Originally created 01/12/00

Italian seasonings



The image of a pile of spaghetti, all covered with sauce and cheese, causes me to regress to my childhood. I'm waiting for someone to sneeze, rolling a precious meatball onto the floor and out the door.

Many children today don't know the pleasure of homemade meatballs since prepared, frozen meatballs have replaced the homemade version at the dinner table. The packaged meatballs are quick, convenient and taste pretty good.

I'll admit that homemade meatballs used to be a chore I avoided. Combining the ground beef and other ingredients was simple, but frying the meatballs in a big skillet was time consuming and messy. That was until a co-worker of my husband showed us the restaurant secret for preparing large quantities of meatballs with no fuss.

Today I'll share Mike Sodaro's secret to great baked meatballs, as well as his wonderful spaghetti sauce, which doesn't require standing over the pot.

Mike is from Chicago and had worked in an Italian restaurant that specialized in deep-dish, double-crusted pizzas and ribs.

He has since returned to Chicago, given up engineering and gone to culinary school. Although he left the Augusta area years ago, Mike's recipes bring back fond memories of cooking with him.

Mike's meatballs are deliciously tender. He combines crushed saltine crackers with milk and allows the crackers to soften thoroughly, then adds ground beef, Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley and salt and pepper. Instead of frying the meatballs in a pan, Mike places the meatballs in a baking dish, pops them into a 350-degree oven and bakes them for 30 to 40 minutes. The results are perfect every time.

When making meatballs, true Italian recipes call for a combination of ground beef, pork and veal. Although this combination produces the best meatballs, use all ground beef if that is what you have on hand.

Use an ice cream scoop to make perfectly formed meatballs. Simply scoop out a level portion of meat, roll it in your hands to make it evenly round and place it in your baking dish.

Mike's marinara also is a restaurant recipe. He combines cans of tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, along with some grated Parmesan cheese and seasonings. The secret to his smooth sauce involves liquefying onion and green pepper in a blender or food processor and adding them to the tomato products. He also adds a dash of cinnamon to the sauce, giving it an unusual "mystery flavor."

Mike prepares his sauce on the stove, cooking it for about three hours. I opt to use my crockpot, putting the sauce together in the morning and letting it cook on low all day.

The recipe makes a huge quantity, so I freeze half for other meals such as chicken Parmesan or shrimp marinara over pasta. I also double the meatball recipe, freezing half for other dinners, including meatball stroganoff or meatball subs.

If you prefer a chunky marinara, substitute a large can of diced tomatoes for the crushed and use chopped onion and pepper instead of the liquefied.

Serve Mike's marinara and oven meatballs over cooked spaghetti. Top with cheese and make a toast to Mike with a glass of good Chianti.

Mike's marinara

1 large onion, peeled and quartered
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into 2-inch chunks
2 29-ounce cans tomato sauce
1 29-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes
1 12-ounce can tomato paste 1/4 cup olive oil
1 bay leaf
3 teaspoons Italian seasoning
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons sugar

Place quartered onion and bell pepper chunks in food processor of blender and liquefy. In a large stock pot or crock pot, combine liquefied vegetables with the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 3 hours. Or cook on low heat in a crockpot for 8 hours.

Makes about 12 cups (3 quarts) of sauce.

Mike's Oven Meatballs

1/2 sleeve saltine crackers, crushed (about 20 crackers or 1 cup crushed)
1 cup milk
1 pound ground beef, or a combination of ground beef, pork and veal
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine crushed crackers and milk in a large bowl. Set aside until all liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Form into meatballs and place in a baking dish that has been sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Place in oven and bake 30 minutes. Remove dish from oven, turn meatballs, return to oven and bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until meatballs are completely cooked.

Makes 12 large meatballs, or 4 to 6 servings.

Karin Calloway is a Web chef for Viking Range Corp. (www.vikingrange.com) and a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. You can write her in care of Newsroom, The Augusta Chronicle, P.O. Box 1928, Augusta, GA 30913. Or send e-mail to karingca@aol.com.