Italian Meatballs

For many years Jerri and I have been stopping at a supper club in Trego, Wisconsin on our way to the cabin. While I was still working, we enjoyed the Friday fish fry at least once a month and occasionally we would treat ourselves to a prime rib dinner which is The Prime’s specialty, as you might infer from the name.

With more flexible schedules today we sometimes find ourselves driving through Trego during the middle of the week. One late Wednesday afternoon we decided to stop for dinner in Trego on our way back to New Richmond.

The nightly special was spaghetti and meatballs. Jerri chose the senior size, which was two meatballs plus pasta. I opted for the regular meal with three meatballs.

When the waitress brought out a plate the size of a platter with three baseball-sized meatballs perched on a mound of spaghetti, I knew I had misjudged the generosity of the chef. I also learned that the meatballs and sauce were as good as any I have made at home.

I hate to admit it, but I have wasted restaurant food by leaving it on my plate from time to time. However, I have never asked for a “doggy bag” until that evening. The third meatball and a large serving of spaghetti tasted nearly as good the next day for lunch.

With this recipe for meatballs and sauce, you will make a spaghetti and meatball dinner better than you can buy at most restaurants and you won’t have to ask for a doggy bag. Just put the leftovers in freezer containers and save them for a night when you want a quick dinner. They will keep for two to three months.

I call them Italian meatballs because I mix Italian sausage with the hamburger and use a generous amount of chopped parsley, which is a common ingredient in Italian-style meatballs. Many recipes use stale bread instead of cracker crumbs and some omit the milk or the pork, but they all are versions of a great way to stretch the meat a little with less expensive ingredients. The sauce also is a flavorful salute to Italy.

As you may know, in Italy meatballs are usually served as a separate course. Americans like meat with a meal, so Italian chefs apparently began serving meatballs with the spaghetti sometime early last century in New York City. The National Macaroni Manufacturers Association published the earliest known recipe in the 1920’s.

Anyway, if you are looking for comfort food, it’s hard to beat this recipe.

INGREDIENTS:

For the meatballs:
3/4 lb. Italian sausage
3/4 lb. hamburger
1 clove garlic
1/2 c. chopped parsley
1 large egg
1 c. cracker crumbs
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
1 – 2 T vegetable oil

For the sauce:
16 oz. plus 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1/3 tsp. fennel seed
3/4 tsp. dried basil
3/4 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. sugar
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 tsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste.

PROCEDURE:

Start by making the sauce. Crush the fennel seeds in a mortar or with a spoon in a cup and combine the tomato sauce, spices, wine and olive oil in a pan large enough to hold the finished meatballs. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and allow the sauce to simmer while you make the meatballs. Taste and adjust the seasoning before you add the meatballs to the sauce. If the sauce is too thick, add a little water or tomato juice.

Using a fork (or your fingers), mix the sausage with the hamburger, garlic, parsley, cracker crumbs, salt and pepper in large bowl. In a small bowl beat the egg until lemon colored, mix with the milk and pour it over the meat. Mix thoroughly.

Put the bread crumbs on a plate. Take about two heaping tablespoons of meat at a time and form the balls. Roll them in the bread crumbs and set them aside on a plate.
Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a skillet and brown the meatballs over medium heat on at least two sides. They do not have to be cooked through as they will finish cooking in the sauce. Drain the meatballs on paper towels, then put them into the sauce. Simmer the meatballs in the sauce for about 25 minutes. Serve with a green salad and good bread.

NOTES: In the United States meatballs are usually served with spaghetti, but they go fine with penne rigate or farfelle when like me you forget to check the spaghetti supply ahead of time. Pass some grated Parmesan or Romano cheese at the table.

You can substitute anise seed for the fennel. You can also substitute four cups of fresh or frozen chopped tomatoes for the tomato sauce, add a six ounce can of tomato paste and a quarter teaspoon of salt, then follow the recipe above to make a delicious sauce. Simmer it for an extra thirty minutes or so.

