Weeknight Pasta and Meatballs

Weeknight Pasta and Meatballs

Serves 4-6

Before you start the recipe, arrange two oven racks evenly spaced in the oven, then preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Meatballs

1-1/4 pounds lean ground beef (at least 90% lean)

2 garlic cloves, finely minced or crushed in a garlic press

¾ cup fresh bread crumbs (plus more if needed)

½ cup freshly-grated parmesan cheese (or half parmesan, half romano)

1 large egg, beaten with 3 tablespoons of milk (plus more milk if needed)

1/8 teaspoon dried fennel seed, roughly ground in a mortar and pestle or chopped with a knife

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 teaspoon fresh)

½ teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon crushed hot red pepper flakes

¼ teaspoon sweet paprika

Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside.  Break up the ground beef and put the pieces in a large bowl.  Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over the meat, then the cheese and garlic.  Combine the fennel seed, salt, oregano, black and red pepper, and paprika in a small bowl.  Sprinkle the salt mixture evenly into the bowl with the meat.  Pour the egg/milk mixture on top.  Then, using your hands, gently mix everything just until it’s fairly uniform.  It will be wet.  If it looks runny, add some more bread crumbs, and if it seems dry and not nice and mushy, then add a little milk.

Using a teaspoon (not a measuring teaspoon, but one you’d actually use for tea) drop one-inch pieces of the meatball mixture onto the prepared baking sheets.  You’ll have between 40 and 50 small meatballs.  Put the sheets in the oven and cook for 30 minutes.  They should be cooked and a little browned.  Let the meatballs set for a few minutes to firm up a little, then put them in the sauce and mix gently.

Sauce

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

1 15-ounce can small-diced tomatoes (preferably Muir Glen)

1/3 cup dry red wine

2 garlic cloves, finely minced or crushed in a garlic press

1 tablespoon tomato paste

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 teaspoon fresh)

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly-ground black pepper

A large pinch crushed hot red pepper flakes

In a large non-stick pot (at least four quarts in size), heat the olive oil over medium heat, along with the red pepper flakes, oregano, salt, and a few grinds of black pepper.  Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds, then stir in the tomato paste and cook for a minute until the tomato paste is a little less red.  Stir in the wine, then the crushed and diced tomatoes.  Bring the sauce to a boil, and reduce the heat to where it’s perking nicely – more than a simmer but not a full-out boil.  Stir the sauce every few minutes to keep it from sticking (it will still stick to the pot a little, even though the pot is non-stick) and be sure to stir in anything that gets a little browned too.  If you have a splatter screen, put it over the pot to keep the sauce from sending little jets of itself onto your stove.  Cook for at least 20 minutes until it thickens nicely (it shouldn’t take more than 25 minutes), and taste for salt and pepper.

Pasta and finishing

1 pound small pasta (such as penne, ziti, or gemelli)

Salt

Parmesan cheese (of a mixture of parmesan and romano) for serving

While the meatballs are in the oven, heat a large pot (5 quarts or so) of water.  When it boils, add at least a tablespoon of salt, and cook the pasta for about 2 minutes less than the package says to.  Taste a piece.  It should be just about cooked to the tenderness you like it.  If it seems too hard, cook it for another minute or two.  Ladle out a cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta in a colander.  Add the drained pasta to the pot with the sauce and meatballs and cook for a minute over medium-high heat.  Add some of the pasta water if it seems a little dry.  Serve topped with extra cheese.

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