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Birthday Request: Spaghetti and Meatballs

It all seemed very reasonable. Spaghetti and meatballs for a Tuesday night birthday dinner.  One hour is all it takes to whip up the tastiest version of this dish and yet this hour was not to be had on May 31st when Talia turned 4. Facing a choice between a birthday meltdown over the cancellation of expected plans, or alternatively, serving dinner an hour late to a “hangry” preschooler, I opted for the latter. The risk was well worth it! Meatballs couldn’t be served fast enough. Spaghetti was slithering all over the table, the floor, the shirt, on its way to the mouth. But the entire affair was sufficiently celebratory despite the inauspicious start to the afternoon.

Preparation

Adapted from Chez Panisse Café Cookbook

Serves 6

Cooking time: 1 hour

(The sauce with cooked meatballs freezes nicely – double the recipe and have some on hand for a quick evening meal).

1. Take 1/4 cup of milk and add 1/4 cup of soft bread crumbs (I used half a slice of whole wheat bread and run it quickly through a small food processor) and mix gently. Soak until bread has softened, the drain through fine sieve, squeezing out most of the milk.

2. Sauteé 1 finely diced small yellow onion in olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes, in large pan (which you will also use to cook meatballs). Season with a bit of salt and set aside to cool.

3. In a medium-sized bowl, combine: 1 pound of fresh ground beef, bread crumbs, onion, 3 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese,1 beaten egg, 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley, 1 tsp finely chopped thyme, 1/8 tsp cayenne (the mild heat from the cayenne won’t be an issue for kids but adds great flavor), black pepper to taste, and 1 tsp salt (use a bit more if working with kosher salt).

4. Sauteé 1 thinly sliced red onion in large pan until soft, about 5 minutes.

5. Boil water for spaghetti. Don’t forget to add a generous helping of salt to water once it comes to a boil.

4. Mix ingredients gently but thoroughly until beef reaches an even consistency. Shape mixture into walnut sized balls with wet hands – this is a great kid task! If cooking meatballs immediately, add to pan with onions over medium heat. The uncooked meatballs can also be placed on a plate or baking sheet and refrigerated for a few hours before cooking.

5. Add spaghetti to boiling, salted water. It is should cook in 8-10 minutes, about the time it takes for the meatballs to finish cooking.

6. Cook meatballs with the red onion, over medium heat, shaking the pan to prevent sticking. Gently turn and toss the onions and meatballs so they brown slightly. Add 2-3 cloves chopped garlic and cook for a few seconds, making sure it doesn’t burn.

7. Add 2 cups simple tomato sauce (look for one in a glass jar with few ingredients – tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, basil perhaps), 1/2 tsp fresh (1 tsp dried) chopped oregano, 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley to sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

8. Simmer gently, uncovered, occasionally stirring the meatballs to coat them with sauce. Check for doneness in about 8-10 minutes.

Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and hot chili flakes if desired (and don’t forget the birthday cake!).


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Homemade Burgers with Sweet Potato Fries

Who knew that burgers and fries are almost as easy to make at home as they are to eat out? This simple and delicious dinner only made it into our repertoire last year, when Ava suddenly decided she was cool with meat prepared this way. Once I realized that you can pull this together in 30 minutes flat, I would regularly stock the freezer with grassfed ground beef from the farmers’ market, which comes conveniently Cryo-Vac’d in 1 pound packages. Pull the meat out in the morning and its perfectly defrosted by dinner time. Pair the burger with baked sweet potato fries, regular potatoes, a vegetable, a salad, etc. I rarely bother to make real french fries but have tried on occasion (though the 30 minute meal factor gets thrown out the window anytime deep frying is involved).

We are still struggling with finding the right bun because no matter what we’ve tried so far, whether its sliced ciabatta, baguette, smaller whole grain buns, etc.,. the kids leave half uneaten (yet insist on the complete burger of course). Our local burger joint has these perfectly spongy versions that I wish were available for purchase. I suppose I could try making my own but that is beyond the scope of my life at this very moment!

