I love spaghetti and meatballs. I wasn’t quite ready to admit this fact until recently, after about the 100th time I had made the meal. I took a bite, put down my fork, slapped my hands on the table and thought, That’s it! This is freaking delicious! I am never cooking another meal. I was afraid to accept my penchant for this kid-friendly classic because of it’s obvious, universal appeal. It’s like saying you think Brad Pitt is attractive (I do) or that Christmas is your favorite holiday (I mean, duh). It’s not groundbreaking, creative, or unique. Spaghetti and Meatballs is the simplest, most beloved of American dinners, and it’s hardly anything to write about. Until I discovered that it does not just represent simplicity, but perfection.
The stakes are high when writing about anyone’s favorite dish. People have strong opinions about the proper way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, New Haven vs New York pizza, and whether or not to add ice cream on top of apple pie. I’ll just say this: any classic meal is meant to be riffed on, torn apart, reimagined, then destroyed again. How many versions of the Mona Lisa are out there? Some people prefer the original, some prefer Mona with a mustache. Consider my take on spaghetti and meatballs somewhere in between. Trigger warning: the following recipe may offend you.
I’ll get the worst part out in the open: I use ground turkey for my meatballs. I do this because I am much more excited by the sauce than the meat, and beef outshines everything else if it’s present in the meal. This is not a recipe for great meatballs, it’s a recipe for great spaghetti-and-meatballs and I think the dish is more cohesive if meat does not play the main role.
Next bombshell: I do not bake or fry the meatballs before introducing them to the sauce. I find this step entirely unnecessary, and the meatballs almost always dry out (especially if you’re using turkey) if you bake or fry them first. The meatballs should not be edible on their own before meeting the bubbling skillet of tomato sauce. They should depend on the sauce for both flavor and FDA-approved internal temperature.
Finally, just to really piss you off, I like my turkey meatballs over spaghetti squash instead of pasta. This is not a carbohydrate-related issue, and I only do this if I remember to get spaghetti squash from the grocery store. I happen to love the flavor, the texture, everything about the vegetable, regardless of its nutritional profile. Rubbed down with olive oil, salt, pepper, and roasted, spaghetti squash turns from lemon-yellow to bright golden, like a shiny token. The vegetable’s thin strands come out perfectly al-dente, with a similar bite and richness as angel hair pasta cloaked in butter.
By this point, you may be wondering if this dish can even qualify as “Spaghetti and Meatballs”. I’d argue that the meal is iconic, a cultural phenomenon that belongs to everyone in their own way. I’m finally ready to admit, this is the way I like it.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
For the meatballs:
- 1 pound ground turkey
- 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
For the sauce:
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 6 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 tsp salt
- Fresh torn basil and parmesan, optional, for topping
What you do:
-In a large mixing bowl, combine the turkey, breadcrumbs, egg, salt, pepper, oregano, parsley and red pepper flakes until evenly mixed.
-Form the ground turkey mixture into small meatballs the size of ping pong balls. Use a lot of Pam cooking spray in this process, the ground meat is very sticky and will get all over your hands. Embrace the mess. Keep the meatballs in the fridge while you make the sauce, this will help them hold their shape.
-Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
-Heat the olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium. Once the oil is hot, add garlic and cook until fragrant, 2ish minutes. Add tomatoes, 1 cup water, red pepper flakes, dried oregano and 1 tsp salt. Simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.
-Add meatballs straight from the refrigerator into the sauce. Cover the skillet with an oven-proof top (I don’t have one so I just use tin foil).
-Transfer the skillet into the oven and bake, covered, for 10 minutes. Uncover, return to oven and bake 2-4 mins more until meatballs are cooked through (internal temp of 160) and lightly browned.
-Remove the skillet from the oven and garnish with freshly chopped basil if desired.
-Serve with spaghetti, spaghetti squash, or any alternative (blasphemous) combination you’d like. Whatever the finished product is, be sure to top it off with plenty of freshly grated parmesan.