It’s a little embarrassing to admit at age 29, but birthdays are still a big deal to me. As an adult, I have tried to dial back my enthusiasm to a respectable level, but as a child, being born the day after Halloween means your birthday is a culmination of a three day orgy of candy, glorious outfits, and presents. My mom, having been raised in a “birthdays are a BFD” household herself, implemented a firm policy of putting the birthday child in charge. The whole family would wake up early to have breakfast and open presents, followed by an afternoon classroom pizza delivery, then dinner and more presents with our grandparents. It’s easy to get used to that kind of celebration.
In keeping with my barely-concealed desire to be lavished with attention on the anniversary of my arrival in the world, this year I invited my besties over for a birthday feast. They brought copious amounts of wine and thoughtful gifts, and I in turn served up a coma-inducing spread of the ultimate in comfort food, spaghetti and meatballs.
It was the perfect menu for weeknight festivities. The meatballs and homemade tomato sauce required a little love and advance preparation on Sunday night, but there was no slaving over the stove on the evening of the party. Instead, I was in the dining room sipping wine and snacking on rosemary marcona almonds with my friends. A salad of arugula and shaved Pecorino Romano, tossed in a bracing red wine vinaigrette, and homemade garlic bread rounded out the meal. And for dessert, the best cannoli in Chicago, with a candle in mine, of course.
This tomato sauce is basically perfect. The simple list of ingredients belies an extremely complex taste. A long simmer time allows the tomatoes to caramelize, the olive oil to emulsify, and the garlic to melt into the sauce. For years, I have been fussing with my tomato sauce, adding red wine and tomato paste, looking for an intense tomato flavor- consider me converted. The meatballs, too, are the ideal density, held together with just enough egg and bread, while the sweetness of the raisins plays perfectly with the tomato sauce. Delicious, filling, and made for communal dining, it was the perfect Sunday Supper for a Tuesday night.
Basic Tomato Sauce
From The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual (a Christmas present from my dad)
1 cup olive oil
13 large, whole cloves of garlic, peeled
1 96 oz can, or 4 28 oz cans whole Italian tomatoes
Red pepper flakes, to taste
2 tsp sea salt
In a large, heavy pot, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook for approximately 10 minutes, until the garlic is browned with deep brown streaks and smells delicious. Be careful not to let the garlic darken too quickly.
While the garlic cooks, empty the tomatoes into a large bowl. Using your hands, remove the stem ends and any basil leaves packed in the can and gently crush the tomatoes.
When the garlic is done, add a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes to the oil and cook briefly, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and salt to the pot and stir. Turn heat to medium, and simmer gently, uncovered, for 4 hours. Check the sauce often to make sure it is not bubbling excessively, and stir. After 4 hours, add additional salt if needed and remove from heat.
If you are making the sauce for future use, it can be stored in the fridge for several days or frozen indefinitely.
From The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual
4 slices Italian sandwich bread (appx. 2 packed cups)
2 pounds ground beef, 90% lean
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt
15 turns fresh ground pepper
4 large eggs
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 325. Put the sliced bread in a bowl of cool water and let it soak for a minute. Pour off the water and wring out the bread, tearing it into small pieces. Place the bread in a medium mixing bowl and add the remaining ingredients in the order they are listed, making sure to add the dried breadcrumbs last.
Mix with your hands, just until the ingredients are combined. Shape the mixture into palm-sized meatballs and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 25-30 minutes. The meatballs will be browned out the outside but still slightly springy to the touch. At this point, the meatballs can be refrigerated for several days or frozen.
To assemble: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook 1.5 lbs. of best-quality spaghetti. Place the meatballs in a large saucepan and ladle out enough tomato sauce to cover, simmering for up to 30 minutes until you are ready to eat. Toss the spaghetti with the remaining sauce and transfer to platter. Serve spaghetti and meatballs separately, with freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese for passing. Serves 6 with delicious leftovers.