Pasta was the staple food at my mom's house when I was growing up. Often just plain pasta with parmesan, sometimes with broccoli. Every couple of weeks though, my mom would get fancy and make meatballs and tomato sauce. I have fond memories of these meatballs adorning our daily pasta and of course there was the excitement of patiently watching/smelling/hearing the meatballs cook at the back of the stove.
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To be honest, I just made up this recipe from memory with a few modifications. I'm pretty sure my mom used dried oregano and far less onions and carrots than I did. In the picture above, I used 1# beef, 1/2 onion, 1 small carrot, and a few sprigs of oregano fresh from my garden. I also used cornmeal because I was all out of breadcrumbs. My mom used to grind up stale sandwich bread in her food processor and then save the crumbs in a gallon ziplock bag in the freezer for later use in meatballs or other things. So, these aren't exactly my mom's meatballs, but I'm inclined to say they're close enough.
What defines these meatballs for me is that they're cooked in the tomato sauce. You can get the tomato sauce going before or after mixing and forming the meatballs.
Mom's Tomato Sauce
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Sauté the onions just until they're translucent. Then add two large cans of tomatoes and a small can of tomato paste. Rinse out the cans with a little bit of water and add that too.
Canned tomatoes come in many shapes (diced, whole, crushed...), any will do. If you're working with whole tomatoes, you can squish them against the side of the pot with a spoon. Or my favorite method is to first pour the whole tomatoes into a bowl and squish them with my bare (clean) hands.
Bring the sauce up to a simmer and then add the meatballs to it.
Make sure to stir often to keep the sauce from burning on the bottom. After adding the meatballs, start cooking some spaghetti.
When the spaghetti is al dente, strain it and serve it with meatballs and sauce on top. Ideally sprinkled with parmesan cheese too.
It was fascinating what strong memories this brought back for both me and Alex. I imagine that most people who grew up in the US have a childhood connection to classic spaghetti and meatballs. Alex exclaimed a few bites in that this is the ultimate comfort food. I wasn't so sure, for me this was one of those kid foods that just doesn't have the same magic as an adult. If I were to make this again, I would at least add garlic and omit the tomato paste in the sauce. Really, this dish is a blank canvass ready for herbs (oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, chives, cilantro, parsley, basil...), cheeses (fresh cheeses, salted and aged cheeses, maybe even some stinky blue cheeses), and vegetables (fresh tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, summer squash, corn, mushrooms, peppers...).