into a large bowl.
If using more than one kind of meat, mix lightly.
Add the other ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Put a large skillet on medium heat.
Hopefully you're using cast iron, or at least a well-seasoned steel skillet.
If not, I forgive you, but next time I expect you to have rectified this oversight.
If using a very lean meat, add a heaping tablespoon of lard or bacon fat, or your preferred oil if those aren't at hand.

With your hands, grab a quantity of the meat mixture and roll into a ball (roughly the size of a golf ball, maybe a little bigger, definitely smaller than a tennis ball - waaaay smaller than a tennis ball) until it stays formed on its own.
Place in the skillet to brown.
Make 4 or 5 more balls, placing each into the skillet.

Turn the balls in the skillet occasionally until all sides are browned.
If you encounter any sticking, you need more fat or oil.
When fully browned, move each ball to the sauce.
Continue making and browning balls until they're all in the sauce.
Your hands will be a mess.
Go wash them.

Step 3: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Sauce

At this point, you hopefully have a decent coating of fat or oil in your pan - if needed, either add some or drain just a little off.
Mince the onion and sautee on a medium heat in the skillet, stirring occasionally.
Mince the mushrooms and stir into the skillet once the onions begin to go clear, continuing to stir occasionally.
Mince the garlic and stir into the skillet with the onions and mushrooms once the mushrooms start to lose their water.
And keep on stirring as needed - you know how sauteeing works right?
If you have fresh basil or oregano, now's a good time to mince those and add them to the mix, as well.
When it seems done (eg. before the garlic starts to get crispy), scrape everything into the sauce and stir that until well mixed.

Step 4: The Secret

If you don't know what The Secret is, A) you're probabaly not Sicilian and B) I'm not allowed to tell you.
It's a generational tradition handed down through the ages, bolstered by tales of mischief and mirth and rooted in mystery.
It's the spirit of grandmothers who smile at you with a twinkle in their eye and missing teeth, and of pot-bellied grandfathers who tell tall tales and don't give a damn about buttoning their shirts at the table.
It's the pit of the magic fruit that really makes the flavor pop.
A little goes a long way... don't use too much.

Step 5: And Now We Wait

Turn heat to a low simmer and put a lid on it, leaving the lid cocked a bit to vent steam.
Stir occasionally (every 10 - 20 minutes or so), being sure to scrape from the bottom of the pot to prevent burning.
Use a wooden spoon.

After an hour, taste sauce.
Add a bit of salt, if needed.
But only a little bit - don't fuck it up.
Add a tablespoon of honey if it's a little bitter.
Taste it again, but then leave it alone.

Keep on stirring occasionally and make sure to scrape the bottom.
This is really important.

After 45 minutes or so, taste it again.
You probably shouldn't add any more salt, unless you really didn't get it right the first time.
Hopefully you didn't add too much.
You may need a little more honey, but take it easy - you don't want it to taste sweet, you just want to cut through any bitterness.

Keep on stirring occasionally (and be sure to scrape the bottom).

After another 45 minutes, taste it again.
You really shouldn't need to do anything at this point unless you really goofed before.
If you goofed, I don't know what to tell you.
It's probably time to have a cocktail or a glass of wine and chill out and stop worring about the sauce.

Do some stirring and some scraping.

Your house is gonna smell really good by now, and you're going to be tempted to think it's done.
You will be wrong.
But you can taste it again, if you want.
You could get a small piece of some nice french bread from a bakery and dip it in.
But just a little bit - don't eat too much.
No really, stop... go have another cocktail or glass of wine.

And, you know, keep on stirring it now and again.

And scrape the bottom.

Exactly 42 minutes and 12 seconds after the last time you tasted things, you can start to make your pasta.

But start earlier if you're gonna have spaghetti squash (depending on your oven, you probably need an hour).
Don't ask me how to make spaghetti squash, that's what the internet is for.

When your pasta is ready, take the sauce off the heat.
Make sure you've got a salad or some garlic bread, if that's your deal.
You know where to go from here.

Eat.

Enjoy.

You're welcome.

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