I am not Italian, but I grew up in North Jersey, where standards for Italian food are ridiculously high. If we weren’t out trying a new joint my Dad had learned of then we might be having a saturday night supper at the home of our family friends, The Fortunatos. Meals around their table set the benchmark for home-cooked Italian dishes. My mother, Shirley, the daughter of Russian immigrants, would often take notes as her Italian friend would cook and later recreate the deliciousness for my brothers and I.
My life in California has brought my own family and children around the table of another Italian family. “The Home Artists” here are Agatha (aka Nonnie) and her daughter– my friend Carol. I am always in awe of both Carol and Nonnie. They make putting out a supper spread look effortless . Sometimes, on the phone, Carol and I will just talk about what Nonnie is making, is going to make or has just made. Sometimes I’m right there in the kitchen helping, asking questions, just like Shirley. These meatballs came as a result of one such conversation. Nonnie wanted to make meatballs using three kinds of ground meat (veal, pork and beef.) for her grandson heading off to college. Only to this mix I learn of her exquisite addition of golden raisins and pinenuts. I am overtaken by desire, an urge to eat meatballs with raisins and pinenuts in a red sauce. On top of spaghetti. On autopilot, I generate a shopping list, keys appear in the ignition and I arrive at the market through no effort of my own. That’s how it happens, my confession. In trying to understand this passion and desire to cook impulsively, I realize not only was there a connection to a story and the imaginings of Nonnie’s own childhood in southern Italy but my own travel to Italy and those sensory memories. Food is about connection to people and memory. It’s so much more than meatballs and spaghetti.
MEATBALLS WITH RAISINS AND PINENUTS in RED SAUCE OVER SPAGHETTI
makes about 18 meatballs
2 cups fresh bread crumbs*, divided
1/2 cup Half and Half or water
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 ground veal
1/2 ground pork
3/4 cups Pecorino parmesan, divided
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper
2-3 cloves of garlic chopped, about 1 tablespoon
1/2 cup golden raisins soaked and plumped in water- 20 minutes
1/4 cup pine nuts
3 tablespoons olive oil
Jar of good quality tomato sauce such as Rao’s Marinara or Barrilla brand.
Box of spaghetti
Chopped parsley for garnish
Soak 1 1/2 cups of the bread crumbs in the milk or water. Squeeze out some liquid so bread is not completely wet. (This is also known as a panade.)
Gently mix together the ground meats, add the eggs, the panade (wet bread crumbs), parmesan, minced garlic, salt and pepper. Next add and mix in the raisins, pinenuts and the remaining 1/2 cup dry bread crumbs.
Shape into 2” balls. Heat a skillet, add oil then cook meatballs in batches without crowding the pan. Brown and keep turning meatball on all sides, about 5 minutes Add the meatballs to a red sauce (quality jar sauce or your own) , cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes.
Boil water for pasta once the meatballs are cooking in the sauce. When boiling, add salt to the water and add a box of spaghetti and cook to time suggested on box for “al dente.”
Ladle the sauce and meatballs over the spaghetti. Garnish with chopped parsley and parmesan.
*make fresh bread crumbs by cubing bread and letting it dry out or get “stale” before crushing into breadcrumbs.