You Don’t Have to Be Italian to Make Homemade Italian Sauce and Meatballs

Pomodori

Pomodori

I have always loved Italian food. The closest I came to authentic Italian food as a child was eating at my parent’s Italian-Argentinian friend’s home. Their lasagna was to die for. There was always pizza from the local Queens or Brooklyn pizzeria. Then there was the annual trek with my parents to the San Gennaro feast in Little Italy in New York City every September. We would eat Italian sausage and pepper sandwiches and greasy delicious zeppole (fried dough). But even San Gennaro did not answer my prayers for I continued to live in an Italian food deprived home and continued to be fed Italian sauce out of jars for many years to come. Especially coming from a Colombian home where Italian food was defined by: catsup used as a substitute for Italian sauce, canned tuna fish added to spaghetti with catsup (one of my abuelita’s favorite, not mine), Ellio’s frozen pizza, and where arroz and papas (rice and potatoes) ruled over pasta, oh, and if there was pasta it was in Hamburger Helper. Mamma Mia! What to make of my early culinary influences!

Fast forward to when I met my future mother-in-law who happens to be of Hungarian, Scottish, and German descent. When she married a 100% Italian American she learned to cook delicious traditional Italian meals and added these to her northern European cooking repertoire. When I first had Italian sauce and meatballs at their home I was surprised to hear them say, “Pass the gravy”. Italian Americans from New Jersey refer to their Italian sauce as gravy. I also learned that although my mother-in-law worked full-time back then, she always made her gravy from scratch. Why would she buy gravy in a jar if making it from scratch, was so easy, better tasting, and less expensive. It took me years to accept this axiom. During my working career years and before children it still made sense to me to just open a jar of Prego sauce. Then came the children with their finicky ways and we quickly learned that they only liked white pasta (no red sauce in it). Finally, two different forces collided in the universe: our children miraculously started eating “red” sauce, and I had a moment of culinary enlightenment. I could make a more nutritious sauce, hide vegetables like carrot in it, make it free of additives and preservatives, make it with less sodium and sugars, and in general better tasting and healthier. And henceforth I started making homemade Italian sauce. My recipe varies each time I make it. Sometimes I use “a little of this or a little of that”.  You are welcome to get creative with the recipe.  I sometimes make the meatballs or sauté some Italian sausages and add them to the sauce. Other times we go vegetarian and have the sauce with roasted vegetables or by itself. And perhaps, why not, I should add some Tonno (Tuna Fish) to it.  

Mangia e Buon Appetito!

My Italian Sauce and Meatballs

My Italian Sauce and Meatballs

Il mio Sugo di Pomodoro con Polpette di carne

English Translation: My Italian Tomato Sauce with Meatballs

New Jersey English: My Italian Tomato Gravy with Meatballs

Sugo di Pomodoro (Tomato Sauce/Gravy)

Making sauce is as simple as the two pictures below.

The Basic Ingredients

The Basic Ingredients

The herbs and spices

The herbs and spices

This recipe makes approximately 8 servings. I usually make the meatball recipe as well. I like to serve it to our family of four. This recipe makes excellent leftovers. I prefer to freeze the leftovers and enjoy another meal of Pasta with Tomato Sauce and Meatballs at a later date. When I freeze foods I make sure I use an airtight container and that I label the container with the description and date.

A note about tomatoes: If it is not tomato season (July & August in the northern hemisphere) then the next best option is to use canned (tinned) tomatoes. Canned tomatoes are stewed and canned when they are fresh. However, if you grew 15 tomato plants like my husband did three summers ago, and ended up with an 80 lb. harvest, then you’ll have to learn to stew and can your own tomatoes.

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbs Olive oil
  • 2 – 800 gm/28 oz cans plum tomatoes
  • 1 onion coarsely chopped
  • 2 to 3 carrots cut in ½ inch cubes or slices
  • 3 to 4 cloves of garlic minced (use more if you like garlic)
  • 1 red pepper diced (optional)
  • ½ to 1 Tbs dried oregano (can use fresh sprigs)
  • ½ to 1 Tbs dried basil (can use fresh sprigs)
  • 1 good handful of fresh Italian Parsley (flat)
  • 1 Bay leaf
  • 2 Tbs sugar (This is optional, but I feel that it balances the acidity of the tomatoes and you are still using a lot less sugars than store-bought jars)
  • ¼ tsp – ½ tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
  • ½ cup of red wine (optional) Use good wine, do not use cooking wine.
  • Salt and Black Pepper to taste

Preparation

– Heat olive oil in large pot.
– Add onion, garlic, carrot, and red pepper to pan. Sauté on medium heat for about 5 minutes, then reduce to low, cover and cook for about 10 minutes. Sweat the vegetables.

