Valentine’s Day 2021, our latest holiday during this pandemic, was possibly our happiest. Perhaps, the mood swing could be contributed to our having secured our first shots of the vaccine a week ago or even to the beautiful two dozen roses that were delivered to our door that morning. But while those events may have played a part, I’d have to say my husband’s suggestion for our Valentine’s dinner deserves most of the credit.
My original plan for the dinner was a traditional rack of lamb accompanied by roasted asparagus and potatoes. A few days before the 14th, however, he suggested instead making a recipe that he had watched Giada De Laurentiis prepare on television for sausage-pork-and-ricotta meatballs with an arugula salad. Although he had ensured our having all the required ingredients, he proposed, early on Valentine’s Day, replacing the arugula salad with spaghetti, and I approved. Around noon, he reminded me of the substitution and I said, “Sure. Not a problem.”
Later that evening, as we sat down, in front of our television, for pre-dinner cocktails and mutually toasted “Cin,Cin,” he announced he had a surprise. He turned on the television, took the remote for the DVD player, and pressed PLAY. The machine started and, on the screen, there appeared the meatball-and-spaghetti scene from Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, in which the Italian chef sings “Bella Notte” while the title canine characters’ lips slowly come together as they share the same strand of pasta. Substitution explained, and our heightened mood accounted for.
What especially intrigued me in De Laurentiss’s recipe was its use of ricotta, a traditional ingredient in Neapolitan style meatballs used to lighten them but which I had never used before. I was also drawn in by the blend of pork and sausage meat, which for me was also a first. The author claims that using the sausage eliminates the need for spices and other flavorings in the meatball mixture.
I pretty much followed the recipe as written but substituted hot sausage for sweet since that was all that was available and added some finely chopped parsley to the mix because that was what my Neapolitan aunt, who, sixty years ago, taught me how to make meatballs, had always done. My only other departure from the recipe was using my own marinara sauce rather than the recipe’s store-bought.
Although I may always be partial to the meatballs of my youth, these are especially good and definitely merit a slot in my roster of dishes for weeknight meals. They’re rich in flavor, owing mostly to the sausage (although next time I’ll use sweet rather than hot) as well as light and moist, thanks to the ricotta. Shallow frying them adds even more texture and flavor. Finally, simmering the meatballs in the sauce for 15 minutes elevates a simple marinara to the ranks of a Sunday sauce.
By the way, I think we have a new Valentine’s Day tradition.
Sausage-Pork-and Ricotta Meatballs (adapted from a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis on Foodnetwork.com)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/2 cup ricotta
1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
3 tablespoons whole milk, at room temperature
1 large egg, at room temperature, beaten
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound sweet or hot Italian sausage, casings removed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Olive oil, for cooking
3 cups of homemade marinara or one 24-ounce jar of store bought (See recipe below.)
1. Combine the Parmesan, ricotta, breadcrumbs, parsley, milk, and egg in a medium bowl and stir well to combine and allow the breadcrumbs to absorb the liquid.
2. Add the pork, sausage, and salt and use your hands to mix gently to combine. Be careful not to over work the mixture.
3. Score the meat mixture with a knife into eight portions. With your hands, lightly roll each portion into a ball and place on parchment paper.
3. Heat a medium, heavy-bottomed, straight-sided skillet over medium heat. Add enough oil to cover the bottom of the skillet and when hot, place the balls in the hot oil.
4. Add as many as the skillet will allow without overcrowding, working in two batches if needed. Brown the balls on all sides, rotating as needed, about 8 minutes. If there’s an excessive amount of oil, remove the balls to a plate, and pour off the excess from the skillet.
5. Add the marinara and, if too thick, 1/4 cup water, to the skillet and bring to a simmer. Return the balls to the sauce and cover the skillet. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat
6. If serving with spaghetti, remove the meatballs from the sauce and, over a low flame, toss the cooked spaghetti in the sauce. If too thick, add a little reserved pasta water. Remove from the flame and sprinkle with some grated Parmesan.
7. Serve in warmed bowls with additional Parmesan.
My Marinara Sauce
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 28-ounce can imported San Marzano tomatoes, passed through a food mill
1 or 2 leaves of fresh basil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Over medium-low flame sauté the onions in the oil until they take on the slightest of color, about 7 to 10 minutes.
2. Add the milled tomatoes, basil leaves, salt and pepper and bring to a simmer.
3. Reduce the flame to low and cook at a very slow and steady simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust for seasoning.
Wine Pairing: Chianti, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo