Milk Street Meatballs and More (Ep 418)
Neapolitan Meatballs with Ragù
Start to finish: 50 minutes | Servings: 6 to 8
In Naples, meatballs are generously sized, and their texture is ultra-tender from a high ratio of bread to meat. For our version, we opted to use Japanese panko breadcrumbs. Panko, which has a neutral flavor and a light and fluffy but coarse texture, greatly streamlines the meatball-making process, eliminating the need to remove the crusts from fresh bread, cut and measure, soak in water, then squeeze out excess moisture. Panko only needs to be moistened with water and it’s ready to use. Neapolitans serve their meatballs with a basic tomato sauce they refer to as “ragù.” We use pecorino liberally in this recipe: a chunk simmered in the sauce, as well as grated both in and over the meatballs. Though not traditional, pasta is a fine accompaniment. Or offer warm, crusty bread alongside.
Don't be shy about mixing the panko-meat mixture with your hands. It takes a few minutes to work the mixture together until homogeneous. Your hands are the best tools for this. Don't bake the meatballs without first allowing them to chill for 15 to 20 minutes; this helps them hold their shape. And after baking, make sure to let the meatballs rest for about 10 minutes before adding them to the sauce; if the timing is off and the sauce is ready before the meatballs have rested, simply remove the pot from the heat and let it wait.
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more to serve
- 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
- 6 medium garlic cloves, finely grated
- 1½ teaspoons red pepper flakes, divided
- 6½ ounces (2½ cups) panko breadcrumbs
- 3 ounces pecorino Romano cheese, 2 ounces finely grated (1 cup), 1 ounce as a chunk, plus more grated, to serve
- 1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk, beaten together
- 1½ pounds 90 percent lean ground beef
- Two 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes
- 6 to 8 large basil leaves
Heat the oven to 475°F with a rack in the middle position. Line a rimmed baking sheet with kitchen parchment and mist with cooking spray. In a large Dutch oven over medium-high, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt, then cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and 1 teaspoon of the pepper flakes; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat, then transfer half of the onion mixture to a large bowl.
In a medium bowl, combine the panko and 1¼ cups water; press the panko into the water and let stand until fully softened, about 5 minutes. Mash with your hands to a smooth paste, then add to the bowl with the onion mixture. Using a fork, mix until well combined and smooth. Stir in the grated cheese, beaten eggs, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, 1½ teaspoons salt and 2 teaspoons black pepper. Add the meat and mix with your hands until completely homogeneous.
Using a ½-cup dry measuring cup, divide the mixture into 8 portions. Using your hands, shape each into a compact ball and place on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them evenly apart. Refrigerate uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes. Re-shape the meatballs if they have flattened slightly, then bake until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet set on a wire rack for about 10 minutes.
While the meatballs cook, in a food processor or blender, puree the tomatoes with their juices one can at a time, until smooth, about 30 seconds, transferring the puree to a large bowl. Return the Dutch oven to medium and heat the remaining onion mixture, stirring, until warmed through, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, remaining ½ teaspoon pepper flakes, the basil and the chunk of cheese. Bring to a simmer over medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
Using a large spoon, carefully transfer the meatballs to the sauce, then, using 2 spoons, turn each to coat. Bring to a gentle simmer, then reduce to medium-low, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let stand, covered, for about 5 minutes to allow the meatballs to firm up slightly. Remove and discard the pecorino chunk. Serve with additional grated cheese.
Two-Cheese Pasta with Cauliflower
Start to finish: 40 minutes | Servings: 4
This recipe from Naples uses the same water to both parcook the cauliflower and to cook the pasta. Parcooking means the cauliflower browns quickly when it is later added to the skillet. It also enriches the water, infusing the pasta with some of the vegetable's flavor. To contrast the cauliflower's subtle sweetness, we like equal amounts of salty, savory pecorino Romano cheese and aged provolone (also called provolone picante, or sharp provolone). If you can't find aged provolone, regular provolone is an acceptable, though milder, substitute. Short, twisty pasta shapes such as campanelle and cavatappi combine perfectly with the cauliflower florets. We boil the pasta for only 5 minutes (it will be well shy of al dente), then finish cooking it directly in the skillet with the cauliflower.
