Sunday, December 6, 2015

Comfort food: Heirloom spaghetti and meatballs

Do you know why humans achieved so much more, in the course of evolution, than any other animal on the planet?

The proximate cause, of course, is that we are the smartest.

Dig a little bit deeper.

We are the smartest because our brains are the most developed. Relative to our physical size, our brains have much more capacity for thought than those of other animals. And how did our brains evolve to be what they are today, relative to say, our simian cousins? After all, there was a point in our evolution when the gap was much narrower.

The answer is that we learned to tame fire, and we learned to cook. By cooking our food, we were able to consume far more calories than the apes. To sustain their brains on a foraging diet of raw food, apes have to graze from dawn to dusk. Because we learned to cook, we became able to support the much greater caloric requirements of a sophisticated brain, plus, we managed to do it on only three meals a day. That freed up a whole whack of time to do things other than hunting and gathering, like farming, and building barbeques, forts, planes, and motorbikes.

Once mankind got to Europe, we invented Italian food. And Italian food gave us spaghetti and meatballs. Arguably one of the most iconic comfort foods of all time. The recipe has been handed down from one generation to the next. Each recipe has its own alchemy, but the basic technique and the fundamental ingredients are always essentially the same.

My recipe for spaghetti and meatballs was handed down to me by my mother. Heaven only knows where she got it, but somewhere back in the fog of ancestors, there had to be an Italian. An Italian who understood the importance of cinnamon.

I know that my Mom's spaghetti and meatballs made me smarter, I just know it.

The altruist side of me is what compels me to share my Mom's recipe. If we are going to beat the odds, tame global warming, and find new planets to live on, we're all going to have to evolve much bigger, and much better brains. We'd better get cooking.

Oh... and if you find you are missing an ingredient or two, like a can of diced tomatoes, this is Italian cooking at its best, so hop on your Vespa and take a joy ride to the grocery store. That's what I did this afternoon.

David's Mom's Spaghetti and Meatballs
1 kg ground beef
1\2 kg ground pork
1 egg
6 slices white bread, no crusts, soaked in milk and drained by pressing
3-5 cloves of garlic, minced
Generous grating of black peppercorns
1 rounded teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1-2 pinches of crushed chilies
1 level teaspoon of salt
two 796 ml cans of tomato (one crushed, and one diced)
2 tablespoons of sugar (to balance the acidity of the tomatoes)
1 sprig (5-6 leaves) fresh basil
Combine the pork, beef, garlic, salt, pepper, cinnamon, egg, bread, and crushed chilies in a bowl and mix very well until fully blended. I find that using a pair of butter knives to blend the mixture works well.

Make medium to small meatballs by rolling a portion of the meat mixture between the palms of your hands, reserving enough meatball mixture to make 7-8 meatballs. Coat each meatball with flour by rolling it in a bowl containing sufficient flour.

In a large pot, over medium heat, brown the meatballs well in a little vegetable oil and set them aside until all the meatballs are browned.

Place the reserved meatball mixture in the pot and break it down as it cooks, all the while scraping browned bits from the bottom of the pot and combining them with the meat. Once the meat is reasonably well cooked, add the two cans of tomatoes, the sugar, and the basil, mixing well and continuing to loosen and combine any browned bits from the bottom of the pot.

Reduce the heat to the lowest setting, return all the meatballs to the pot, and gently stir them in taking care to avoid breaking them.

Cover the pot and simmer the sauce very gently as long as possible, stirring occasionally, and adjusting the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.

One hour before serving, you may wish to add a small can of tomato paste to thicken the sauce to your liking. Stir well and simmer until serving time.

The sauce improves significantly if it is cooled and then refrigerated overnight, which allows the flavours to blend fully. For the very best results prepare the sauce a day or two before you plan to serve it.

Recipe handed down by Marie Cécile Masse (nee Terroux)


RichardM said...

Thank you for sharing your heirloom recipe. I make it similar though I now bake meatballs instead of frying them and add an equal amount of cocoa (unsweetened chocolate) as cinnamon to the meatballs. Plus, I tend to add a lot of onions, garlic, celery, green beans, cauliflower or whatever other vegetables are lying around to the sauce. I've even added a whole bottle of tabasco sauce before (it completely changes the flavor in a good way).

David Masse said...

Your recipe is much more Italian.

A friend of mine had an Italian grandmother from the old country. Couldn't speak a word that wasn't Italian, and was perpetually decked out in black from head to toe.

There was always a pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove. I don't think it was ever empty, for years. Leftover bits went in, and amazing spaghetti sauce came out.

SonjaM said...

It does not necessarily have to be an Italian recipe to put cinnamon in it. The Swedish meatball version köttbullar has it, too. Oh, I used to love meat balls... my mom did the best, at least i.m.h.o. Very similar to your recipe plus some shallots included.

Trobairitz said...

I dunno, I look at my cat sleeping on the sofa every morning while I drag my butt to work and wonder are we humans really the smartest?

David Masse said...

Interesting, here I always thought cinnamon was an unexpected ingredient. Shows you what I know about meatballs.

I must say I'm tempted to throw some shallots in, but, then it wouldn't be my Mom's recipe, and that is precious, because it brings her to life, and that is good.

David Masse said...

Brandy, you wouldn't be the first person to speculate whether cats aren't the smarter species.

Coop a.k.a. Coopdway said...

:) Worth a ponder....

Coop a.k.a. Coopdway said...

Wow, some very enticing twists on Italian here. Don't lose this post, I'll be coming back for Reference.

David Masse said...

Doug, the post is safe. Let us know if you cook something up. Could be a blog challenge, a cooking challenge.

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