DSC_4501

Sweat the vegetables.

– Open cans of tomatoes, pour into onion/carrot/garlic mix. Note: Break up tomatoes with your hand as you pour them in or pour them and then break them up with a wooden spoon.

– Make a bouquet garni (bundle of herbs) with the bay leaf and fresh parsley. If you are using fresh basil and oregano sprigs add them to the bouquet garni.  Place in the sauce.  If using dried herbs add them to the mix.  Add Sugar. Add the wine and red pepper flakes. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

DSC_4508

Add bouquet garni, herbs, sugar, salt, and pepper.

– Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes

Cool for 10 minutes.

– Use immersion blender or blender to blend until smooth. If you like your sauce with some chunks, just blend part way.

Blend smooth

Blend smooth

– Keep sauce in pan. Make any corrections for seasoning.
– Make meatballs. See recipe below.

Polpette di Carne (Meatballs)

Makes approximately 28,  1 ½-inch to 2-inch meatballs.

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs of ground meat – I like to mix 1 lb of ground beef with either 1 lb of ground turkey or ground pork.
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ to 1 cup parsley coarsely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic cut in half
  • 2/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 2 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 cup of breadcrumbs

Preparation

– Add to a food processor: eggs, parsley, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, salt, and black pepper. Blend and make a purée. The reason I started making a purée was to hide all the herbs and garlic from our children when they were little. I still make the purée because I find it so much easier to blend the ingredients together with the meat.

Making puree of egg, cheese, parsley, and garlic.

Making puree of egg, cheese, parsley, and garlic.

– Place the ground meat in a large bowl and break up.

– Add the egg parsley purée.

– Add the bread crumbs

Add the puree and breadcrumbs to meat.

Add the puree and breadcrumbs to meat.

– Mix together gently.

Mix together gently.

Mix together gently.

– Assemble the meatballs. When you assemble the meatballs, handle the meat gently, and keep the meat loose. Don’t squish together the meat to form hard compressed balls. That will toughen the meatballs.

Assemble the meatballs gently

Assemble the meatballs gently

And here is where my recipe varies from others. I do not bake or fry the meatballs. I drop them raw into the red sauce and allow them to cook in the sauce. This saves preparation time and imparts additional flavors to the sauce.

– Bring the Tomato Sauce back to temperature and drop the meatballs into the sauce. Make sure they are covered in sauce.

Bring sauce to temperature, and drop the raw meatballs in the sauce.

Bring sauce to temperature, and drop the raw meatballs in the sauce.

– Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 1 hour to 1½ hour. The longer you let the sauce simmer the more flavorful it will become.

Simmer for 1 hour

Simmer for 1 hour

– Serve over a bowl of spaghetti or your favorite type of pasta

For further reading: About San Gennaro feast in New York City:

http://gonyc.about.com/od/autumninnewyork/a/san_gennaro.htm 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_San_Gennaro

Great Italian food website my husband discovered: 

http://www.italianfoodforever.com/

Before the food network was popular we watched cooking shows on PBS. One of our favorite Italian chefs was Mary Ann Esposito, on the show Ciao Italia, which celebrates its 23rd year this year, making it the longest running cooking series in America. http://www.ciaoitalia.com/recipes

For some history of Italian food: http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/fall10/hoppner_v/history.html

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Colombian Kheema Matar

 

Kheema Matar – Ground (Minced) Meat and Peas

A Story of Food, Friendship, and Finicky Eaters

When we lived in Westport, CT one of our dearest and closest friends were from India. We spent countless evenings talking, laughing, dancing, drinking, and mainly eating. Some gatherings were planned and others were very spontaneous. We would telephone each other and the next thing we knew we would have planned a feast of Indian, Colombian, and/or American foods with whatever ingredients were in our houses. The beauty of having friends from different cultures is that as we get to know each other we come to the realization that we have much more in common than we think. As my girlfriend and I cooked together we realized how similar Colombian and Indian food was. Sure, there were differences, but more often than not, she would identify a Colombian dish I’d make with an equivalent Indian dish and visa versa.

My children were finicky eaters when they were young. There was a New York Times Article in 2007 that explained how being a picky eater was a “genetic” trait. My children took after my husband who had also been a picky eater as a child and had outgrown this trait. At the time, my children’s main diet consisted of pasta with white sauce (no red sauce), chicken nuggets, and mac-n-cheese with a limited selection of vegetables. Being the foodies and cooks that both my husband and I are, we made countless attempts to try to get the children to sample new foods and to eat what we cooked for the adults at home but these efforts were in vain. Then one day my friend made Kheema matar, which is an Indian ground meat and pea dish. It is typically made with ground lamb but she had used ground beef that evening. She used beef because she knew I was not very fond of lamb. (who’s the finicky eater now!) The dish is beautifully seasoned with onion, garlic, ginger, hot pepper, cumin, ground coriander, cayenne pepper, and garam masala (more on this later).

