Nana’s Meatballs

My great-grandmother, Michelina Parrinello, immigrated to the US from Sicily in the 1920’s, with her husband Antonio and my Great-Aunt Anne. She lived to be 102, long enough to meet my kids, and, to be honest, I don’t know a lot about her life. I know she was a seamstress, that she raised four kids, and that she was an amazing cook, but she was pretty old even when I was young. What I remember about her most is, I think, what everyone in the family remembers about her, which is that every meal at every family gathering, for as long as she was able, included pasta with her meatballs. And look, I’m not impartial, but they really are the best meatballs.

Of course, Nana made everything by hand, according to taste and smell and memory, so there wasn’t a codified recipe until my Aunt Judy took the time and effort to put measurements to Nana’s methods. I’m fortunate that she took the time to teach me, and now I’m happy to pass them on to you.

Nana’s Sauce

2-3 TB olive oil
1 good-sized bell pepper, chopped
1 medium-large yellow onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced/crushed
12 oz. tomato paste
1 1/2 – 2 tsp dried basil
1/2 – 1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp fennel seeds
1-2 bay leaves
(optional: 1/2 – 1 tsp dried oregano)
2 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
(optional: season to taste with grated Romano cheese or leftover cheese rind)

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Sauté the pepper and onion until softened but not browned. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant.

2. Add the tomato paste and spices and cook for a few minutes until heated through.

3. Add the crushed tomatoes, and one can of water per can of tomatoes including paste (so, 68 oz.). Season with salt and pepper (as always, with canned tomatoes, you can add sugar or lemon juice to get the tomato flavor you prefer). Simmer the sauce for at least 45 minutes; the longer it simmers, the better it tastes.

Nana with (some of) her four generations of descendants

Nana’s Meatballs

Makes about 30

1 lb. ground beef (80% lean if you can find it)
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups mixed grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses
1 cup breadcrumbs with Italian seasoning
2 eggs
salt and pepper to taste
at least 2 TB milk

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Mix all the ingredients except the milk gently but thoroughly. Add enough milk that the mixture is pretty squishy.

2. Roll the meat into walnut-sized balls, square top and bottom slightly and place on baking sheet. Indent the tops with your thumb to keep them from puffing up too much in the oven.

3. Bake until the meatballs are lightly browned on the bottom, about 8 minutes. Turn them over and bake for another 8 minutes or so, until lightly browned on both sides.

4. Remove the meatballs to the simmering sauce and let stand until you’re ready to eat.

Notes: The sauce recipe makes a lot of sauce. If you’re just making a pound of pasta, you could probably halve it. Also, I usually use a little less water, but if you want to be a true Nana, you have to at least swish some water in the tomato cans to get every bit of tomato out. Note the fennel seeds, which are there to make it taste a little sausage-y, even though there’s no sausage in it. I usually add red pepper flakes, too.

For the meatballs, The recipe calls for ground beef, but you can also use ground pork, or double the recipe and use one lb. of each. If you prefer, you can pan-fry them instead of baking them. You can also just simmer them in the sauce until they’re cooked. Of course, you can make them bigger or smaller, just adjust the cooking time accordingly.

If I have some on hand, I like to add some chopped fresh parsley to the mix. Also, the recipe calls for at least 2 TB of milk, but I usually need 1/4 to 1/2 cup to get the right squishiness.

In order to make sure the meatballs were properly seasoned, Nana would taste some of the raw mixture. I don’t recommend doing that! Fortunately, my Aunt Judy came up with a modern solution, which is to pinch off a little bit and microwave it until it’s just cooked through, then taste it.

Ricotta Dumplings with Spinach and Peas

These pretty much came about because we had ricotta and spinach that needed to be used, but they were good enough that I want to save the recipe so I can make them again. As you can tell from the photo, I didn’t exactly get the shaping down, but nobody seemd to mind.

Serves 4

For the dumplings:
16 oz. whole milk ricotta
1 cup grated parmesan and/or pecorino
2 eggs
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup flour, plus more for dusting

For the rest:
4 TB butter
2 TB olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
5 oz. baby spinach
1 cup frozen peas
juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper

1. Mix the ricotta, cheeses, eggs, salt and pepper thoroughly in a large bowl. Add the flour and mix gently, just to combine (you don’t want to work it too hard, or you’ll end up with tough dumplings). Depending on how wet your ricotta is, you might need more flour, but it should be soft and sticky.

