You always hear the romantic stories of chefs who grew up spending every Sunday in the kitchen with their grandmother or mother and were thus drawn to the culinary world. While I grew up in a family where our main activities revolved around food adventures and eating in general, most of the culinary activities took place outside of our kitchen. My dad cooked from time to time, but nothing regularly. My mother would put something in the oven and forget about it, often burning it (we considered this to be her specialty). And to this day my very healthy and capable grandmother complains she has no way of feeding herself (mind you she lives in New York City and knows how to use a phone and answer the door- pretty much all you need to sustain yourself here.)
Well, while I was certainly not deprived of a rich gastronomical childhood, I still yearn to create that intimate familial culinary connection of my own one day (far far away). What can I say? I want to be the grandma who makes the gravy, who’s house all the grandkid’s are excited to go to on Sunday to be stuffed silly, who hosts all the family holidays, the one who feeds the family.
So I’m learning how to cook. I started off by spending my summers cooking in the South of France, then I cooked my way through Spain and Italy, then again on a farm in Tuscany, finally went to culinary school at the French Culinary Institute and now I am a line cook at Marea in New York. While this might not the traditional path to becoming an old Italian grandmother (as I am neither Italian nor even close to being a grandmother), I figure why not set the stage to become a badass grandma cook.
In my version of the romanticized old school Italian-American family, I would like to imagine that every grandmother has her special recipe for “da gravy” and “da meatballs.” So I set off to find a combination I could call my own.
It all began when one of my Private Chef clients requested meatballs in tomato sauce for a dinner she was having. A seemingly simple task, which naturally made it all the more difficult.
First I had to have a great sauce. I’ve made all sorts of different tomato based sauces but never had a tomato sauce that could stand on it’s own. My particular favorite is “Amatriciana” a Roman sauce, traditionally made with pancetta or guanciale and tomatoes. I’ve seen it made with pepper flakes, onions and/or garlic. I had made it in the past, never loving my rendition, that is until today. I used fatty bacon that I had in the fridge instead of pancetta and put lots of onions and whole cloves of garlic and then of course tomatoes. You can put as much bacon as you like- I went all in and ’twas rather bacon-y but o so delicious. I made the sauce a few days before with less bacon, but finished it with a little bit of cream and dare I say a knob of butter. If you just gasped, guess what? Restaurants put butter into you pasta sauces ALL THE TIME. Mr. Scott Conant at Scarpetta, famous for his spaghetti in tomato sauce loads it in there. Is it a mystery that butter makes everything better? Well it certainly does.
Well onto the balls. I have made meatballs a few times here and there but never particularly loving the results and never returned to a given recipe. I wanted them to be flavorful and fluffy. After all, nobody wants to eat a hockey puck. So I came upon a recipe called “Grandma Maronis 100 year old meatballs.” Grandma’s meatballs? That’s just what I wanted! So I decided to give them a try. I slightly tweaked the recipe, but stayed pretty true and they turned out great!
Here are the recipes:
Awesome Sauce (Note I like to cook the sauce in more chunky fashion and then blend it up afterwards. You can either keep it chunky or chop everything finer initially- mince the garlic and put the tomatoes in a food mill beforehand.)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil or canola
1/4-1/2 pound diced bacon or pancetta
2 large yellow onions, cut into 1/4-inch dice
6 large garlic cloves, smashed
4 (28-ounce) cans Italian plum San Marzano tomatoes
1-2 tbls cream or milk
1-2 tbls unsalted butter
Heat a large sauce pot over a low flame. Slowly render the bacon in the olive oil. You want it to release all its glorious fat into the pot. Add onions and sweat until translucent. Add whole cloves of garlic. Throw in a handful of salt and continue to really sweat everything. Meanwhile crush the tomatoes- either chop them or pour them into a large bowl and crush them by hand, which is definitely more fun! Add the tomatoes to the pot and simmer for 2-3 hours, adding seasoning as necessary. Depending on how much bacon or pancetta you added initially you will mostly likely want to put less cream or butter in your final sauce. The dairy addition helps round out the flavor the sauce and also cuts the acidity of the tomato. Taste and decide. Maybe you have the best tomatoes in the world and they need no assistance. Trust your palette. But believe me, a little butter never made anything worse!
Pulse finished sauce in a blender very lightly, just to better incorporate the flavors and so you don’t eat a chunk of garlic. The idea is to still keep the sauce a bit rustic. If you want a super smooth sauce, then by all means go ahead and blend it up.
Either way enjoy!
Grandma’s MeatBalls (modified from Grandma Maronis Meatballs 100 Year Old Recipe)
Makes about 20-25 medium sized meatballs
1/3 pound ground beef
1/3 pound ground pork
1/3 pound ground veal
4 ounces dried bread crumbs
4 large eggs
4 ounces whole milk
3 ounces grated Romano
3 ounces grated Grana Padano
3 ounces yellow onion
2 ounces peeled garlic
1 bunch picked and cleaned fresh basil leaves
Kosher Salt to taste (start off with a pinch and then adjust after making the test patty- remember all the cheese is salty!)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a baking sheet with olive oil cooking spray or line with parchment
Pulse first onion, then garlic and basil in a food processor till fine mince. (You can do this by hand but it just takes longer). Combine with the rest of the ingredients thoroughly in large bowl. Test out the flavor by cooking one small patty in a pan, as if you were making a hamburger. Adjust seasoning accordingly.
Roll meatballs loosely about the size of a golf ball and place on baking sheet. Place into preheated oven for approximately 35 to 40 minutes. You can eat them naked or submerge them in the lovely sauce you just made!