My nonna knows what's up. Literally, the best meatballs of your life.
Some stereotypes in this world are so accurate you can't ignore them. One of them is the whole ‘offending your Nonna if you don't accept whatever food she is offering’ thing. She will take it personally. And she will hold it against you.
The fact is, an Italian Nonna will almost always over cater (it is an Italian's worst nightmare to under cater). Example - you go over to her house for a casual family dinner for five. She cooks for twenty. (At first I thought perhaps my Nonna was just bad at maths, but I have seen this woman calculate percentages on anything marked 'sale' faster than Rainman).
So, inevitably, when dinner is done, there always are leftovers. And you better take them home or so help you. 'What?! You didn't like it?’ Nonna will exclaim with an accusatory tone if any leftovers are declined. ‘Oh I see, you want to eat fancy stuff at work instead? Have you been eating? You look skinny. You need to eat more.' Next thing you know, she’s squeezing every last pasta spiral into recycled plastic ricotta containers she’s had since 1996.
This scene is not unusual, and is typical of many Australian-Italian families. Nonnas love to cook and they love to feed, potentially more than they like to watch The Bold and the Beautiful, but I can't be sure. This is where my love of cooking started, with my Nonna. I spent every school holidays at her house (Italian families rarely have need for an actual paid ‘babysitter’) and every day I would help her in the kitchen. This Tasty Tuesday series is inspired by Nonna Corso's favourite dishes, and how she taught me to make them.
To kick things off we thought we should start with a dish dedicated to my favourite 'C' word - carbs. This is your typical weeknight pasta dish with a rich red sauce (that can also be used as a base for variety of other dishes) and tasty homemade meatballs. In this recipe I have used Fusilli pasta, which is one of my Nonna's favourite pastas from her region of Calabria, however you can improvise with any pasta of your choice. For the meatballs you can switch up the meat if you like, but the classic combo is 50/50 veal and pork mince. It’s best served with some bread, too, because nothing says Italian cuisine more than some carb on carb action.
INGREDIENTS (Serves four)
For the sauce
700ml bottle of passata
1 clove of garlic
1/2 half a brown onion diced
1 small chilli
A sprinkle of dried chilli flakes
1 bunch of fresh basil
A splash of red wine
A pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper for seasoning
For the meatballs (makes approx 15 meatballs)
250g veal mince
250g pork mince
A large handful of fresh basil
A large handful of fresh parsley
1 egg, whisked
Grated parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper for seasoning
For the pasta
500g of pasta of your choice (I used Carmelina Fussili available from Mediterranean Wholesalers)
For the sauce
While this is not the quickest sauce to make, it is the easiest and one of the tastiest. My Nonna always says that no sauce can ever be properly cooked for less than 2 hours, and I think she's probably right. This is an incarnation of a Napoletana sauce, you can use fresh tomato, tinned tomatoes, but her way (and my preferred way) is by using passata. Passata is a legit Italian tomato puree, which you cook and flavour. It makes the sauce so smooth and delicious, I'd eat it with a spoon like yoghurt (and have).
First things first, using a mid-sized pot, heat up some olive oil on high heat on the stove. Once the oil is hot, toss in diced onions, diced chilli (only use half or not at all if spicy is not your vibe), chilli flakes, garlic clove (I cut it into half and then remove once sauce is cooked), salt and pepper and fry together.
Once the onions are semi caramelised, I add a splash of red wine. No fancy stuff here, a clean skin red is perfectly acceptable and encouraged. When the wine has semi evaporated I then add in about two generous handfuls of basil leaves torn / chopped and continue cooking. What we are doing now is creating 'the base' of the sauce. This is the most important step as it informs the taste for the entire dish. You don't want the basil to shrivel up into nothing the way spinach does, so while it is lightly sauteed but still green and the onions are fully caramelised, we add the passata. Yes, the entire bottle.
Mix your 'base' in with the passata, then using the now empty passata bottle fill it up with water 2/3 full and add it to the pot. Sounds weird, but trust me.
Keep the pot on high heat and stir occasionally until the sauce starts to boil, when this happens I usually add a not-so-secret Italian addition to any good sauce, a pinch or two of sugar. I stir a bit more, then keep the sauce simmering on low heat for 2 to 2.5 hours, tasting in between and adding any extra salt or sugar needed. You'll know when it tastes good, and you'll definitely know when it doesn't so be patient, and keep adding until you get it perfectly flavoured to suit your taste. After the two hours or so you'll see the sauce will have condensed and thickened up.
For the meatballs
The secret's out, good meatballs are not illusive lumps of meaty goodness which need to be made by the hands of a Nonna. They are so straightforward and easy to make if you buy the right ingredients!
In a mixing bowl, combine the pork and veal mince, roughly chopped parsley and basil, salt and pepper, approximately 3 tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese, 2 tablespoons of breadcrumbs, half a whisked egg and a splash of olive oil as a start. No time to be a diva when making a meatball, you need to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. Combine all ingredients, mixing with your hands - you really to need to work at it so that the two types of mince combine properly. When you are making the mixture you'll be able to feel if you need to add a bit more of something. For instance if the mixture is too wet add some more breadcrumbs, or too dry some more whisked egg. You're going for a moderately moist mix.
Once your mixture is made, using a metal tablespoon scoop out the mixture and fashion them into ping pong sized balls. Place on plate until you have finished balling the entire mixture.
Now turn on a grill, and put the meatballs underneath it for no more than 2 minutes or so each side. What we are doing now is sealing the meatballs and slightly cooking the exterior, the interior will still be raw. Once you have lightly browned them, gently dunk all meatballs into the sauce you are currently making (this is not the time to show off your NBA skills, unless you want your shirt to look like it's from the wardrobe department of Dexter). When I do this I bring the sauce to a simmer, then quickly make the meatballs, dunk them in and cook them together for about 2 hours. The meatballs will be tender and moist. After all, there is nothing worse than a dried out meatball.
Assembling the dish, Nonna style
Once the sauce and meatballs are done, all systems are now ready to go.
Now we get a big pot and fill it with water, and bring to the boil. Add a dollop of two of olive oil to the water and heaps of salt. Once water is rapidly boiling, add 500g pasta of your choice. Cook per instructions on the packet, remembering that you want it al dente, not mushy. Once pasta is cooked drain it, and toss back into the pot with some olive oil to prevent it from sticking. Sometimes I add a bit of sauce too through the pasta, before serving it. (Lucy and Nat firmly disallowed me from doing this on our shoot day, for styling purposes, but in truth the Italian way is to mix the sauce through all the pasta before serving!)
Now we dish up - plate the pasta, then add the sauce and meatballs. Add freshly grated parmesan. And lots of it.
And now we eat. In the not so Italian words of Julia Child: bon appétit! Or in the supremely Italian words of my Nonna: mangia.
This recipe was originally published on The Design Files as part of my Nonna Corso recipe series with photos by Eve Wilson. Yes, all of these recipes are certified nonna approved.