Middle-Aged Pasta

Nope I am not referencing my age – just acknowledging the fact that Lasagna noodles were invented by the Greeks but perfected into the dish we know and love by the Italians as early as the middle ages!

That’s a lot of lasagna over the years!

For some, lasagna is a special dish prepared only on holidays and possibly at Sunday dinners. At my house lasagna is a weeknight treat too! Yup you read that right – weeknight lasagna and I promise it doesn’t take all night!

The key is use the “no-boil” noodles (they are pretty good these days!) and convenience items like jarred sauce, already roasted veggies and pre-cooked meats.

the parts

Pick up precooked meatballs from the deli/prepared foods counter and slice thin for an easy layer of meat. Check out the deli/salad bar for items like roasted mushrooms and caramelized onions. A jar of your favorite red sauce works perfectly. Be sure to pick up a container of grated cheese and some fresh parsley to add to the container of ricotta. (you will also need an egg for the ricotta mixture.)

The key to the no-boil noodle is a generous amount of sauce and a tight foil cover for most of the cooking time. Take the cover off for the last 10-15 mins. The box of no-boil noodles has a good basic recipe you can follow, just use layers of things you want to eat.

I skipped the heavy cheese layers and did 2 layers of the mushroom/onion and 2 layers of the sliced meatball, topping it only with grated cheese since my husband doesn’t love all the gooey cheese like I do. And my waistline thanked me too. I made mine in a very manageable 8×8 dish that fed 2 people with plenty of leftovers for lunch or could feed 4 with a salad on the side.

Not fond of meat? Use a layer of sliced eggplant or zucchini instead of meatballs! As a bonus you can sometimes find sliced zucchini in the salad bar or veggie aisle.

the best part



The Master of Gravy

THE masterYup that is the one we are talking about.

I know what you are thinking…

… “who uses that product and who uses it in meatballs?!”

Well my Father-in-law did and since he made some great Italian meatballs for a learn-to-cook–later-in-life Irish guy, I use it too. Unfortunately we never accurately got his recipe before he passed away.   (readers take note… this is important stuff to do before it is too late!) So I am always fiddling around with my meatballs to see if I can capture his essence.

www.gravy.com will tell you that the product has “NO chemical preservatives, artificial color, flavors or additives are ever used.”  I am not sure it is health food but it doesn’t seem terrible – check out the website and you can make your own decisions about this.

As for my meatballs – they turned out great, even if I say so myself. I took the time and care to chop and use fresh herbs  (makes all the difference) and I also measured everything and wrote it down so you could try them too. And they are baked, so they are just a tad easier and healthier than the pan-fried ones!

The recipe

1 lb ground pork

1/2 lb ground beef (80/20 blend)

2 garlic cloves, super finely minced/mashed (use 1 clove if you are not a huge garlic fan)

pinch hot chili flakes ( don’t leave this out – it needs it)

yah I know I use a fork - I just don't like getting all messy!

yah I know I use a fork – I just don’t like getting all messy!

1/2 TB dried Oregano

1/4 cup fresh, finely minced fresh basil

1/4 cup fresh, finely minced fresh flat leaf parsley

plenty of salt and pepper to taste

1/3 cup finely grated pecorino romano cheese

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 TSP Gravy Master®

2 cups freshly ground bread crumbs (about 1/3 of a day-old Italian loaf) mixed with 3/4 cup of milk to form a thick oatmeal consistency.

Gotta test the first one!

Gotta test the first one!

Preheat oven to 425 Degrees. Mix it all very lightly in a bowl. Heat a small skillet on the stove and cook one up real quick as a tester for flavor. If it needs anything more, make the adjustments, and start forming the balls.

I personally like small ( 1″ diameter) balls. They cook quick, fit nice on my sheet pans, and tuck perfectly into leftover meatball subs. They can also be pressed into action out of the freezer ( fully cook, then freeze) as perfect little reheated  appetizer with toothpicks stuck into them for dipping!

Take the time to make them even size. rounder is nice too but hey... sometimes they are gonna be a little "square"

Take the time to make them even size. rounder is nice too but hey… sometimes they are gonna be a little “square”

Line them up in even little rows on parchment lined sheet pans and if you are paranoid like I am about them sticking anyway, spray the parchment with a little cooking spray first. Bake them  for 14 mins. Feel free to turn them halfway thru if you think you can manage not to break them apart in the process. You may want to add another minute or two to cooking time to make up for time spent outside of oven turning.

This general cooking time assumes that you will be putting them into red sauce for a little further cooking and heating. And although the baking in the oven yields them fully cooked – they are just so.. kinda like al dente pasta… so if you are not going to simmer them any further in some sauce – feel free to leave them in an extra 2 mins or so.

Cool and freeze any that don’t go into the sauce. Yields 36 balls. (including the tester)

Enjoy over a heaping mound of pasta with some extra cheese on top!

dinner is served 2

Sauce Matters

I made some very tasty meatballs not too long ago. They started with the standard mix of ground beef and ground pork. I added some grated Parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, onion powder, pinch of hot chili flakes, generous amount of chopped fresh rosemary, salt/pepper and an egg to hold it altogether.