Coriander, Cumin & Cayenne

To my surprise, my children ate the Kheema at her house that night. I don’t know why they ate it since it was so different to what they typically liked, was it that food always tastes better at other people’s houses, were they being polite and obedient and doing as they were told, or was it the magic combination of flavors that woke up their taste buds. Whatever it was, that Kheema dish was a turning point for our family. It marked the beginning of the changes in our home cooking and my children’s eating habits. I looked up my Madhur Jaffrey Indian cook book, made some adjustments to her Kheema Matar recipe, and made it a family staple. It opened up a whole new world of adventurous eating for my children and a gradual farewell to their culinary finickiness. It also made my life easier. I could now cook one meal for the whole family. And as many of you know, this is HUGE!! Sure, I initially hid some of the ingredients by blending or food processing them, something I no longer need to do. But even today, I have kept some of these techniques out of convenience. I prefer to food process a bunch of onion, garlic, and ginger than dice it.

We moved from Westport, CT to West Chester, PA and missed our friends terribly. We have visited each other over the years. We now live in London so it’s even harder to get together. The thing we missed the most was the spontaneity of our gatherings and the culinary experiences we shared.

So below I share my version of Kheema Matar. It is a recipe of delicious comfort food that brings back wonderful memories of our friends in Westport. It is a recipe of a meal that marked a pivotal moment for our family cooking and of the triumphant accomplishment of a mother who finally got her children to move beyond “white pasta”. Today, our 14 and 13-year-old children are foodies-in-training developing amazingly sophisticated palates. This makes my husband and I very happy because now the whole family can share and enjoy exciting culinary adventures together.

Kheema Matar by a Colombian

My cooking technique reflects more of an American/Colombian style. This dish is relatively mild but you can add more spice and more heat as you like. If you have never cooked “Indian”, this is a great introductory recipe.

Ingredients

Serves 6 – 8 (great as left overs)

  • ½ Large Onion (4 – 6 oz)
  • 7 – 8 garlic cloves
  • 1” – 1 ½“ of fresh ginger, peeled cut  into 4 pieces
  • ½  to 1 hot green or red pepper
  • 2 oz. of water
  • 2 Tbs Canola Oil
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ⅛ to ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
  • 4 oz. of water
  • 2 lbs of Ground Meat (you can mix ground beef with ground chicken or turkey)
  • 10 oz. frozen peas defrosted ( I like to be generous with the peas)
  • ½ cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 – 2 lemons juiced (or limes if that is all you have)

Method 

  • Begin by making a paste with the first five ingredients.

Make a Paste with:
Onion, Garlic, Ginger, Hot Red Pepper, and Water

  • Then heat the oil, and stir fry the paste for 2 – 3 minutes.
  • Add the ground coriander, cumin, cayenne pepper, and sauté for 1 -2 minutes.
  • Add the additional 4 oz. of water and the ground meat.  Stir, bring to a boil, lower the temperature, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.

The Paste with Ground Meat

  • Add the remaining ingredients, stir, and simmer for 10 more minutes.

Add peas, cilantro, garam masala, and salt.

Add the Lemon Juice

  • Adjust salt if needed.
  • Serve with white or Basmati rice.

Extra Tips

GingerI like to buy fresh ginger. With the skin on I cut the ginger into 1 ½ “ pieces. I wrap the individual pieces in plastic wrap, I place the pieces in a small freezer plastic bag and freeze them. When I am ready to use, I pull out however many pieces I need, I defrost them for a couple of minutes, peel, and prepare as needed. I always have fresh ginger available for use.

Cilantro: I buy a fresh bouquet of cilantro. I place it in a container with water as soon as I get home. I store it in the refrigerator. It keeps for up to two weeks. Remember to check the water level in the container.

SeasoningsYou should be able to find ground cumin, cayenne pepper, and ground coriander at a regular food store. However, garam masala is a special indian blend of spices that you may only find in an Indian store or specialty store. There are many types of garam masalas. A typical garam masala is a blend of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cumin seeds, cloves, peppercorns, and nutmeg.  If you live in a big city you’ll have ample access to these more exotic ingredients. But do not fret, if you live in the US you can order spices from Penzey’s online.  http://www.penzeys.com/

RiceWe eat a lot of rice in our home. I love to use a rice cooker because I get perfect rice each time. I put the rice in the pot, add water, and salt and program the cooker for when I need my rice.

