Monday, June 2, 2014

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Note: This blog post originally appeared on The Novel Approach.

Food, Memories, and Love

It might just be me, but I believe one of the most powerful ways you can show someone you love them is through feeding them. Growing up, the maternal side of my family was Sicilian. And let me tell you, the Sicilians believe in three things: love, family, and food. You simply did not turn down food when you visited my relatives (and you always sat around the kitchen table when you visited, never the living room).

My mom, who passed away from cancer in 2007, was a product of her Italian roots. Her best food was the simple Sicilian peasant fare she grew up and learned to cook from the aunts and grandmother who raised her. One of her best recipes, and the one she was known for, was her spaghetti sauce and meatballs. To this day, I make her all-day-simmer sauce on lazy Sundays. The smell of it brings her memory back to me more powerfully than any photograph and, yes, that aroma often brings a tear to my eye.

I could not write my “romance with recipes” Dinner at Home, without including that recipe. I share it with you below. I also would like to share a little excerpt from the book, in which my main character, Ollie, remembers making meatballs with his own Italian mom. The excerpt reminds me of the special times I shared with my mother, almost always in the kitchen.

Ollie and Meatballs (an excerpt from Dinner at Home)

“Go ahead, you do it.”

Ollie looks up at his mother, her warm smile, her dark hair and green eyes as she stares down at the five-year-old, expectantly. 

“Like this?” Ollie asks and he upends the jug of milk over a couple of slices of white bread his mother has placed in the sink.

“Rub it in. Get the bread all nice and wet,” his mother says.

“Like it’s getting a bath?” Ollie asks.

His mother laughs. “Like it’s getting a bath.”

Once the bread is thoroughly wet, Ollie picks it up and holds it, dripping, over a bowl of equal parts ground beef, veal, and pork. 

“Now grind it all up,” his mother says. And Ollie squeezes the bread, squeezing and twisting it until it drops in damp crumbs to the meat.

“Very good.” His mom pats his head. “What comes next?”

“The eggs?”

“That’s right.” His mom hands him the first egg and Ollie awkwardly cracks it against the side of the glass bowl. Some of the white runs down the outside of the bowl. “That’s okay,” his mom says when he looks up at her, lower lip out and eyes wide. “You’ll get it right with this one.” And she hands him another egg.

He does, cracking the egg and opening it over the meat and bread mixture so the yolk breaks when it hits. He looks down at the mixture, then back to Mom. “What’s next?”

“You know what’s next.”

“Garlic?”

“Lots of garlic.” She has already chopped the cloves fine and she gestures for him to cup his hands. When he does so, she delivers the pungent smelling stuff into his palms and tells him to scatter it around.
They add dried basil, oregano, onion powder, and salt and pepper. “Now get your hands in there and mix it all up.” She rubs his back as he combines everything, giggling at the wet mushiness of the mixture. She giggles too.

“Now the best part!” Ollie says. “Meatballs.”

His mother pulls a chair from the kitchen table and sets little Ollie on it so he can work more easily. She rolls up her sleeves and says, “Let’s get to work.”

Ollie awakened from the dream with a smile. One of his favorite childhood memories was helping his Sicilian mother make her spaghetti sauce and meatballs every Sunday. He did it throughout his life. He could now make her simmer-all-day-thick, rich, and delicious sauce with his eyes closed. Even though he used all the same ingredients in all the same proportions, it never tasted quite the same. Good, but just not quite the same. There was no substitute for a mother’s love.

Mom’s Spaghetti Sauce and Meatballs
(Serves 4-6)

1 29-oz. can tomato puree
1 12-oz. can tomato paste
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoon pepper
1-1/2 teaspoon sugar
Pinch of baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon each oregano, basil, and onion powder
2 handfuls grated Romano or Parmesan cheese (half a cup?)
7 cups water or 1-2 cups red wine with the remainder water (I usually use wine)

Note: Most all of the above ingredients can just be eyeballed. Mix everything in a big pot, add meatballs and pork and simmer for at least four hours. Highly recommended: brown some pork (ribs, chops, whatever’s cheap, a little less than a pound in the pan you’re going to cook the sauce in. Just caramelize it. Once it’s done, pull out, deglaze with a splash of red wine, and begin making your sauce.)

Meatballs
1 lb. ground beef (or beef and pork, or turkey)
1 egg
1 slice bread
¼ cup milk
Salt, pepper, garlic powder, parsley, onion powder, basil, oregano (just eyeball all of this)

Take a slice of bread, wet with milk, crumble into meat, and add seasonings and egg. Mix with hands, form into balls, brown in hot fry pan on stove in a little olive oil, and drop into the sauce.

Read another excerpt

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from Dreamspinner Press in ebook or in paperback
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