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Weeknight Spaghetti and Meatballs: Beef and Pork Meatballs in Tomato Fennel Sauce

Weeknight Spaghetti and Meatballs: Beef and Pork Meatballs in Tomato Fennel Sauce
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Andrew’s sister Lauren and I have an ongoing contest to find people who comment on a recipe they’ve so radically altered it bears no resemblance to the original. Despite having tinkered with the ingredients, the quantities, the cooking time until the recipe is unrecognizable, you’d be amazed how many times they actually rate the recipe they’ve ruined.  So I am feeling slightly guilty about what I did to this one. Not that I’ve ruined it, it’s just been altered a bit.  The original came from Rachel Ray. Now we get recipes from everywhere from the back of a can of Almond Paste to ones clipped from Airline magazines.  But for whatever reason, I’ve been a bit of culinary snob when it comes to Ms. Ray.  I shouldn’t have.  The backbone of this recipe is all hers and it’s inspired.

I had both ground beef and ground pork in the fridge, both fast approaching their use by date.   Now I love a great meatball and I’ve been cooking a streak of not-so-great ones.  Too dry, too bread-y, too garlic-y—you name it my meatballs of late have been a miss.  So searching about for a meatball that would end my losing streak, I searched and this was what I found.

Before we even get to the meatballs, the sauce is really key here. In my version, it’s as much about fennel as it is about tomato.  It’s actually a very pale orangey red.  There’s a sweetness to the onion and fennel bulb that wipes out any acidity of the tomatoes.   The last minute addition of a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar adds a nice depth of flavor.  And what makes it just right for a weeknight is that it only takes 45 minutes to make. As to the meatballs, they’re fairly straightforward.  You probably have everything you need already in your pantry, minus the meat.  While the sauce is cooking, the meatballs are put together and cooked in the same 30 minute time frame.  Then the meatballs go into the sauce for further 15 minutes—just enough time to cook the bucatini.  The whole dish can be accomplished in about 45 minutes.

As to my calling this Spaghetti and Meatballs, I much prefer Bucatini to Spaghetti.  Bucatini, which is called Perciatelli in Naples, is thicker than Spaghetti. Its name is derived from the fact that it has a hole running right through it.  In Napoli, perciato means pierced.  Italians believe that the “hole” is ideal for hearty and cream sauces because the sauce gets inside the pasta.  I find that very hard to believe. However I will go along with a piece of information I discovered working on this recipe.  It is said that the hole allows the pasta to cook more evenly—inside and out. Even this is called into question since the origin of the hole lies with the original method of hand making this pasta. A small piece of pasta dough was wrapped around a thin rod known as a ferretto.  The ferretto was withdrawn leaving the hole inside the Bucatini.  What I love about Bucatini is that it’s so hearty, I can serve a smaller pasta serving…candidly something much closer to the amount of pasta the Italians always serve.  Here is the recipe.

Beef and Pork Meatballs with Tomato Fennel Sauce

April 9, 2018
: 4 to 6
: 15 min
: 30 min
: 45 min
: Easy and not at all time consuming.


  • For the sauce:
  • 2 tablespoons EVOO – Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 2 large fennel bulbs, trimmed, quartered, cored and chopped in the food processor to a fine dice
  • 1 onion, chopped in the food processor to a fine dice
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • Salt
  • 1 cup chicken stock or water
  • 1 35-ounce can tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp. Tomato Paste
  • 2 tablespoons aged Balsamic vinegar
  • For the meatballs:
  • 3/4 pound ground beef
  • 3/4 pound ground pork
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 cup homemade or store-bought breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons EVOO – Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 pound bucatini
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Step 1 Preheat oven to 425°F.
  • Step 2 For the sauce, heat a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat with EVOO. Add fennel, onions, garlic and salt, and cook to soften, 10 minutes. Add stock or water and let it absorb, another few minutes, then add tomatoes and tomato paste and simmer 20 minutes. Purée with an immersion blender or in a food processor then return to pot. Keep over a low simmer. Stir in aged balsamic to finish sauce.
  • Step 3 Place meats in a bowl and season with salt, both peppers and fennel seeds. Add breadcrumbs, milk, egg, cheese, parsley and EVOO and mix well with your hands. Roll into golf-size meatballs and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Transfer baking sheet to oven and partially cook the meatballs 10-12 minutes until light golden brown but not firm. Transfer meatballs to sauce and let them simmer with sauce for 15 minutes to finish cooking through. Transfer meatballs to a bowl and cover to keep warm.
  • Step 4 Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt and cook pasta 1 minute shy of recommended cooking time. Reserve 1 cup starchy cooking water, drain pasta and add it back to the hot pot along with the butter, cheese and half the sauce. Stir well, using the starchy water to emulsify the sauce and coat the pasta.
  • Step 5 Serve pasta in shallow bowls topped with more sauce and some meatballs. Pass cheese at the table.
  • Step 6 This recipe makes a lot of meatballs. By my count at least 24. A serving of 3 meatballs is a gracious plenty. So depending on how many people you are feeding and their appetites, you will be happy to know that the meatballs and the sauce freeze beautifully. Defrost the meatballs and sauce and they will reheat readily in the microwave in about 8 minutes.

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