Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs

This represents the beloved "Italian" dish from my childhood. It turns out, of course, that it was not really Italian and not served in Italy. Rather, it was developed in the early 20th century within the Italian-American community, probably in New York or New Jersey. Regardless, it is beloved family food, even for totally non-Italians.

I have taken many turns from the way my mother made the dish, which was very good and which she did about once a week. I make the sauce  much fresher, using canned crushed tomatoes (definitely not “puree”) rather than whole canned tomatoes broken up by crushing them through your clenched fingers then adding tomato paste, as she did. And the sauce is not simmered for hours until the surface oil caramelizes. And of more simplicity, I cook the meatballs directly in the sauce rather than fry or roast them separately and add them later. I also leave out the Sicilian fennel sausage that my mother (of totally Irish ancestry, so how would she know?) insisted was essential for a great sauce. I sometimes add a small amount of whole fennel seeds to the sauce for the same effect, and offer that as an option in the recipe.

In my childhood we used to have “spaghetti” (“little cords”) as the pasta, “spaghettini” (thin spaghetti), or “vermicelli” (“little worms,” a very fine spaghetti slightly wider than the finest, which is “angel hair”). Nowadays we use various short pastas as well, but my grandkids seem to like spaghetti or thin spaghetti best.

Photo: Maria Dondero; Dish: Marmalade Pottery, Athens GA
Here’s a very functional and relatively easy spaghetti sauce with meatballs for the family. In future blog postings I’ll share my approaches to fancier and more sophisticated dressings for pasta. Some fancier recipes can be found in my still-accessible earlier blog (t-jintan.blogspot.com).

Traditionally – at least for the adults – red wine would accompany spaghetti and meatballs, a not too fancy, hearty red wine. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nero d’Avola, or an unoaked Zinfandel would be my choices.

Spaghetti Sauce with Meatballs

The recipe serves six with leftovers, enough for a pound of pasta.

Make meatball mixture first:
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk or water
1/2 cup quick oatmeal (or old fashioned oatmeal chopped on a board or in food processor)
1/2 cup dry unseasoned breadcrumbs
1 medium-large clove garlic, finely minced or put through press
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon dry oregano
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 pounds of a mixture of ground beef (80% lean), turkey or pork

In large bowl, beat eggs with all ingredients except meat. Then mix in meat and knead well with your hands until thoroughly blended. Hold in refrigerator until sauce is ready.

Prepare the sauce:
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds (optional)
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 large (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (I prefer Hunts or Kroger, among American brands)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Large pinch thyme or oregano
6 fresh basil leaves (optional)

In large wide pot (not cast iron), gently fry garlic and fennel seed, if used, in oil until garlic is softened but not golden. Stir in tomatoes and all other ingredients except basil. Bring to a simmer and let cook for 5 minutes. Stir occasionally, scraping bottom of the pan well.

With hands, roll meat mixture into similarly sized balls of preferred size, anywhere from 1 to 2 inches in diameter. As meatballs are formed, drop them into simmering sauce. When all meatballs are in, gently shake and swirl pot to mix (do not stir or meatballs can be broken). Some meatballs will be only partially submerged.

Simmer, covered, 15 minutes. Shake and swirl pot occasionally. Meatballs should be firm by then. Gently stir, scraping bottom of pot. Simmer, uncovered, 15 additional minutes (20 minutes if using primarily beef), stirring occasionally and scraping bottom of the pot.

Taste sauce. Add salt if needed. Stir in basil leaves, if used. Remove from heat.

Serve over freshly boiled, drained pasta. Sprinkle with grated Romano or Parmesan cheese. A simple green salad and Italian or French bread chunks make it a meal.


Grilling Chicken in the Vietnamese Manner, Great for the Summer Barbecue

I had the good fortune of visiting Vietnam a number of times in the
1990s, on public health work. Those field visits took place primarily in the north.

My prior experience in Vietnam had been brief and happened two decades earlier. It also involved work, though I was then a young Army Medical Corps malaria researcher based elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It was in late 1974, after the US and the various Vietnamese combatants had signed the Treaty of Paris ending the war that dominated my generation. (Both of my brothers served in combat in the war.) When I was there I experienced a tattered and depressed Saigon, capital of crumbling South Vietnam, which was overrun by the North not too long afterwards.

Aside from my coming to terms twenty years later with the defining events for most of us young Americans of the mid-sixties, I found to my amazement the many Vietnamese I met, formerly our enemies, were both charming and welcoming. I also learned how wonderful Vietnamese food was, especially in the North.

During my 1974 visit to the former Saigon, if I ate real Vietnamese food, I can’t recall it. War-weary Vietnam back then, with the distant thundering and faint glow of artillery on the horizons at night and floods of displaced people, was not a place to find, much less relish, fine cuisine. I recall some vaguely Chinese dishes and, surprisingly, some good French food at the “Guillaume Tell,” a restaurant near the waterfront run by two stalwart French-speaking Swiss women.

By contrast, in Hanoi in the 1990s I was delighted by the food in general, but particularly by the grilled marinated pork and chicken that you were served at extremely low tables and stools at tiny outdoor street restaurants straight from a glowing charcoal brazier around the corner or up above you on the first floor landing of the nearby fire escape. The flavors were exquisite, and you wrapped the grilled meat in lettuce and fresh herbs, optionally added a few roasted peanuts, and dipped the parcel into the elegant -- and ubiquitous -- Nuoc Cham dipping sauce.
Photography: Maria Dondero; Platters by Marmalade Pottery,
Athens GA, Sauce Bowls traditional Vietnamese

Here’s my effort at reproducing that savory Hanoi street-restaurant barbecued chicken and its accompaniments. I’ve made the dish frequently over the years. It was always a family favorite, and was even the featured dish at the outdoor summer-time wedding reception of my daughter Anna and son-in-law Andrew, who along with my participation now own and operate Donderos’ Kitchen.

