It’s always a good idea to revisit a classic.
My students and I are finishing up our unit on To Kill a Mockingbird this week and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief. I was so hesitant to teach this text—some of you know that I switched from sixth to eighth grade English for this year—because I just didn’t know if I could do it justice. Never have I been asked to teach a book I hold so close to my heart, and I was scared.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in the seventh grade. My teacher, Mrs. Zehring, was a goddess whom we all worshipped; we were captivated by her, and so then by extension, the book. I’ll never forget the afternoons sitting in that classroom, listening to her read passages from the book aloud in her lilting Southern accent. The intensity of the storylines surrounding Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, the innocence and feistiness of Scout, the quiet and courageous dignity of Atticus—all of it made a profound impact on me.
Since then, I have read To Kill a Mockingbird many times, marveling in the adept writing, haunted by the timelessness of the social commentary, being ever moved to tears at the end. What if I couldn’t convey all of this to my students? What if they didn’t “get it?” What if I became unfairly frustrated with them because I was so attached to the book?
I needn’t have been so worried. Coming to the book as a teacher has only deepened my respect for and awe over its power, especially as I’ve watched my students go from skeptical (“It’s so confusing!”) to interested (“Okay, it got kinda good.”) to deeply impacted (“OMG, I cried!”). And, of course, they have shown me facets of the book that feel new, energizing. They have renewed my faith that classic literature really is classic—that it can still be read and cherished in a Lady Gaga, podcast kind of world.
For a dinner classic, I urge you to revisit spaghetti & meatballs. If nothing else, the basic marinara sauce is worth getting under your belt. The meatballs, while time consuming, are crazy-delicious. Lighter and more flavorful than the ones you might have grown up eating, these still satisfy that “bowl o comfort” craving at the end of the day.
SPAGHETTI & MEATBALLS
My philosophy is that if I’m going to go through the trouble to make homemade marinara sauce and meatballs, I’d might as well make a bunch of both. The sauce freezes so well, and on a night when you really need it, will help you answer the inevitable “What are we having for dinner?” Think: pasta, pizza, chili.
You can also freeze the meatballs, of course, either on their own or in the sauce. But don’t feel limited to serving the two together—the meatballs will work just as well on a sandwich or you can toss them into all kinds of soups.
This recipe is very forgiving, so feel free to improvise as you see fit.
for the marinara:
2 large yellow onions, diced
6-8 cloves garlic, minced (may sound like a lot, but I promise it mellows)
½ cup red or dry white wine
3 (28 oz. each) cans whole tomatoes
¼ cup tomato paste
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 T dried oregano
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
salt & pepper
optional: fresh basil, to finish
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 3-4 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook 1-2 minutes before adding the garlic. Cook together until translucent and soft, 8-10 minutes more.
Crank up the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine. Reduce that mixture down until it’s thick and syrupy. Now it’s time to toss everything else in: the tomatoes, tomato paste, balsamic, oregano, & crushed red pepper.
Allow the sauce to heat up until it’s bubbling, then turn down heat and simmer the marinara for at least 45 minutes, preferably an hour or two. Serve as-is OR add meatballs to heat through (see below) OR cool and freeze the sauce for later use.
2 lbs. ground meat*
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup day-old bread, preferably white or an Italian-style loaf
approx. 1 cup milk, preferably 2% or whole
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup parsley, roughly chopped
1 tsp. lemon zest
salt & pepper
Sauté the onion & garlic in a small skillet with olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent (sensing a theme here?). Set aside to cool.
Tear or chop the bread into small pieces, then pour milk over the bread, enough to cover all of the pieces. Let sit for five minutes, then remove the bread, squeezing out any excess milk. Trust me on this, okay?
Add the milk-soaked bread to a large bowl, along with the cooled onion & garlic, parsley, lemon zest, and generous amounts of salt & pepper. Using your hands (really, you must, and it’s so much fun anyway!), mix everything thoroughly.
Again, using your hands, shape the meat mixture into meatballs of the size you prefer—I like mine with a 1 to 1 ½ inch diameter—and line them up on baking sheets.
I use a deep, very heavy-bottomed saucepan for meatball-cooking purposes, and an oil ratio of 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vegetable oil. The oil needs to get rather hot (not quite to smoking) and I recommend you wear long sleeves when you do this—safety first!
Cook the meatballs in small batches—don’t crowd! Brown the meatballs on all sides (remember, you’re not cooking them through) and then return them to a clean baking sheet. Depending on the size of your pan, each batch will take 8-12 minutes.
To finish the meatballs, you have a couple of options: toss them in the hot marinara sauce and let them simmer for about twenty minutes, or do the same with hot soup broth. Otherwise, the meatballs can finish cooking in a 350˚ degree oven, 12-15 minutes if smaller, 15-20 if bigger.
Cool the meatballs thoroughly before freezing OR cook up some pasta and bust out the Parmesan.
*I have used all combinations of meats with great success: all ground beef, half beef/half pork, half beef/half ground turkey, all turkey.