The minute the weather turned permanently colder, with no chance of more warm, short-sleeve days, my mother would make a huge pot of spaghetti sauce with what seemed like hundreds of meatballs. I would come home from school, my knees chilly between my knee socks and my dress — I hated walking home in the cold, in those days before school buses, when everyone walked to their neighborhood schools.
I would enter the house in a really bad mood, until I got a whiff of the wonderful sauce simmering on the stove. Suddenly, my irritation would vanish because I knew that we would be having one of my favorite dinners: spaghetti and meatballs..
My mother’s sauce would probably not win any gourmet cooking contests and would probably be snubbed by true Italians, but we loved it. My dad would get silly and teach us how to slurp long strands of spaghetti, then give a quarter to the one of us who slurped the loudest. I rarely won, but it was fun anyways.
My mother’s sauce cooked for hours. She cooked the meatballs directly in the sauce. They would get soft and delicious as they picked up the tomato-y sauce flavors. My mother never added any red pepper flakes or other “heat” to the sauce — she did not like spicy foods — but my dad would grab red pepper flakes and jarred hot peppers and mix both into his plate. I loved the gentle hint of garlic and the mushrooms and onions. I did pick out the green peppers, though. Maybe a precursor to my eventual allergy to them.
By the time my kids were old enough for me to make this for them, they already loved spicy foods. My daughter, at two, once demanded a bagel with mustard! But my kids always liked spicy foods, so I added lots of garlic and some red pepper flakes. Even my mom finally decided that she loved it that way!
So this week, when the temperature hit 30 degrees at night and I saw frost on my window, I decided to make a batch of spaghetti and meatballs. My kids called as if they had radar. Had I made enough for them?
Fall is the perfect time for some pasta and sauce, and whether you make it with meatballs or keep it vegetarian, it is a perfect meal for those suddenly colder autumn nights when the kids are still playing soccer after school and come into the house needing a good, hot meal. This meal is bound to make them smile, just as it did for me those cold days long ago.
All Day Sauce (Pareve)
You don’t have to cook this all day (a few hours will do), but it helps the flavors come together and bloom into deliciousness.
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions, diced
2 to 3 Tbsp. finely minced garlic
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 to 2 tsp. Italian seasoning OR 1 tsp. each dried oregano and basil
OPTIONAL: 2 green peppers, seeded, white pith removed, diced
OPTIONAL: 10 oz. white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 large (28 oz.) cans crushed tomatoes
2 large (28 oz.) cans diced tomatoes
1 large (11 oz.) can tomato paste
Heat a large soup pot and add the olive oil. Add the onions and cook until light golden. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and Italian seasoning, and mix until fragrant. Add the peppers and cook until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until they reabsorb most of the liquid, about 7 to 10 minutes.
Add the canned tomato products, except the tomato paste and mix well. Cover and simmer, stirring often, for 20 minutes. Add the tomato paste and whisk to blend. When completely incorporated, bring to a simmer and add the meatballs, if using. Partially cover and simmer for several hours, skimming off any fat that rises to the top and then mixing well. Add salt, pepper, and adjust seasonings of red pepper flakes and Italian seasoning during the last half hour of cooking. Makes several quarts. Freezes well.
My Mother’s Jewish Italian Meatballs (Meat)
She called them Jewish Italian because they had no dairy, while her Italian neighbor made meatballs with milk-soaked bread and cheese! The name stuck.
3 lbs. hamburger
2 to 3 large onions, finely chopped
Several cloves garlic, finely minced (I use about 1 to 2 heaping Tbsp.)
1 tsp. oregano, to taste
1 cup, more or less, breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Mix all the ingredients together and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes in the refrigerator to firm up. Form into meatballs about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Drop into the tomato sauce, and every so often gently push down using a large spoon or ladle. When all the meatballs are added, partially cover and simmer, mixing gently after about 20 minutes and then frequently after that for several hours. Skim off any fat that rises to the top.
NOTE: If you like, you can make larger meatballs and roast them first before adding them to the sauce.
Vegetarian Meatballs (Pareve)
3 cups very small cauliflower florets
3 cups cooked brown rice
1 large onion, finely diced
1 Tbsp. finely minced garlic, more or less to taste
1-2 tsp. Italian spices or spices of your choice
Herbs to taste, such as oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary
4 extra-large eggs
3/4 cup oat flour, chickpea flour, or unbleached white flour
Salt and black pepper to taste
Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the cauliflower. Cook until softened, but not mushy. Drain well and place in a food processor. Add the cooked rice and process until smooth. Set aside.
Heat a skillet and add the olive oil. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the garlic and cook until golden, 5 to 9 minutes. When evenly browned, add the herbs you like and cook another 1 to 2 minutes. Add to the rice mixture and pulse to blend.
Add the eggs and blend. Add the oats or chickpea flour or flour and pulse to blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let sit for 5 minutes to thicken. Scrape into a bowl and make balls about an inch in diameter.
Add olive oil to the skillet and cook the meatballs until evenly golden on all sides.
Serve with sauce and paste or as a “meatball” sub. Makes about 40 veggie balls.
Turkey Meatballs (Meat)
These are great with tomato sauce, or with a teriyaki sauce and rice for an Asian dish.
1 lb. ground turkey, white and dark meat
1 generous Tbsp. finely minced garlic
1/2 tsp. sage
1 onion, finely minced
1/2 tsp. salt, to taste
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 extra-large egg
1 large potato baked or boiled and cooled, well-mashed
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl and let sit for 5 minutes to thicken.
Roll into balls an inch in diameter. Heat a large skillet and add the diced onion. Cook until translucent. Add the turkey balls and cook until golden on all sides. Serve with the onions and the pasta sauce. Makes about 30 turkey balls.