Several culinary notes: the key seasoning in both the chicken and the dipping sauce is Asian fish sauce, as it is throughout Vietnamese, Thai and Lao cooking. Used in the quantities indicated, the finished products are not fishy, but rather rich and “umami” laden. (In Athens, fish sauce [get “Squid” brand or the more expensive “Three Crabs” brand] is available at Fooks Foods, as is Chinese Five-Spice powder.) I substitute readily available sherry for the Chinese rice wine that would be closer to the original, but it works well I think. And in Vietnam there would have been more fresh herbs than just cilantro and mint to wrap into the chicken parcels, such as culantro, Asian basil, and other leaves I didn’t recognize.

Beer was the drink back then, especially Bia Hoi (freshly made local draft beer) or bottled “333,” the post-war replacement for the French colonial “33” that was drunk in South Vietnam in the old days. But elsewhere, I had learned from a fabulous Vietnamese cook who lived in France and was married to one of my French colleagues that dry French rosés, especially from Provence, go extremely well with Vietnamese flavors. Dry rosés, well chilled, are still what I would serve with this Vietnamese barbecue.

The recipe serves six, but it will go fast.

Vietnamese Grilled Chicken for Lettuce and Herb Wrap

2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (from Asian grocery store)
2 tablespoons sherry
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 very small clove garlic put through press or very finely minced
Very small pinch Chinese 5-Spice powder (from Asian grocery store)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sunflower or canola oil
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh

Mix all ingredients except the chicken in a large bowl.

Trim off excess fatty or tough parts of chicken, leaving some fat. As chicken is trimmed, drop it into the marinade. Stir well to coat chicken with marinade. After a few minutes, mix well again. Either cover bowl with plastic wrap or transfer chicken and marinade into a large zip-lock plastic bag. Marinate at least an hour, or as long as 24 hours refrigerated, stirring occasionally or squeezing the bag to mix.

Grill over charcoal or a gas grill on medium heat, or under the oven broiler using a “cake cooling” rack on top of a baking sheet to keep chicken off the pan. Turn pieces over occasionally, until cooked and crisply browned in spots on the surface. Remove to a cutting board. Slice crosswise 1/4-inch wide and stack attractively onto a platter.

Lettuce (loose leaf or romaine) pieces, cut into roughly 3-inch squares
Cilantro sprigs
Fresh mint leaves (optional)
Finely chopped dry-roasted peanuts (optional)
Dipping sauce (recipe below)

Diners put chicken strips on a lettuce piece, place leaves of various herbs on top, and sprinkle with some chopped peanuts, if used. Spoon on a little of the dipping sauce. Wrap the lettuce and enjoy.

Vietnamese Dipping sauce (Nuoc Cham)
1 medium clove garlic
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar or fresh lime juice
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce
1/8 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
A large squirt of hot pepper sauce

Crush garlic finely in a bowl with the sugar. Mix in remaining ingredients. After 5 minutes, remove the garlic bits. Taste and add a little salt or sugar or vinegar, if needed to your taste. The sauce should be faintly salty and delicately sweet and sour. Serve in one or more small bowl reachable by the diners.


Tim’s New Recipe Blog

Donderos’ Kitchen’s co-owner and Executive Chef, Tim Dondero, has taught international cooking for many years, both in Atlanta and Athens. For over five years Tim blogged about food, and for four years he wrote a bi-weekly food column (“Le Gourmet Fauché”) for the Athens Banner-Herald.

Tim once again has started blogging to share more of his recipes for international and regional American dishes – and occasional creations -- along with some of the fascinating background and lore surrounding the dishes and key ingredients. His new blog (timdonderosrecipes.blogspot.com) will differ from the earlier one by including photography of the dishes by his daughter Maria Dondero, of Southern Star Studio and Marmalade Pottery, Athens. 

Though an avid cook since childhood (his grandmother taught him to make pancakes at age six), Tim had a “day job” for over 45 years in international health and infectious disease control, much of that for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. During this time, he and his family spent over a decade overseas, in both Southeast Asia and West Africa. But during training, and numerous work trips to the tropics, he experienced many other parts of the world. Being enthusiastic about food, Tim always sought out local specialties and got to know, and sometimes cooked with, local cooks. At home he frequented ethnic restaurants. Through conversation, research, and trial and error, he learned to reproduce many of the dishes he encountered, within the constraints of the ingredients and cooking methods available at home.
Photography: Maria Dondero

Tim’s recipes are clear and work reliably in reproducing these dishes, after his extensive experience teaching cooking and then developing and standardizing recipes for most of the savory dishes served at and catered by Donderos’ Kitchen.

In the blog, the discussions of foods and recipes for successfully making them will focus on Tim’s favorites and seasonal dishes. The recipes will differ from those we use at Donderos’ Kitchen or that Tim teaches in his classes.

Overall, Tim’s new blog will continue to convey his enthusiasm about food and sharing the knowledge about it with others, whether family or friends. Recipes for many exciting and satisfying dishes will be presented, discussed, and illustrated.

The blog can be accessed at timdonderosrecipes.blogspot.com, through which all postings to date will be available. In addition, Tim’s former blog, “JintanManis,” with hundreds of recipes, can still be accessed at t-jintan.blogspot.com.

Bon appetit!

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