About picky eaters being a genetic trait:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/10/dining/10pick.html?pagewanted=all          

Eating Around the World in London

With both children away on week-long school trips, I decided to take a break from the kitchen, and set forth with my husband on an international cuisine adventure through the neighborhoods of London.

Day #1

  • Type of Cuisine: Lebanese
  • Restaurant: Maroush I
  • Neighborhood: W2 2JE (Paddington)

Since arriving in London nine months ago, my husband had been wanting to try one of the many Lebanese restaurants along Edgware Road. And since I have a claim to Lebanese descendants, (a great great grandfather who made his way to Colombia), it was befitting to make our trek to Maroush, a Lebanese restaurant recommended by friends. After researching on-line and discovering that Maroush is a 30-year-old, very successful, family owned business with 14 different restaurants and eateries to pick from, we chose Maroush I, located at 21 Edgware Road. We shared two delicious appetizers, one was a warm chick pea dish with yogurt, lemon, garlic, and pieces of bread mixed in; the other was a baked pastry filled with spinach, pine nuts and flavored with sumac (a middle eastern seasoning). Then for the main course we had the Mixed Grill consisting of charcoal-grilled skewers of seasoned minced lamb and cubes of marinated lamb and chicken served with garlic sauce, cooked so beautifully they melted in our mouths. After our wonderful and filling meal we were just expecting to get our bill when the waitress surprised us with a complimentary plate of Lebanese Baklawa, a mouth-watering selection of miniature traditional phyllo dough pastries filled with honey, nuts, and butter. We plan to return to bring our children and have them experience Lebanese cuisine. We also plan to go later in the evening since Maroush has live music and belly dancing every night beginning at 9:30. For more information go to:

http://www.maroush.com/

Day #2

  • Type of Cuisine: Latin American
  • Restaurant: Las Iguanas
  • Neighborhood:  SE1 8XX (Southbank, London Borough of Lambeth)

For our second day we decided to honor the Latin American heritage in the family by going to a Latin American restaurant, Las Iguanas. Las Iguanas is a chain of restaurants with locations throughout all of England and four in London. We visited the restaurant located in South Bank across from the Southbank Centre near the London Eye.

Las Iguanas Across from Southbank Centre and near the London Eye

Las Iguanas with its lively atmosphere was hopping with young people enjoying after work drinks and dinners. It offered a blend of Mexican, Caribbean, and South American food. We started out with refreshing Caipirinhas; the Brazilian drink made with cachaca (sugarcane rum), sugar, and muddled lime. We accompanied our drinks with tasty Mexican poppadoms, a cross between Indian poppadoms and Mexican tostadas seasoned with chili powder and paprika. For the main course we shared a Cuban sandwich and a chorizo salad. Their version of a Cuban sandwich resembled more of a pulled pork sandwich and was bland and boring. The chorizo salad with spinach and sweet potatoes was more interesting and tasty. We concluded we did not have to return to Las Iguanas for the food. We were also surprised by the lack of Spanish-speaking waiters/waitresses. Although they do have a children’s menu, we felt the atmosphere was more for adults than for families. It is definitely a fun place for drinks. For more information visit:

http://www.iguanas.co.uk/

Day #3

  • Type of Cuisine: Korean
  • Restaurant: Koba
  • Neighborhood: W1T 1NA (Fitzrovia)

It was time to try something Asian, so we decided to go to a Korean BBQ restaurant. Korean barbeque consists of grilling your food at your table. Koba is a small and cozy restaurant in the Fitzrovia part of London not far from Oxford Circus and Soho Square.

Koba Restaurant

This restaurant gets very good reviews and our experience there certainly matched the reviews. It is wise to make a reservation ahead of time either directly through them or through Top Table, http://www.toptable.co.uk/london-restaurants?m=72. The tables in the restaurant all have built-in gas grills. First we enjoyed appetizers that came fully cooked from the kitchen. We had pajeon, a Korean pancake that looks more like Spanish Tortilla. We also tried a very tasty fried chicken appetizer. For the main course we ordered a mix of marinated beef and chicken that was brought raw to the table, which we then grilled on our grill station. Alternatively, you can have the chef cook the food in the kitchen but half the fun is cooking it yourself. We ordered lettuce leaves and other vegetables to assemble lettuce wraps with the cooked meat. We really enjoyed the youthful and casual atmosphere, and hope to return with our children to Koba and have them experience Korean barbeque first hand. For more information look up:

http://www.timeout.com/london/restaurants/venue/2%3A27138/koba