2. Flour a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spoon out a small spoonful of ricotta mixture, and shape gently into an ovoid (again, you want to avoid roughly handling it). The dumplings expand to almost twice their original size when you cook them, so keep that in mind. Keep making dumplings until you’ve used up all the ricotta mixture, placing them on the baking sheet. Dust them with some more flour and let rest for about 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, heat up a large pot of salted water for the dumplings.

4. In a sauté pan, heat up the butter and oil. Cook the onions until soft and golden, then add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, or until fragrant.

5. Add the spinach to the pan and cook until wilted, then add the peas, and cook until hot. Add the lemon juice, season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, stir, and turn off while you make the dumplings.

6. Drop the dumplings into gently boiling water one at a time (you may have to do more than one batch depending on how big your pot is). Cook until the dumplings float, then cook for 4-5 minutes more (I did a test one to check the time – you want it to be light and fluffy, not doughy).

7. Using a spider or slotted spoon, fish the dumplings out and add them to the pan with the spinach and peas. Turn the heat on to low, add the lemon zest and enough pasta water to make things saucy. Stir gently, heat through, and serve with more grated cheese if you like.

Macaroni and Cheese (stovetop version)

This is my favorite weeknight mac and cheese recipe. It comes from Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine, in kind of a fancier version with country ham and a Parmesan basket, but the core of the recipe is quick, easy, and super tasty. The original recipe calls for 3/4 cup of macaroni, but that’s like, super saucy. I usually make a pound of pasta, and that seems a bit more reasonable, and feeds a whole family. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reheat well, or do well in the oven (ask me how I know), so it’s not great for potlucks and that kind of thing, but otherwise, it’s great.

Serves 4

1 lb. dried tubular pasta (elbows, cavatappi, penne, &c.)
2 TB butter
1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 TB minced shallot
2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup freshly grated aged Gouda cheese
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

1. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, but on the al dente side of things.

2. Melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and shallot and cook until soft and fragrant, being careful not to brown them (the recipe says five minutes, but it’s less than that). Add the cream, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cream has reduced by a quarter, and coats the back of the spoon.

3. Whisk in the grated cheeses, and cook, stirring, until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Season with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. You can strain it at this point if you want, but I never do.

4. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce (or vice-versa, depending on your relative pot size), and simmer together for a minute or two, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.

The garlic and shallot measurements are a little silly, and I usually just go for one clove of garlic and one shallot. If you like breadcrumbs on top, you can do some extra garlic and shallot, cook them in some butter, and then add some breadcrumbs and a pinch of salt and cook until toasty, then sprinkle them on top of the finished mac and cheese.

Cold Sesame/Peanut Noodles

A delicious summer dinnertime staple that also became a topic of debate when some members of the family called it ‘pasta salad’. It’s okay, we had a long discussion about genre and qualia, and now they only call it that specifically to annoy me.

Serves 4-6

For the noodles and sauce
1 lb. noodles, usually lo mein or spaghetti, but you can use any other type if you like. While you’re doing everything else, you can cook them according to their package directions, drain, and cool them by rinsing them with cold water.
1/4 cup canola oil, or other neutral oil (you can use refined peanut or sesame oil for this part)
1/4 cup sesame seeds
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1-inch finger of fresh ginger, minced
1/4 cup each of creamy peanut butter and tahini or sesame paste, or 1/2 cup total of either, depending on how you’re feeling, and what you have on hand
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 TB rice vinegar or black vinegar if you have it
2 TB Asian-style toasted sesame oil
1 TB honey
2 tsp (or more) sriracha, sambal oelek, or other chili sauce

Toppings, &c.
This is just what I put in this time, but I do it differently depending on what I have around/feel like. You could add cabbage, chicken, chilies, even other things that don’t start with the letter ‘c’. Just be aware that if you have a lot of toppings you might need to make extra sauce.
2 carrots, julienned
1/2 a large cucumber, halved lengthwise then sliced thin
1/2 lb. snap pea pods, halved
4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
5 or so scallions, thinly sliced
large handful of cilantro, chopped
roasted peanuts and sesame seeds

1. Heat the oil and sesame seeds over medium heat in a saucepan. When the sesame seeds start to turn golden brown, add the garlic and ginger, stir, and remove from heat. Continue stirring occasionally until it stops sizzling.

2. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients, stir, and let cool a bit before mixing with the noodles. Adjust the seasonings until it tastes good to you.

3. Toss in all your toppings, reserving some for a garnish if you like. Serve room temp, or chilled, whichever you prefer.