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Spaghetti and Meatballs

THE BEST DISH TO FEED A CROWD THAT INCLUDES KIDS

Making this dish for a crowd can try anyone’s patience. Who wants to spend all day at the stove? By rethinking this dish, we found a way to deliver incredibly tender, rich-tasting meatballs in flavorful, full-bodied tomato gravy, all with an hour of hands-on work. And this recipe feeds 12 people.

The meatballs are the hardest part of the equation since they can turn out bland and crumbly. Choosing the right meats is critical, as is the right mix of flavor boosters. But what’s most surprising about the ingredient list in our recipe are the two distinctly non-Italian binders—powdered gelatin as well as a panade of panko (Japanese bread crumbs) and buttermilk.

Frying meatballs in batches takes forever and makes a mess. We bypass the frying pan and turn to the oven. When cooked on wire racks the meatballs brown evenly and they don’t need to be turned. You can roast a lot of meatballs at once—40 to be exact—in just 30 minutes.

There’s one downside to roasting the meatballs—no pan drippings to flavor the sauce. So we drop the roasted meatballs into the simple marinara sauce and braise them in the oven for an hour. With time, the rich flavor of the browned meat infiltrates the sauce. This technique won’t work with a regular marinara sauce—the meatballs absorb too much of the liquid around them and the sauce overreduces. Using a mix of crushed tomatoes and tomato juice (the stuff you drink) averts this problem. A sauce that looks much too watery at the outset will cook down to the perfect consistency.

This certainly isn’t your grandmother’s meatballs and marinara. The cook might actually have time to get out of the kitchen and join the table.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

Mix the Meats

We first tried making meatballs with beef alone, using 85 percent lean ground beef (anything less fatty produces a dry, bland meatball). However, we found that replacing some of the beef with ground pork (we like a 2:1 ratio best) makes for a markedly richer, meatier taste.

Build Flavor

Chopping up some prosciutto, which is packed with glutamates that enhance savory flavor, and mixing it in with the meat is an easy way to add another dimension of meatiness. A generous amount of Parmesan adds more glutamates.

Pick Panko

Meatballs are traditionally bound with a panade—fresh bread crumbs soaked in milk. We find that panko—the super crunchy Japanese bread crumbs—do a better job of holding in the meats’ juices and keeping the meatballs from getting tough. (And panko is certainly more convenient than making homemade bread crumbs.) Replacing the usual milk with buttermilk adds another layer of extra flavor.

Add Gelatin

Gelatin-rich veal is a common ingredient in Italian meatballs. While the veal adds suppleness, it can be hard to find in American markets. And if you do, there’s another problem—it’s usually ground very fine, which makes the meatballs dense and heavy. If you want gelatin, why not go right to the source? Powdered gelatin moistened with a little water does the trick at far less expense and hassle.

Grate the Onion

Grating the onion for the sauce on the large holes of a box grater (a trick we use for our Quick Tomato Sauce) helps it to cook quickly and flavor the sauce. It also means there are no crunchy bits of onion in the finished sauce.

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Gelatin (yes, the stuff in Jell-O) and three eggs keep meatballs nice and tender.

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Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs for a Crowd

SERVES 12

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 30 minutes to prep ingredients and make panade
  • 35 minutes to assemble and bake meatballs (make sauce while meatballs are in oven)
  • 1 hour to simmer meatballs in sauce (cook pasta when meatballs are nearly done)

Essential Tools

  • 2 rimmed baking sheets
  • 2 wire racks
  • 6-quart Dutch oven with lid
  • Box grater (Use the large holes to prep the onion and the small holes for the cheese.)
  • 12-quart stockpot

Substitutions & Variations

  • You can substitute 1 cup plain yogurt thinned with ½ cup milk for the buttermilk.
  • You can cook the spaghetti in two pots if you don’t have a pot that’s large enough to cook all of the pasta together.

Once cooked, the sauce and the meatballs can be cooled and refrigerated for up to two days. To reheat, drizzle ½ cup water over the sauce, without stirring, and reheat on the lower-middle rack of a 325-degree oven for 1 hour.

MEATBALLS

  • 2¼ cups panko bread crumbs
  • 1½ cups buttermilk
  • 1½ teaspoons unflavored gelatin
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 pounds 85 percent lean ground beef
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 6 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped fine
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 ounces parmesan cheese, grated (1½ cups), plus extra for serving
  • 6 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper

SAUCE

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, grated
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 3 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 3 pounds spaghetti
  • 6 cups tomato juice
  • 6 tablespoons dry white wine
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ cup minced fresh basil
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • Sugar
  1. For the Meatballs : Adjust oven racks to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 450 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with aluminum foil. Set wire racks in sheets and spray wire racks with vegetable oil spray.
  2. Combine panko and buttermilk in large bowl and let sit, mashing occasionally with fork, until smooth paste forms, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, sprinkle gelatin over water in bowl and let sit until gelatin softens, about 5 minutes.
  3. Mix beef, pork, prosciutto, eggs, Parmesan, parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, and gelatin mixture into panko mixture using your hands. Pinch off and roll mixture into 2-inch meatballs (about 40 meatballs total) and arrange on prepared wire racks. Bake until well browned, about 30 minutes, switching and rotating sheets halfway through baking.
  4. For the Sauce : While meatballs bake, heat oil in Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook until softened and lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic, oregano, and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomatoes, tomato juice, wine, 1½ teaspoons salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper; bring to simmer; and cook until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes.
  5. Remove meatballs from oven and reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees. Gently nestle meatballs into sauce. Cover, transfer to oven, and cook until meatballs are firm and sauce has thickened, about 1 hour.
  6. Meanwhile, bring 10 quarts water to boil in 12-quart pot. Add pasta and 2 tablespoons salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Reserve ½ cup cooking water, then drain pasta and return it to pot.
  7. Gently stir basil and parsley into sauce and season with sugar, salt, and pepper to taste. Add 2 cups sauce (without meatballs) to pasta and toss to combine. Add reserved cooking water as needed to adjust consistency. Serve, topping individual portions with more tomato sauce and several meatballs and passing extra Parmesan separately.

A Better Way to Mince Garlic

We have a theory about why some people don’t like garlic. They aren’t mincing it fine enough and as a result their food is peppered with large nuggets of overpowering garlic. Chopped garlic is also much more likely to burn and turn acrid. Using a garlic press is the easiest way to ensure that you get a fine, uniform mince. If you’re not using a garlic press, here’s what you need to know.

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1). Trim off root end of clove, then crush clove gently between side of chef’s knife and cutting board to loosen papery skin. Skin should fall away from garlic.

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2). Using two-handed chopping motion, run knife over garlic repeatedly to mince it. Keep one hand on top of blade and make sure to rock blade back and forth as you move it across pile of garlic.

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3). Mincing garlic to a smooth paste is a good idea in many recipes (such as sauces or dressings). Sprinkle salt, preferably kosher, over chopped garlic. Coarse grains of salt help break down garlic faster.

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4). Continue to mince garlic and alternate with scraping motion. Turn knife on its side and scrape blade back and forth over garlic to form sticky, smooth paste.

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