Spaghetti and meatballs isn’t just good comfort food, it’s the kind of food that you crave with a beautiful desperation, that you secretly prefer to those precious items on chic tasting menus, that you’d want for your last meal. Be honest. You’re trapped on one of those imaginary desert islands that doesn’t have restaurants or takeout: What would you want to eat?
Some kind of magic happens when a plate of spaghetti is napped with red sauce and crowned with a few glorious meatballs. It’s a magic that works even on average plates in forgettable eateries, with the most rudimentary of ingredients, at anyone’s table and even if your grandmother was from a Methodist household in Massachusetts, as mine was, instead of the Old Country.
But if ordinary spaghetti and meatballs can suffuse your gastronomic dreams, imagine what would happen with the extraordinary. A plate of perfectly cooked pasta, a beautifully attuned tomato sauce and, instead of the familiar beef or pork meatball, how about one made with duck confit? You might just stay on that desert island.
Ontologically, at least in my book, spaghetti and meatballs require tomato sauce. Rigatoni and pesto, even topped with a terrific meatball, belongs in a totally different category. But who says you need to use meat for the meatball?
A combination of duck breast and duck confit makes fabulous “meatballs,” as does monkfish, even rabbit. Sure, you can make great meatballs with pork, beef, veal or even lamb, but top the pasta and sauce with an “un-meatball” and the dish reaches an entirely new level -- without losing its basic nature.
Jazzing up the old formula shouldn’t affront purists; the dish is a modern invention anyway, constructed in Italian-American kitchens. And when those kitchens are run by creative chefs, the comfort food can take a whole new trajectory. At A Voce, on Madison Avenue in New York, chef Andrew Carmellini laces his signature duck meatballs with foie gras. He serves them as an appetizer, atop potato puree and sour cherry sauce instead of spaghetti, but it’s a dish that’s so popular he hasn’t taken it off the menu in a year. Esca’s David Pasternack goes more traditional, topping the spaghetti and tomato sauce at his New York seafood restaurant with meatballs made with tuna and pancetta.
You get the essence of the dish, but with a new flavor profile that can entirely refresh your favorite comfort food. And when the meatball has been re-envisioned, the sauce can also get a new twist -- just build the flavors and components of the tomato sauce to match the meatball.
Playing with fowl
Pair rich duck meatballs with a sauce befitting their rustic extravagance. Lace the tomato sauce with the mellow earthiness of porcini mushrooms and a generous pour of red wine, then cook it longer, letting the flavors and textures of the sauce build and deepen. Duck doesn’t want a light sauce, but one with a long trajectory, a lower register, a soothing complexity.
Rabbit meatballs call for a bright spectrum, even a touch of the garden. Thyme, rosemary, parsley and sage go into a tomato sauce, along with white wine, leeks and shallots. Keep the flavors vibrant by just cooking it for a short time, then puree the sauce and stir in finely diced carrots. The sauce is vibrant in flavor and color but delicate and suited to the subtle flavors of the rabbit.
You can take Pasternack’s lead and use fish, but instead of tuna, which is prone to drying out, use monkfish. Monkfish has a fantastic taste -- substantial and full-bodied, even meaty -- and a texture to match. It’s ideal for the meatball treatment. And though these meatballs brown up beautifully, we braise them in the tomato sauce instead; they cook up quickly and are incredibly tender.
Monkfish matches well with olives and capers, so throw a generous handful of kalamatas into a simple tomato sauce and then toss capers into the sauce and the meatballs themselves. A sprinkle of crushed red pepper gives dimension and a bite without obscuring the subtlety of the fish.
None of these “un-meatballs” strays from the basic meatball technique. Some bread crumbs, an egg, chopped parsley and salt and pepper is all you need to add to a bowlful of ground duck or monkfish, the same as it is for beef or pork. Use bread crumbs that first have been softened (in either milk or water), then squeezed of excess liquid for the right texture.
Don’t add grated Parmesan or chopped garlic as your grandmother might have added to her veal meatballs; they can overwhelm the more delicate flavors. Instead throw in more fresh herbs.
While the herbs, salt and pepper flavor the meatballs, the softened bread crumbs and egg bind the ingredients together. You want a balance to the mixture: some moisture, enough fat, a little structure, not too much weight. Meatballs are surprisingly delicate; there’s a reason, after all, why most of us don’t dream about meatloaf.
A beautiful braise
Any kind of meatball can be braised instead of browned. It eliminates a step and it’s good for more delicate flavors such as the monkfish. Before browning or braising the batch, fry up a single meatball as a tester. Even if you’re confident in a recipe, it’s good to taste for seasoning.
Then you can let your imagination go a little wild. Try making little tiny meatballs, scattering them down your mountain of sauced spaghetti. Or scale them so each person has one giant meatball, coconut-sized maybe -- it’s your desert island, after all.
Whether browned or braised, dainty or gargantuan, the meatballs are placed in their sauce for the last half-hour of cooking. Put the cover on the pan, turn the heat to low and enjoy the happy aroma.
And because a good plate of spaghetti and meatballs requires a glorious tangle of perfectly cooked pasta, bring a big pot of salted water to a boil while you’re waiting.
Good spaghetti has a nutty flavor and a distinct mouth-feel to it, a bite and flavor that can stand up to the weight of the sauce and the meatballs that top it. Fresh pasta is too tender, so choose a high-quality dried spaghetti. Take it to just this side of al dente, because pasta cooks a little after you lift it out of the water (especially since you don’t want to rinse it).
Then it’s just a matter of building the plate -- a swirl of spaghetti, a ladleful of sauce, a single meatball or a dozen of them. Twirl your fork, and ignore the passing ships.