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!).


Asparagus Pesto

The emergence of spring vegetables at farmers’ markets – fava beans, peas, and most of all, asparagus – brings to me a renewed inspiration for cooking which is much appreciated after the relative monotony of winter fare. As the first asparagus made its way home recently, I was reminded of a dinner a good friend hosted for me and my girls last year around this time. He treated us to an asparagus pesto pasta, developed by Mark Bittman of the New York Times, who happens to be one of my favorite chefs/food activists. At least I saw it as a treat – the kids, definitely not (I recall being grateful, though a bit embarrassed to be asking for, plain noodles).

It is totally delicious, takes less than a half-hour from start to finish, goes great with a glass of crisp white wine and makes for wonderful leftovers. Sadly, it remains unappreciated by the younger set in our household but hopefully we’ll have better luck next time.

Preparation

Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings (about 1 1/2 cups).

Salt

1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch segments

1 clove garlic, or more to taste

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup olive oil, or more as desired

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

Juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste.

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add the asparagus and cook until fully tender but not mushy, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well, reserving some of the cooking liquid, and let the asparagus cool slightly. (If you have a slotted spoon, use that to take out the asparagus and reserve the cooking water for making the pasta)

2. Transfer the asparagus to a food processor and add the garlic, pine nuts, 2 tablespoons of the oil, Parmesan, a pinch of salt and a couple of tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Process the mixture, stopping to scrape down the sides of the container if necessary, and gradually add the remaining oil and a bit more of the reserved cooking liquid to moisten if necessary. Add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste, pulse one last time, and serve over pasta, fish or chicken (or cover and refrigerate for up to a day).


Make-Your-Own Chicken Tacos

One of our favorite go-to weeknight dinners is chicken tacos. This is easily a 60 minute or less meal, including time to marinate the chicken breasts. I like to keep 4-6 chicken breasts frozen and on hand at all times. You can either leave them out in the morning to gently defrost throughout the day or soak them in hot water just before use. Fresh is great too, of course, but running to the store last-minute is not often an alternative for me. The rest of the core ingredients tend to be in the pantry in our house almost all the time – limes, onions, corn tortillas, avocados and a few basic spices. During the summer months when bell peppers are in season, these can easily be turned into fajitas too.

Preparation

Serves 4 + a bit of leftovers

30 minutes prep time (including marinade), 45 minutes total cooking time

Whisk the juice of 1-2 limes, ¼ cup of olive oil, 2 cloves of finely chopped garlic, ½ teaspoon paprika, ½ teaspoon ground cumin, ½ teaspoon kosher salt, and a pinch of cayenne (or more, to taste) until combined. Butterfly (cut horizontally across breast to make one thick breast into two thinner pieces) two chicken breasts (about 1 pound of meat), place in a non-reactive pan (glass Pyrex works great here) and drizzle with marinade. Sprinkle chicken with freshly-ground pepper and dried oregano on both sides. Move chicken around in the marinade to ensure both sides are properly covered and refrigerate for about 30 minutes. If you have less time, that is OK too.

Grill chicken on the stove top in a grill pan or cast iron pan, or outdoors if possible. These thinner pieces should cook in about 5-7 minutes per side. Let the chicken rest on a cutting board for 2-3 minutes once it is cooked to seal in the juices, then slice thinly.

Warm tortillas in the oven or on the stove top.

Mash 1-2 avocados with a bit of lime juice and a pinch of salt and pepper for a quick guacamole.

If desired, sautéed one onion, chopped lengthwise, with about a teaspoon of cumin seeds in good olive oil. Do the same with bell peppers if in season (I prefer to cook the onions and peppers separately since one takes longer that the others). Quick hint: toast cumin seeds in olive oil first before adding the vegetables. This simple saute is a create opportunity to recruit kiddo assistance!

I like to serve all of the components separately and have the kids (and adults) make their own tacos to taste.

Adult version, with hot sauce

Ava's "kid's" version, with extra onions