Preparation

Serves 4

  • 1 – 1 1/2 lbs grassfed ground beef
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 buns
  • 2 large sweet potatoes
  • Good olive oil
  • chopped parsley for garnish

Burger

Heat an outdoor or indoor grill on high. Salt and pepper the ground beef generously with kosher salt, gently mixing it. Careful not to overwork the meat when mixing or shaping the burger – according to many sources, this is the key to tasty burgers. Gently shape the ground beef into appropriately sized patties and make a thumbprint in the middle.

This allows the burgers to end up flat after cooking as opposed to rounded, since they plump when they cook.  Cook on high heat for about 3-4 minutes per side for medium (adjust depending on preference). Sprinkle cooked burgers with salt and pepper to finish. Toast buns on the warm grill and serve.

Sweet Potatoes

Preheat oven to 400°. Slice the sweet potatoes in half cross-wise, then create about 1/4 inch think lengthwise slices. Finally, cut sticks out of the slices. Place on parchment or Silpat-lined baking pan, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake for about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with finely chopped parsley as garnish, if desired.

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Pasta with Ragú Bolognese

Now that our most welcome February spring has yielded to a round of huge rainstorms, its time to start cooking comfort food again. And no comfort food is more welcome in our home than pasta with ragú Bolognese (also known as noodles with meat sauce for the younger set).  What separates this dish from a more typical (and admittedly quicker) meat sauce is time. It takes at least 1.5 – 2 hours to prepare, due to the slow cooking process which yields an incredibly delicious result. This is not the dish to start at 5PM on a weeknight. However, make a large batch on a weekend and you’ll never regret it. The ragú freezes beautifully, lending itself to easy weeknight cooking when all you have to do is defrost, make some pasta and veggies and indulge. Because the sauce is so versatile, you could also make lasagna with it, serve over polenta and vegetables, or other grains.

Before I delve into specifics, I will admit that there are hundreds, even thousands of variations and approaches to this classic Italian sauce. Feel free to search for more options or amalgamate a few, as I do here. You’ll likely find that the basic ingredients and techniques are similar but the nuances do vary.

One additional note: Though I could not find a written recipe for this Wine Spectator video of Mario Batali making Bolognese sauce, it is really helpful in terms of technique. He breaks down the basics beautifully.

Preparation

Inspired by recipes from the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, and Mario Batali via the Food Network

Serve 8-10

  • ½-1 cup sliced mushrooms, as available and if preferred OR 1/3 c. dried mushrooms*
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced fine
  • 2-4 ounces of diced pancetta
  • 3-4 ribs celery, diced fine
  • 2-3 carrot, diced fine
  • 1 pound ground beef or pork
  • 1 pound ground lamb or veal
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 4 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1- 1½ cups milk
  • 1 cup white wine
  • kosher salt, black pepper
  • Parmigiano-Reggianno cheese and chopped parsley for grating

If you are using dried mushrooms, soak them in boiling water for 15-20 minutes until soft, drain and reserve the liquid. Chop either soaked or fresh mushrooms finely and set aside.

Using a wide, heavy-bottomed pot (this would be a good time to bust out that Le Creuset pot if you have one. We just invested in a large one and I’m in love!), heat a few tablespoons of olive oil and add the diced pancetta. After it releases some fat, add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic and a little salty. Cook until the vegetables are translucent and soft but be sure not to brown them – about 10-15 minutes.


Add the ground meat to the vegetables, season with salt, then cook on a medium to medium-low heat to render the fat and slowly brown the meat. This will take about 45 minutes, with frequent stirring. Move around the sticky bits from the bottom of the pan, then add tomato paste, stir it together with the meat and cook, stirring often, for about 30 minutes. At this stage, the meat and tomato paste will have combined completely in a caramelized mix.

Add the milk and cook until it evaporates completely and leaves the meat silky smooth, about 5 minutes. Then add the wine and reduce on a medium heat until the alcohol is cooked off (you’’ll know when that happens by the smell). After the alcohol has cooked off, add the mushrooms, bay leaves and thyme, and cover the pan. Simmer on medium-low heat for about an hour, then season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve over pasta of your choice and enjoy!