Love Letter #1, meatballs

I have been inspired by Ina Garten since her show “Barefoot Contessa” premiered almost 15 years ago. For the better part of two decades, I continually look to her when it comes to both recipes and lifestyle. The way she speaks to her audience and the stories behind the things that she does showcases her ability to connect to people in a real and engaging way.

Because of my love of Ina, it is fitting that my first post will feature a recipe of hers. Tweaked only slightly, this is one of Alex’s favorite letters: Spicy turkey meatballs with arugula parmesan salad. You can find the recipe here or in her cookbook “Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That?”.

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Chopping everything before you start cooking helps you stay organized.
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Adding chopped parsley to the meatballs gives them some freshness and a pop of color.
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Your hands are your best utensils.

Meatballs can seem intimidating to many home cooks. Do I roast them? Sear then roast? Sear and cook in marinara? What option is the best? The truth is, I still haven’t figured it out. I have tested so many methods of meatball cooking, and I haven’t found one to be particularly better than the last. There are benefits depending on each technique. Searing give them gives them that crusty, wonderful crunch on the outside, but roasting allows for a more even cooking process, and more reliable finished result.

With this recipe, the meatballs are roasted. Ina recommends using your favorite jarred sauce to pair with the meatballs. While good in a pinch, Alex loves my marinara, so I rarely buy store bought sauce. My recipe is simple and full of flavor and cooks while the meatballs are roasting. The meatballs are made from ground turkey and sweet Italian sausage. The sausage gives the dish the traditional flavors one expects, but the turkey lightens it up. Pairing the meatballs with a crisp and lemony arugula salad with a tangy vinaigrette and crusty bread on the side makes this a classic go-to dinner. Open a bottle of a fruity, spicy zinfandel to complete the meal.

Because turkey is so lean, the sausage and soaked fresh breadcrumbs add much needed moisture to the finished product. You can use packaged breadcrumbs in this recipe in place of bread, but they will still need to soak in milk.

My sauce is both onion and garlic heavy, but you can reduce the amounts of either if you prefer a less flavor-forward sauce.

Adding in a parmesan rind gives depth of flavor to the sauce. Tomatoes and parmesan give you the umami (savory) richness that make a sauce memorable. I only use real parmesan reggiano that is imported from Italy and it makes a noticeable difference. Quality ingredients produce a quality product.

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Knowing how to make basic vinaigrettes is essential to a home cook. You’ll need vinegar and oil plus whichever add-ons you prefer. The typical ratio is 3-1, three parts oil to one part vinegar. I like a tangier dressing, so mine uses more vinegar than most. My basic vinaigrette consists of Dijon mustard, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and honey for sweetness. It works well for most greens, especially arugula, which is what I used for this salad.

Arugula is best described as both peppery and lemony. It’s a refreshing green that has been very en vogue the last two years. It makes for a wonderful topping on pizza, wilted in pasta, or by itself as a crisp salad. It’s a favorite green of mine and I always have some handy.

Radicchio adds a bitter bite to the salad, which is a nice juxtaposition to the salty creaminess of the parmesan.

Always season your greens with salt and pepper.

Once finished, you’ll notice some of the cheese has seeped out of the meatballs during the cooking process. This is normal. Just discard. Add the sauce to your meatballs in a large serving bowl.

Drinking the same wine you cook your sauce with is ideal. However, since it was 90 degrees out, I chose a crisp sauvignon blanc instead.

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This was an easy and fairly quick way of putting an elegant dinner on the table during the week. When you can add some special touches during the week, it makes the weekend seem not so far away.

Ina’s Spicy Turkey Meatballs

Hannah’s Marinara

  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 28 oz can whole San Marzano tomatoes, hand crushed
  • 1 heaping tbsp tomato paste
  • 3/4 cups dry white wine (I like sauvignon blanc…It seems odd to use white in a red sauce, but it’s more common than you think.)
  • 1 1/2 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 6 large cloves of garlic, diced
  • ½ cup loosely packed julienned basil leaves, plus more for serving
  • ½ cup fresh parsley, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • ¼ tsp dried red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 parmesan reggiano rind

Heat the olive oil over medium high heat

Sautee the onions for 5-7 minutes until translucent but not browned

Add garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes and tomato paste, cook for 1 minute until fragrant

Add tomatoes and wine

Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, with the lid partially on

Add salt and pepper

Add parmesan rind

Let simmer for at least 20 minutes, until reduced to desired thickness

Take off heat and add parsley and basil

Serve with pasta, meatballs, or crusty bread. Add parmesan and fresh basil to taste.

Tangy balsamic vinaigrette

  • 1 tbsp good Dijon mustard, such as Grey Poupon
  • 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice*
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • Salt and pepper

Whisk ingredients together in a bowl or measuring cup. Use immediately if adding garlic. If you omit garlic, store in fridge for 3-4 days. The olive oil will solidify, so take it out of the fridge 30 minutes before you use it.

*Ina is right, there is no substitution for freshly squeezed lemon juice. If you don’t have lemons or only have the pre-squeezed juice from the grocery store, just omit.

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