Don't forget to reserve 2½ cups of the cooking water before you drain the pasta. You'll need it for simmering the cauliflower and for creating the sauce. Also, don't add the grated cheeses all at once. Sprinkling each one over the surface of the pasta and stirring before sprinkling on more prevents the cheese from clumping.
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
- 2-pound head cauliflower, halved and trimmed of leaves
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to serve
- 1 medium garlic clove, smashed and peeled
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus more to serve
- 8 ounces short, curly pasta, such as campanelle, cavatappi or fusilli
- 1½ ounces pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated (¾ cup), plus more to serve
- 1½ ounces aged provolone cheese (see note), finely grated (¾ cup), plus more to serve
INSTRUCTIONS In a large pot, bring 4 quarts water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt and the cauliflower halves, then cook for 5 minutes; begin timing from the moment the cauliflower is added to the pot. Using tongs, transfer the cauliflower to a cutting board; reserve the pot and the water. When the cauliflower is cool enough to handle, chop the florets and stems into pieces slightly smaller than the pasta, discarding the thick, tough core. You should have about 4 cups. Return the water to a boil.
In a nonstick 12-inch skillet over medium, cook the oil and garlic, stirring often, until the garlic is golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic, then add the cauliflower, pepper flakes and ½ teaspoon salt. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is well browned, 7 to 9 minutes.
Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Reserve about 2½ cups cooking water, then drain. Add the pasta and ¼ teaspoon black pepper to the skillet with the cauliflower, then stir in 1 cup of the reserved cooking water. Cook over medium-high, stirring often, until the pasta is al dente, 3 to 5 minutes. If the pan becomes dry before the pasta is done, add another ¼ cup cooking water and continue to cook.
When the pasta is al dente, with the skillet still over medium-high, stir in another ¼ cup cooking water. Sprinkle on the pecorino, then stir until the cheese is evenly distributed and melted. Sprinkle on the provolone, then stir until the pasta is glossy and lightly coated with melted cheese. Remove the pan from the heat. If the mixture looks sticky and dry, stir in additional cooking water a few tablespoons at a time until the proper consistency is reached. Taste and season with salt and black pepper. Serve drizzled with additional oil and sprinkled with additional cheese and pepper flakes.
Start to finish: 25 minutes | Servings: 4
We think of puttanesca as a saucy dish built on anchovies. But in Naples, where it originates, two varieties of briny olives and pungent capers, not anchovies, give the dish bold savoriness that balances the sweetness of the tomatoes. We call for a generous amount of capers, which often are sold in small bottles or jars. When shopping, you will need to buy two 4-ounce bottles to get the ½ cup drained capers needed for this recipe. So that the spaghetti is extra- flavorful and each noodle is seasoned throughout, we boil it in water for just 5 minutes—it will be underdone at the center—then finish cooking it directly in the sauce.
Don't use more than 2 quarts of water to boil the pasta; the idea is to concentrate the starches in the cooking water, which later is used to thicken the sauce.
- Kosher salt and ground black pepper
- 12 ounces spaghetti
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 3 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ½ cup pitted Kalamata olives, roughly chopped
- ½ cup pitted green olives, roughly chopped
- ½ cup (two 4-ounce bottles) drained capers, rinsed, patted dry and chopped
- 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, drained, 1 cup juices reserved, tomatoes crushed by hand into small pieces
- ½ cup lightly packed fresh basil, chopped
- 1 ounce Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese, grated (½ cup), plus more to serve
INSTRUCTIONS In a large pot, bring 2 quarts water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the spaghetti, then cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Reserve 2 cups of cooking water, then drain and set aside.
In a 12-inch skillet over medium, heat 1 tablespoon of oil and the garlic cloves, then cook, stirring often, until the garlic is light golden brown, about 1 minute. Off heat, remove and discard the garlic. Add the pepper flakes, both types of olives and the capers, then cook over medium-high, stirring, until the capers begin to brown, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the reserved tomato juice and 1 cup of the reserved cooking water; bring to a simmer. Add the pasta and toss to coat. Cover and cook, tossing occasionally, until the pasta is al dente and the sauce clings lightly to the noodles; add more cooking water if needed.
Remove from the heat, cover and let stand for 3 minutes. Stir in the basil, cheese and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Taste and season with salt and black pepper. Serve topped with additional cheese.
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