What could be more (Italian-)American than ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ for the 4th of July? Of course, this is tagliatelle and meatballs, but that’s close enough. The meatballs are a ground turkey, beef and bread mixture, flavored with dried mushroom powder and raisins. The tomato sauce was cooked down for a long time, and then the meatballs were fried and cooked in the sauce for another 45 minutes to soak up some of the sauce.
I’ve been browsing through three different cookbooks by Lidia Bastianich, but “Lidia’s Family Table” has become my favorite of those, by far. This recipe is called “Long-cooked sugo and meatballs”, which caught my attention because of the word ‘sugo’. As I’ve mentioned before, my mom grew up in Uruguay, South America, where there is actually a very large number of Italian immigrants. When I was growing up, my mom would make a long-cooked spaghetti sauce that she called ‘tuco’. After tasting this ‘sugo’ which is very similar, I have to wonder if there’s a connection between those words. The recipe below was slightly adapted (and cut in half) from the original recipe, and should still serve 4 easily as a main dish. Or double it and make enough to freeze for later!
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 carrot, minced
1-2 stalks celery, minced (should be the same amount as the carrot)
3 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 1/2 c. pureed canned San Marzano plum tomatoes with their juice
5 c. chicken broth
1 cinnamon stick
salt, to taste
The onion, garlic, carrot and celery can be minced in a food processor to very small pieces. In a large saucepan or pot, saute the vegetables in olive oil over medium heat and add a sprinkle of salt. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring well, and then add the bay leaves and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Add the tomato paste to a corner of the pan and stir to loosen it up, then mix it in with the rest of the veggies. Add the pureed tomatoes, and use about a cup of broth to rinse out the tomato container, adding the liquid to the pot. Add another 4 cups of broth to the mixture and stir well. Add cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, then cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar and reduce the heat to a lively simmer. Let cook for an hour or longer, stirring and checking ever 20 minutes or so. The sauce will stay thin, but should gradually reduce in volume. Meanwhile, make the meatballs;
heaping 1/3 c. golden raisins
1/2 onion, minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. mushroom powder (see below)
3 sliced stale Italian bread
1 c. milk, for soaking bread
1 1/2 lb. ground turkey, or turkey and beef mixture
1 egg white
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
heaping 1/3 c. pine nuts, toasted (optional)
Cover the raisins with warm water and let them plump up. Saute the onion in olive oil over medium heat with a pinch of salt until wilted and translucent but not browned. Remove from heat.
For mushroom powder, place dried mushrooms (porcini were recommended, but I used shiitake since that’s what I had on hand from Asian cooking) in a spice grinder or small food processor. Pulverize until powdered.
Break up the bread into pieces and cover with milk. After a few minutes of soaking in milk, squeeze the bread to remove excess liquid and discard the milk. Drain the raisins in a similar manner.
Mix together these prepared items with the rest of the meatball ingredients and mix well with your hands until it gets less sticky and starts to really hold together, it’s almost like kneading a dough. Use a small scoop or your hands to portion small meatballs about the size of a golf ball. Place meatballs on a baking pan or large plate coated with flour.
Heat a non-stick skillet with about 1/2-inch of oil over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, toss the meatballs briefly to coat with flour, shaking off excess. Place one layer of meatballs in the skillet. Cook and flip meatballs until golden brown on all sides. Remove to a paper towel to drain. Repeat with remaining meatballs until the entire batch is fried. Frying the meatballs before adding them to the sugo (sauce) helps them stay intact and gives them a nice flavor.
When the sauce has cooked for at least 1 hour, add the meatballs. If necessary, add a bit more hot water or broth so that meatballs stay covered with sauce. Gently stir, cover the pot, and bring it back to a gentle simmer. Set the cover ajar and continue simmering for another 45 minutes. Remove the meatballs to a large bowl while you finish the sauce. The sauce should be nicely thickened from the flour that originally coated the meatballs, but if not, continue to cook it with the lid off to thicken. Taste and adjust seasonings, removing bay leaves and cinnamon stick. Then add the sauce back to the meatballs and serve over pasta.