On top of the spaghetti!

“On top of spaghetti,
All covered with cheese I lost my poor meatball,
When somebody sneezed! ”                      _DSC6280-1

This popular 1960s children song which I watched on a VHS along with likes of Do-Re-Mi and Brother John, was my first  visual encounter with the saucy spaghetti! Growing up in a Bengali household, you seldom get to try European cuisine and I remember watching this song every weekend would just leave me nagging to my mother for some spaghetti! Did she make me any? Nope, and I think that’s because she had enough of my food picky habits throughout the week.

Fast-forward nine years and I was tempted to try out this dish once again because it looked so good in those big menu screen boards at Kings (Dhaka)! After that first slurp of mariners doused spaghetti, I knew there is nothing else I would ever order at Kings and I never did! However I am no longer one of those who order spaghetti and meatballs when eating out because I understand its a comfort food that must be devoured in the coziness of my home and I can be quite a clumsy eater! I am not claiming this recipe to be The Italian spaghetti and meatballs but just my version of how I like it.

The important element is the sauce and to me it is the star of the dish! A sauce really does make or break a pasta dish and it is the sauce that lets you create pasta in so many ways. Yes, I am categorising spaghetti and meatballs under the pasta category  because I like to keep it simple!

I love the sweet peppery aroma of the basil and cooking the tomatoes in it lifts them up. The mustard may sound too strong for the sauce but it doesn’t really stand out instead infuses so well with the tomato ketchup just adding to the overall taste of the sauce. The chilli sauce can always be omitted if you don’t do spicy.  Maybe I was being a bit harsh when I didn’t boast about the meat but it is what gives the dish the earthy comfort its famous for.I try to make the meat stand out with the mint, this herb goes so well with meat almost making the meat taste fresh and sweet. I try to flavour the meat and sauce with almost the same spices because the flavours need to complement each other when one is going to drown in the other.

So, the sauce can either be homemade, fresh tomatoes or store-bought but I personally use can tomatoes. For the meatballs, I personally prefer beef  but I know people mix various kinds of meat and I think that works just as fine. Coming to the spaghetti, anything works and the whole wheat spaghetti would actually be a good way to pack some fiber into the dish.

The recipe is really simple and the whole process takes about 45 minutes  because I like to slow cook the meatballs in the sauce, which by all means can be avoided and reduce the cooking time to 25-30 minutes. I know the three components of the dish require to be prepped and cooked separately but it all can be done simultaneously. For example when refrigerating the meatballs, get started on the sauce. While you are setting the pan for your sauce, set another pot of water for your spaghetti and simmer the sauce when you are frying up those meatballs. Also, please stay safe while you cook and you can always cook at your own pace doing it your own way!

Remember to taste the sauce as you go along and you can always add or reduce seasoning to your liking, making sure you add the salt, pepper and chilli in smaller amounts.

For the meatballs:

500g beef mince

100g breadcrumbs

3 sticks spring onion finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, crushed

2tsp salt

1tsp cayenne pepper

2tsp crushed mint leaves

2tsp English mustard

2tsp hot chilli sauce

2tsp tomato puree

2tbsp freshly grated parmesan

1tsp ground cumin

1tsp dried oregano

1tsp black pepper ground

1 egg beaten

4tbsp oil for frying

In a medium-large bowl add the meat and all the ingredients, mix and massage all the spices well into the meat mixture using your hands. 

To make the meatballs, shape into balls , generally of any size you prefer but make sure they are all the same size to ensure even cooking. I generally just eyeball the mixture (cookie scoop could be used to measure out each ball), shape into balls and roll each between my hands to make it as circular as possible.

Its helpful to keep a bowl of water nearby to dip in the fingers which could become sticky from the fat and I find that a little spritz of water gives the meatballs a glossy texture. Once the meatballs are shaped, refrigerate them for about 10 minutes to help firm and meanwhile you can work on the sauce. 

Add 4tbsp of oil to a hot frying pan, preferably use a non stick frying pan. Make sure you take out the meatballs before you heat the pan giving them some time to settle to room temperature.

Always test fry one meatball before frying all in a batch. Check for the seasoning and texture, add more of the dry spices if needed but refrain from adding any more of the liquid ingredients.

Fry the meatballs for 3 minutes on each side and also try not to turn them too often but instead give the pan a gentle shake to move the meatballs around the pan.

For the sauce:

2 cans chopped tomatoes

2 cloves garlic crushed

2tsp butter

2tsp sugar

2tsp salt ( less or more to your liking)

1tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

1tsp black mustard ground

2tsp black pepper ground

1 cup chicken stock

2tsp hot chilli sauce

1tsp English mustard

4tsp tomato puree or ketchup

2 medium basil leaves

2 cups warm water

2 basil leaves chopped for garnishing

1tbsp finely chopped coriander

First blend the chopped tomatoes in a food processor or blender, this helps to make the sauce thicker and also reduces cooking time.

In a heavy bottomed pan, add the butter, basil leaves( tear up the basil leaves to release that lovely aroma) and garlic. Fry the garlic in the butter for about 2 minutes or until the garlic starts to turn golden, this may take less than 2 minutes but be careful as garlic burns very quickly. Add the tomato mixture and bring to a simmer.

Once the tomato base appears to bubble on the sides, add in the sugar along with the dry spices, stirring the mixture for a few minutes. The sugar helps with reducing the tartness of the tomatoes. Turn the flame to high and add the liquid ingredients. Do not add all the chicken stock at once, leave about half a cup for later. Cook this for 5 minutes.

Add the meatballs to bubbling sauce and from now on just twirl the pan around instead of poking the meatballs with a spoon. Cook on high heat for 5 minutes ensuring all the meatballs are covered in the sauce. Turn the flame to low, add the chopped coriander, the remaining stock and a cup of water if you feel sauce is too thick, cover the pan and let the sauce slow cook for 10 minutes. While your sauce is cooking get that spaghetti ready.

For the Spaghetti:

300g Spaghetti

water to cook spaghetti

2tsp salt

1tsp olive oil

Bring a pot of water to boil for the Spaghetti and cook according to packet instructions but make sure the water is well salted. Once your spaghetti is cooked to your preference strain out and always save half a cup of that starch water which you may need.

Finally marrying that spaghetti with that tomato goodness! Rinse your spaghetti in cold water and drizzle the olive oil over before adding it to the sauce, it allows the strings to loosen up.I find it helps if you scoop out the meatballs at this point and then add your spaghetti letting the spaghetti drench in that spicy sauce. Turn up the heat and at this point, if you feel you want your sauce to be a bit more runny then add that starch water and another half cup of warm hot water if needed, stir in the spaghetti with tongs. Drop the meatballs in, garnish with some chopped coriander, basil and grate some parmesan when you serve it in a bowl or a plate! 

*Alternatively, you can serve the spaghetti on its own and pour the sauce over the top if you don’t like your spaghetti to be coated in that saucy-goodness. _DSC6303-2

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