Here is where it gets special: roasted garlic.

Yep – you read that right. Roasted garlic.

I happen to have a head of roasted garlic hanging out in the fridge from a garlic roasting session a few nights before. (garlic mashed potatoes!)

So I thought “why not throw that into the mix?!”
After everything was mixed I even cooked up a little test patty in the skillet to make sure it was as yummy as I imagined it would be. And yes it was.

I proceeded to brown up all the meatball’s carefully and patiently in batches.
Some would be for that night’s dinner and some would go into the freezer.

At this point I made a crucial error.

I decided to pack the meatballs in a casserole dish and pour some red sauce over them and sprinkle the cheese -that way Hubby could just heat them up in the oven while the pasta boiled. Great plan right? Wrong. I was too lazy to make up a quick sauce and all the homemade was frozen solid so I decided to break out the “last resort” pantry jar of sauce. This is the one that I bought on sale on a whim that I keep on hand in case there is absolutely nothing else my husband can manage to make other than boil some pasta and open a jar.  Now I am not going to reveal the brand – but let’s just say it wasn’t a “high end” brand.

Later that night, after following the heating and boiling instructions, he enjoyed a lovely meatball and pasta dinner. He declared the whole thing “delicious!”  And it wasn’t terrible by any means, but when I got home much later to finally enjoy the fruits of my labor, I realized my error. The sauce was really not great.

Lesson Learned:
No matter how great the meatballs, the sauce has got to be nothing short of great!

Midweek “Put-Together”

In the spirit of Cabinet Stew and my continued obsession with meatballs, I threw together this dinner one night using things from the freezer and the fridge. My husband deemed it good enough to be repeated someday and so here it is…

And here is what’s in it….

About a dozen tiny meatballs that I made a bunch of one day and froze for times just like this. I reheat them in a covered dish in a 350 degree oven because we don’t own a microwave (GASP!) but you could use yours. A good quality packaged brand would probably work too but then again if you are reading this it means you enjoy cooking and wouldn’t dream of buying pre-made anything.

Boil a box of your favorite pasta – use a big chunky one like penne, rigatoni,etc. I used about 3/4 of the cooked pasta. Tip: lightly oil and store the rest of the cooked pasta for another meal or you can even freeze it for about a month. It will be fine and defrost in no time for a quick meal or add-in to soups and stews.

1/2 a bag (maybe 4oz?) of pre-washed baby spinach. I threw this into the very-hot, “just drained” cooked pasta so the spinach would cook a bit. If you like your spinach cooked a bit more you could probably steam it in the microwave, but I wouldn’t know how.

Before I started any of the above I took a minute to mix together 10-12 oz of sour cream (lowfat works, I used it.) 1/3 cup grated romano cheese, 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg, 1/2 tsp sweet/smoky paprika, pinch each salt and black pepper. I let the chill come off the sour cream while heating the meatballs and boiling the pasta.

So mix the spinach with the hot cooked pasta, add the sour cream mix and add a couple of tablespoons of butter if you want it a little richer. Add the hot meatballs, toss gently and serve it up with salt and pepper to taste.

Meatballs # 352

No doubt you have already realized that one of my life’s pursuits is to make the perfect meatballs. I don’t just mean Italian style – I mean all of them. Big, small, Swedish, veggie, sweet and sour, cocktail; you name it.

Recently I was inspired to get the polenta out of my cabinet and actually try making it. The original recipe of inspiration had a delicious chuck roast done Osso Bucco style on top of the polenta. When I was at the store I just didn’t see any chuck roast under 13 lbs and that is just too much even for professional eaters like me and my husband. The ground pork was on sale and besides I had been craving meatballs ever since I watch Alex Guarnaschelli make her crispy, spicy ones on her “day off.”  Than I noticed the zucchini was on sale too.

As they say in sports talk “now we have ourselves a ballgame!”

Spicy, pork meatballs with sautéed zucchini in a light tomato sauce over Parmesan sage polenta.

Now I don’t want to brag or anything, but these meatballs were the best I ever had. Just the right level of spice for us – probably not hot enough for the heat-lovers among us – but enough to get the idea without overwhelming the dish. The addition of sour cream to the meatball mix was a genius tip from Alex. But the rest was all my creation. I added a little ground beef chuck to “up” the fat and flavor because I find that ground pork can still be a little too lean unless you are grinding your own from a fatty cut. I was not on this day.

I fried these in a generous amount of olive oil.  And this time while I was frying them all crispy – I stayed close to make sure they didn’t burn! I like small meatballs in general and I made these extra small (1/2″ to an 1″ diameter) so they could be fully cooked in the pan frying. I worked patiently in batches and kept them in a warm (200 degree) oven while I sautéed the sliced zucchini, a little diced onion and added some light, fresh, chunky style tomato sauce to the pan.

