I started working in the kitchen at the age of 15. My first real job at a restaurant was an incredibly special place in downtown Denver in the late 80’s called Al Fresco. Owner Jack Leone imported one of the first wood stoves to the US and made so many new and exotic things with it, from roasted root vegetables and burnt rabbit to mushroom focaccia and of course pizza.
Along with my first tasting of prosciutto, roasted ziti and white bean minestrone, I had my first real Neapolitan pizza from that oven, tasting burnt wood and smoke, with bubbling fresh mozzarella and giant basil leaves.
Since then, I’ve worked in dozens of kitchens, but no matter how luxurious the menu or building may be or the overall impression of the space, food of the best taste is often not on the menu.
Not all kitchens have kept the tradition alive, but anyone who is lucky enough to work in a “family meal” kitchen knows exactly what I mean. It is often a combination of leftovers, slightly withered products or off-menu items in a broth, curry or stew, or simply a large baked meal with plenty of homemade hot sauce and other toppings. The food is full of flavor and spice and is always devoured by the eager staff, who can rarely, if ever, enjoy homemade food.
The reason we share this intense love of “family food” is that it is often a common task. Most kitchens will take turns who prepares the food: one day it’s the dishwasher or the staff, the next the owner or the chef. It’s a nervous honor to prepare food for a team, one magician does tricks for a room full of other tired and a little bored magicians.
Most of these meals start with a handful of modest ingredients, limited time and one pot. No one wants to do anything but best express their own skills, background and palette. The food is usually eaten in relative peace, the staff enjoys a few minutes of rest and rest at work, where “sitting” is not a thing.
Ask any chef what he makes at home, and it is often food inspired by this experience. We will never return home with the desire for perfectly prepared meals topped with flavored smoke, foam or something ridiculous. What we want are noodles, simple stews with warm bread, omelets and fried rice, spicy curries or bowls filled with green chillies and beans.
What we always want at home is the first food for which we loved cooking, because of which we wanted to share our love of food and family, both genetic and selected, with our neighbors.
With that in mind, one of my favorite dishes, when I have a few extra minutes, is classic spaghetti and meatballs. Equal pieces of ground beef and Italian sausage with a handful of breadcrumbs, an egg to hold it together, and shaped into plum-sized balls. Fry in the pan with a little chopped garlic and chopped onion, add a drop of red wine and a glass of good tomato sauce, a drop of balsamic vinegar, a little fresh chopped parsley and basil and a few giant pieces of coarsely ground black pepper. Then cook until it cooks.
Place cooked noodles on a plate with a hearty drop of olive oil and fresh grated Parmesan cheese. Open a bottle of Chianti or Barbaresco, warm the bread and change into a white shirt, because it will be a bit of a mess. And don’t forget Sinatra, nothing will warm the room like old blue eyes!
Meatballs in red wine sauce
This is a one-pot recipe that will make you famous among your friends. Make sure your pot is big enough. It’s really a three-step process: Make and fry the meatballs first. Then prepare the sauce in the same pot. Finally, return the meatballs to the sauce to simmer while you indulge in your cooking skills.
- 1 pound of ground beef
- 1 pound of spicy Italian sausage
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 tablespoons grated parmesan
- 1 cup breadcrumbs (see note)
- 1 teaspoon each: dry basil leaves and red pepper flakes
RED WINE SAUCE
- ½ a cup of sliced onion
- 2 tablespoons ground garlic
- ½ cup sliced peppers
- ½ a cup of sliced fresh tomatoes
- 1 small can (4 ounces) of tomato puree
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup crushed tomatoes
- ½ cup of red wine
- ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons each: chopped fresh parsley and basil
- Preparation of meatballs: Place the ingredients in a large bowl and mix by hand, making sure that the breadcrumbs are evenly incorporated into the mixture. Let it rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. The shape corresponds to the size of golf balls.
- Bring a cup of olive oil to a medium heat in a large saucepan, then add a few meatballs and fry on all sides. Remove them from the pot until browned, and add more oil as needed. (The meatballs are cooked in the sauce.)
- Sauce preparation: Keep the temperature on medium heat, add onions, garlic, peppers and tomatoes to the pot and sauté until the onions become transparent.
- Add the remaining ingredients in that order and work each item thoroughly into the sauce before adding another.
- While the sauce is cooking, scrape to the bottom of the pan. Bring the sauce to a gentle boil and then return the meatballs to the pot. Let cook covered until cooked thoroughly for about 30-40 minutes. Salt to taste.
Makes 12 meatballs. Serve with your favorite pasta.
NOTE: To prepare breadcrumbs, pulse old or hard bread in a food processor.