In the childhood of a Midwestern potluck dinner orphan, one-pot meals were as dangerous as closets. Inside the Dutch ovens and baking dishes could be the cheerful and delicious supper we desperately wanted, or lurking therein could be the sorrow of tuna casserole. There was no way of knowing until you looked inside, and even then it was chancy. The fact that my mother, though a gifted home ec teacher, was a dubious cook, did not make those communal dinners (or the smaller shell games at home) any less of a treasure hunt.
What my sister and I truly wanted, then as now, was what we’ve all come to call comfort food: archetypal, banal, soothing, craveable. Lifting the lids, we wanted available steam to rise above twirls of spaghetti, red sauce and meatballs, perfume of happiness. (Baked cod does not carry the perfume of happiness.)
Because spaghetti and meatballs was both a default, kid-friendly dish — noodles, vaguely anonymous meat, sauce in the category of red — and aspirational food, though we didn’t yet understand why.
Fend for Yourself
So my sister and I learned early on to take control of the situation: If dinner is in a pot, best commandeer the pot. While our mother was off teaching high school freshmen how to knit Aran sweaters, we burnt toast and overcooked pasta, rites of passage, until we managed to become precocious teenage cooks. (This is what I told my children, as I read to them from the pages of Italian cookbook writers Lidia Bastianich and Marcella Hazan.) Because there is power in self-sufficiency, and even more of that comfort.
Everybody makes this stuff up
Of course, spaghetti and meatballs is probably no more Italian than those prairie potlucks, so don’t let anybody intimidate you with historical accuracy. You want simplicity, but you also want competence. The one-pot recipe that became our default family tradition is made in one pot because it’s easy and minimalist — and by that I mean minimal prep, dishwashing and thus infighting.
Start with the sauce, because if things go wrong, you’ll always have that. No soffrito (though Bastianich recommends it), no foraging for vine-ripe heirloom tomatoes. Rather a big bunker-worthy can, preferably of San Marzanos, though others will do. Empty contents, add three more ingredients — oregano, salt, as much garlic as appeals to you — mash it all up somehow and simmer, lid-less, so as to reduce from soup to sauce.
Meanwhile, the meatballs come together a lot like the mud pies of early childhood. Into a big bowl: ground meat (we like pork and turkey, but it’s your pot), breadcrumbs (just make your own from stale bread), the same stuff you put into your sauce (oregano, salt, variable garlic), plus olive oil. Why olive oil and not, say, eggs and milk? Because it’s more reliable than perishable stuff. Plus, stocking good olive oil is like hoarding chocolate. Form the meatballs and just drop them into the pot — no frying or baking or browning — since it’s far simpler, makes very tender meatballs, and keeps the whole experiment to the one pot.
Of course you’ll need one other pot, for boiling the pasta, but if you make your sister do that, the conceit of the single pot can stay. Throw the spaghetti on the wall, or maybe the ceiling? Necessary at some point, but remember that overcooked pasta is terrible.
A dinnertime pocket manual
When it’s time to eat, maybe put out a bowl of Parmesan, some fresh oregano or basil. Although you can prettily fork the pasta into individual bowls, it’s often more fun to dump it directly into the pot, then twirl and thread the noodles around and under the deep scarlet soup. If you want, forget the spaghetti and just eat the meatballs from the pot with a spoon. It’s also worth knowing, or remembering, that leftover sauced meatballs are always better the next day, and that they are quite wonderful served cold in a sandwich. And that putting them away should only require replacing the lid and finding a spot in the refrigerator for the pot, which is another of the many joys of the one-pot meal.