The meatball recipe

1.5 to 1.75 lbs of ground meat (I used a 2:1 ration of pork to beef)

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp celery seed

1 tsp smoked sweet paprika

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp chili flakes (more if you like)

1/2 cup sour cream (low-fat if you feel you must)

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup bread crumbs, toasted (plain or seasoned would be fine)

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/8 cup +/-  fresh herbs chopped (I used fresh sage and flat leaf parsley – but your favorites would be fine)

salt and pepper to taste

olive oil for frying

Mix all but the olive oil together using clean hands until just combined. Keep hands damp and form meatballs sized 1/2″ to 1″ in diameter. Fry on med-high heat in batches, in plenty of olive oil in a saute pan. Don’t use a non-stick if possible as the crust on the meatballs won’t form as well. Be generous with the olive oil keeping at least 1/8″ deep in pan. Turn the balls gently and frequently to keep them round and evenly browned. I went about 12-16 mins total for each batch of meatballs. The larger the ball the longer the fry time and the heat must be moderated. Tip: Fry one meatball first to test for seasoning and fry time before forming the rest of the balls. Also these can be done ahead, cooled and refrigerated or if to be used right away keep cooked batches warm in a 200 degree oven in a loosely covered dish. Makes about 50-55 balls.

Chasing Meatballs

I am always chasing the perfect meatballs. Could be Italian style with red sauce. Could be Swedish style. Could be even more basic with brown gravy. I just love them in all forms and I am chasing perfection in meatballs.

I can’t seem to master the cooking of them. They are always falling apart no matter if I bake them or saute them. Or I burn them in the skillet. ( I swear I don’t step away but…) Or sometimes they just come out rather square-shaped instead of round. I favor small ones because the giant ones seem more like a small meatloaf to me and I firmly believe that meatballs, meatloaf and the filling of stuffed peppers are all the same. It is the shape and vehicle that makes these three things different, when really, they are not. But I digress and that topic is a post for another day.

So the other night I had 1/2 lb of ground chuck hanging out in the fridge. Some really delicious home-grown celery. (Not by me, but by someone in the neighborhood.) Some leftover mushrooms, and some of my mini carrots from my garden. (that is what happens when you don’t thin the seedlings – mini carrots)

So of course I thought “meatballs!”

Here is most of the stuff I put in the meatballs and their pan sauce. (That is the rice cooker in the top right corner  – you gotta have something to soak up all that sauce.)

I went really basic on the meatballs: ground chuck, bread crumbs, crushed garlic, chopped fresh sage and parsley, some steak sauce, S&P and of course an egg to hold it altogether.

This is how many meatballs I made!

For the pan sauce I went with: chopped onion, celery, carrots and mushrooms. More fresh chopped sage and some beef broth. A tiny bit of milk or half & half gives a little creaminess and of course I won’t tell if you want to finish with a pat or two of butter!

I browned the meatballs first in the pan with a little olive oil. Than after I inevitably burned one side of them, I removed them from the pan – added all the veggies and spices to saute a bit, deglazed the pan with stock and added the milk. I then added the meatballs back in and let everything cook through for a bit.

They came out pretty good but, as you can see, slightly misshapen and a little burned on one side.

Still chasing the dream!

Broken Meatballs

Broken meatballs are my specialty – just ask my husband.

These broken meatballs are generally of the “Swedish meatball” variety and not the “Italian.”

With the Italian meatballs I am always very carefully following somebody’s recipe (cause you don’t mess with tradition) and they generally get baked on a sheet pan in the oven before arriving at their final destination in “Sunday Gravy.”

However with a Swedish style meatball – the savory, onion-y kind with a brown pan sauce sometimes served with a sweet/tart fruit jelly – is usually a pan-fry meatball. I love a good Swedish meatball (and yes I loved them long before Ikea came to town.) And I am always experimenting with new variations on them.

It is the pan frying of meatballs that results in the broken meatball. I am a bit impatient. I can never leave well enough alone. The whole idea behind searing something in a hot pan whether it be a steak, burger or meatball is to leave the item alone until it tells you that it is properly seared and ready to be turned, flipped or rolled. It magically un-sticks itself from the bottom of the pan and says “I’m ready.”

But I can never wait – I always try to roll, flip or turn too soon and whatever I am searing tears and breaks apart. Thus the broken meatballs. Delicious but broken!

Meatballs are definitely a regular cabinet stew for me – in fact someday I am going to compile a cookbook of all meatballs!  The meatballs are never the same twice as I will often combine bits of leftover ground hamburg (or pork or turkey) with milk-moistened breadcrumbs, a beaten egg and whatever flavorings I feel like that night.

Below: I made these the other night with tons of dried thyme, parsley and a little prepared horseradish in the burger  mix.

The pan sauce always starts with a quick butter-flour roux, sautéed onions and a pan de-glazing with broth or watered down A-1 sauce. I often add a tiny bit of milk (or could be sour cream or greek yogurt..) to give it the creamy sauce feel.  I served these over boiled carrots and potatoes with a sprinkle of dill on the veggies.

These kind of meatballs are quick, delicious and make a great way to use up stuff in your cabinets and fridge.

p.s. funny thing…I never rush the flipping of anything on the grill. I seem to have more patience when outside at the grill.