New York Meatballs & Quick Marinara Sauce.
Moving meditation are two words that I was hesitant to start this blog post with, however sometimes this is exactly the relief that cooking gives me. I have written a post about mindfulness in cooking before with a risotto recipe, but I genuinely believe there are a lot of calming properties to be found in cooking. There is no worse feeling than that of knowing you are dreading going home to cook dinner, when so many recipes are built to be the antidote to such dread. Rolling spongy cuts of meats into cute little balls is my idea of relaxation and I encourage you to feel the same.
A few times now, a meatball dish has been my answer to a gathering. I’m avoiding the term dinner party lately because it implies there will be some kind of formality and that essentially I will disappoint my guests when they arrive to me in my pyjamas and an un-laid table. I find that meatball dishes soothe not only the cook but also the ‘guest’, as they have a very relaxed and ‘table banter’ nuance to them. It’s perfect ‘friends over for dinner food’ as it requires sitting a table due to the dexterity it takes to eat them with spaghetti, but they’re also so vulgar and brash in appearance that you don’t feel you’re sat down with royalty.
This dish is a subtle recreation of a dish I ate when I was in New York several years ago with some school friends. We went to a restaurant called ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ on Halloween and I was encapsulated by the idea of ordering something that came with ‘marinara’ sauce, as I’d only ever seen it being consumed on American TV programmes. The ignorance of youth told me I was ordering some fancy American dish, however the experience of adolescence tells me that marinara sauce is just a deeper flavoured tomato sauce that can easily be recreated at home.
I have no shame in all of the corners I cut here. I roast my meatballs in an oven as I hate having too many things on the hob at once. This dish is what it is. It’s slightly rustic yet not old fashioned with a real urban city foundation that roots it to its inspiration. It’s the kind of dish a New Yorker of Italian decent would rustle up for his children as they do a fly by visit to the City from college to see family members and steal food from their cupboard. I paint quite the picture, don’t I?
Finely chop a white onion and in a large-ish saucepan (big enough to hold the sauce later), fry them in some oil until soft but not fully cooked, turn off the heat and allow them to cool. In a bowl, take four or five sausages – nothing too fancy as the more stuffed into them, the harder they are to stay together in a ball, so good quality but not chunky – and remove the meat from their slimy skin like cases. This can be done easily by gently piercing the bottom, catching it with your nail and sliding it out. Once all the meat sits in the bowl, add the cooked and cooled onion before sprinkling in some sea salt, a pinch of chili powder, a clever grating of Parmesan cheese and one egg.
Preheat the oven to 200C and grab a large roasting tray and place a baking sheet on it. Now here comes my favourite part. Dive your hands straight into the meat mixture and using your fingers, ensure all ingredients in the bowl are moulding all the ingredients together to create a nice meaty mound. Now start the moving meditation part, where you pluck roughly a big tablespoon full of meat from the mound and place it between both palms and roll one hand clockwise, the other anti-clockwise until the meat mix has formed a cute little ball. Place it on the baking sheet and repeat until you have roughly 20 balls. Lucky you. Slip the balls in fridge for a little bit to allow them to firm up.
In the empty pan in which you cooked the onions, heat a little olive oil before adding a roughly chopped onion and sweat it until it’s soft. Add a light pinch of dried chili flakes along with some oregano before grating in a garlic clove and once the garlic begins to sizzle – try not to brown it – pour in a can of chopped tomatoes before squeezing in some tomato paste. Now add two or three roughly chopped fresh tomatoes and add to the pan. Bring the pan to a bubble before adding a little sea salt and dropping to a simmer. Take your balls out of the fridge, lightly drizzle with oil and slip into the oven for roughly 40 minutes.
The next step is optional and it usually depends on my mood but you do have the option here to pour the sauce in a blender and blitz down to a thick yet velvety sauce consistency as opposed to the brutish, chunky sauce you have at this point. The taste will not be compromised either way, I promise – but I often leave this chunky when I can’t particularly be bothered for extra washing up. But the smoother option is sometimes exactly what your stomach wants, so go with your gut. But if you do blend it, pop it back in the pan once it’s blended and allow to simmer on a low heat while the balls cook.
When the balls have 15 minutes left of cooking time, put your spaghetti or linguine (or any kind of pasta, let’s be honest here) and cook as per packet instruction. Once your balls have had their 40 minutes cooking time, remove them from the oven and pour straight into the pan of marinara sauce – sausage oils and all. Drain your pasta and bowl up before ladling over your balls and sauce.
Do not be put off by the concept of putting together the meatballs. They are honestly so simple to make. Yes, you have to get your hands dirty but the therapeutic qualities these give you are second to none. It’s literally putty in your hands. Either way, this recipe is a perfect solution when you have guests coming over of a weekend and you just want to sit around a table with a few glasses of red wine and catch up on your day.
Also, if your friends are with you for a lengthy period of time, by all means please turn this into a Rag Trade dynamic. Line up your friends and get them involved. Have one person making the meat mound, a few people balling the meat mound, one person making the sauce and one person in charge of the spaghetti. It’s a whistle-while-you-work mechanic that works every time. I am not at all above slave labour in terms of friends and kitchen protocol. You’ll never watch me cook. You can help me cook. Less cooking time means more drinking time. Grab a meat mound and get rolling.