You can bake the meatballs instead of browning them in a skillet.  Preheat the oven to 400º and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Place the balls an inch apart on the sheet and bake them for twenty to twenty-five minutes.

Bread Pudding with Maple Caramel Sauce

Stale bread may not sound very appetizing to you, but it is the main ingredient in one of the tastiest desserts you will ever eat. And it is so easy to make that people have been baking bread pudding for thousands of years.

I imagine that the first bread pudding was made three or four days after the first bread was pulled off the fire. It may have happened like this:

When Adam asked Eve, “Should I throw out this old bread?” she said, “Don’t you dare. I worked hard baking that bread.”

“But it’s stale and hard and you baked some more today,” says Adam.

“Just put it on that rock. I’ll make something with it. Maybe chop up an apple to make a good pudding.”

The rest is history.

My mother baked most of the bread we ate at home, but my parents both looked for bargains. When the A & P was having a special on bread, they would buy a couple of loaves of what we kids loved: “Store Bought Bread.” We liked the soft slices with peanut butter and jelly, but Mom dried them for bread pudding or turkey stuffing.

I do the same today. I watch for sales on ordinary white bread and turn it into bread pudding. It’s remarkably easy to do. If you don’t count the time to dry the bread or while the pudding is baking, it takes less than half an hour to make the pudding and sauce.

INGREDIENTS:

For the pudding:
4 large eggs
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 T vanilla
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
6 cups dry bread cut into cubes
1/2 cup raisins

For the sauce:
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1 T cornstarch
1/3 cup half-and-half
2 T maple syrup
1 T butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla

PROCEDURE:

To make the pudding, first dry the bread. You can cut 10 to 12 slices of soft white bread into half inch cubes and dry them in a warm oven for a couple of hours or dry the slices and cut them into cubes later. I have done it both ways, but I prefer the second because I like the more irregularly shaped pieces and bread crumbs that result.

My method is to arrange the slices in a couple of large pizza pans, turn the oven on low for five minutes, turn the oven off and let the slices dry for an hour. I then turn them over, turn the oven on for another five minutes, turn it off and let the slices finish drying. I usually dry the bread a day or two in advance and store the slices in plastic bags until I need them.

To make the pudding, start by preheating the oven to 350 degrees. Put six cups of dried bread cubes in a large bowl. Mix the raisins with the bread and spread the mixture in a seven by eleven inch ungreased baking dish.

In a large bowl beat the eggs until they are lemon colored. Beat the cinnamon into the eggs, then stir in the milk, sugar, salt and vanilla.  Pour the egg mixture evenly over the bread mixture.  Flatten the mixture gently with the back of a spoon to ensure that all the bread cubes are moistened.

Bake the pudding uncovered in a 350 degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.  Cool slightly.  Serve warm with the warm caramel sauce.

To make the sauce, combine the brown sugar and cornstarch in a small heavy saucepan.  Dissolve the sugar and cornstarch in a quarter cup of cold water.  Put the pan over medium heat. Stir in the half-and-half, maple syrup, and butter.  Cook and stir until bubbly.

Don’t worry if the sauce appears curdled as it will become smooth and creamy when you stir in the vanilla.  Cook and stir two minutes more.  Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

Store any leftover pudding and sauce in the refrigerator.

NOTES: I have not tried chopped apples in my bread pudding, but currants and dried cranberries work fine. Chopped dates would work too, but we have a really good date pudding recipe that you can find here.

If you use unsalted butter for the sauce, add a dash of salt to the recipe. Salt helps bring out the sweetness of the sugar and syrup.

If you don’t have whole milk in the fridge but do have some half and half, use two cups reduced fat milk and one half cup of half and half. Otherwise, punt and pray.

You can use any kind of commercial or homemade white bread including French or Italian bread if it doesn’t have seeds on it. Don’t worry about the crusts; they add interest to the pudding.