Thursday, August 23, 2007


Food In Film - Meatballs with Spaghetti

Susan over at The Well-Seasoned Cook, my absolute favourite blog, is hosting an event for which one is to cook a dish from a film: Food in Film. For those of you who have read my previous post, one can see that the difference between the two food events is that this one is more specific insofar as a strong connection must exist between the dish one is making and the film that inspired the dish. I sought the advice of my angelheart Eric, my constant soundboard, because I was stumped.

I thought of making Chinese takeout, perhaps to eat in bed out of wire-handled cardboard-containers à la Woody Allen's Manhattan. My angelheart Eric pulled out every DVD we had and recounted directly a dish eaten in the film or a dish that is referred to in an important scene. Our hearts melted as soon as he pulled out The Apartment.

In this Hollywood classic from 1960, Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, career guy with a conscience. On account of making available his apartment to his superiors for their conjugal extra-marital relations, he climbs the ladder rather quickly - no one seriously climbs the ladder through actually working hard, do they? After getting pneumonia from sleeping in Central Park one night, Baxter decides enough is enough and no longer wants to loan out his apartment. Unbeknownst to him, his rapid rise through the ranks catches the attention of philandering chief executive, J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who inquires about using the apartment. Baxter's career aspirations win out over his conscience, which, as Hollywood movies often tell us, leads to a life lesson for him to learn about selling out.

One night during the Christmas season, he returns to his apartment and finds one of the sassy yet sweet elevator girls, Fran (Shirley Maclaine), has attempted suicide. After having her stomach pumped, she is ordered to stay with Baxter for 24 hours until she is given the all-clear. As far as Baxter is concerned, they are 24 magical hours, in which he redeems himself, made tangible by doting on the adorable Fran, whose heart is badly broken by Sheldrake.

During these 24 hours, Fran cleans Baxter's socks (only finding 3.5 pairs), his apartment, and comes across a tennis racquet in the kitchen. She asks him about this unusual piece amongst the batterie de cuisine, and it turns out he uses it as a pasta strainer. With the hope of winning Fran's heart, Baxter sets about making his specialty, meatballs served with spagehtti and meat sauce.

Meatballs and spaghetti are a Neapolitan classic. I have, however, made my ragù according to a Bolognese recipe, for it is less spicy and, for me, more aromatic. It is meat overkill to make both ragù and meatballs, but it is was Baxter served to Fran. The ragù seems a little fiddly for only one pound of pasta, so feel free to multiply the given quantities for a larger yeild. I only made one change in the recipe and that was to substitute bison for beef with 15% fat content. Depending on the size of your palms, Mario Batali's Polpette alla Napoletana recipe yields 12-15 meatballs.

Ragù alla Bolognese, Ricetta Antica
(From Lidia Matticchio Bastianich's Lidia's Family Table)

For one pound of spaghetti, use:
5oz ground bison
5oz ground pork
1/3 cup white wine
1oz bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 fat clove garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 medium onion, finely chopped
1/3 stalk celery, finely chopped
1/6 carrot, shredded
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2/3 cup milk
1/3 cup hot water (you could use turkey broth) - may not be required
black pepper, freshly ground

1) In a large mixing bowl, crumble up and loosen the meats with your fingers.
2) Pour white wine over the meat, combine until evently moistened.
3) Make a pestata: in a food processor, mince together the bacon and garlic until a paste in formed.
4) Put 1/3 tablespoon olive oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan that will be wide enough to accomodate your meat. Over medium-high heat, add the pestata and cook until aromatic and the fat has been rendered.
5) Add another 1/3 tablespoon of olive oil, then throw in the onion and leave to sweat, approximately 4 minutes.
6) Add final 1/3 tablespoon of olive oil, and add carrot and celery. Cook until they have broken down/wilted and are golden in colour.
7) Turn heat up to high, move vegetables to a cool spot in the pan, and add the meat and liquid. Brown the beat and evaporate all of the liquid. This took me approximately 15 minutes. Add salt for seasoning.
8) In a separate pan, scald the milk, then shut off the heat, move off the element, and cover to keep warm.
9) On a hot spot in the pan with the meat, toast the tablespoon of tomato paste, before stirring it into the meat and aromatics.
10) Ladle 1/3 of the milk into the saucepan, mostly covering the meat. Grate nutmeg of preferred quantity (for me, half a teaspoon) into the pan and stir into the meat. When an active simmer is reached, put heat on low and cover.
11) From here the ragù should cook for approximately one hour (if using more meat, say 4 pounds total, this could take as long as three hours). Check every 20 minutes, ladle more milk to cover the meat. If you find more instead of less additions of liquid are required, not only prepare to heat water (or turkey broth), but think to reduce heat further also. If you find no liquid is required after every twenty minute interval, turn the heat up. Stir well after every addition of liquid.
12) The final result should be just a hint of liquid pooling around the meat. Crank one tablespoon of black pepper over the meat and cook for a couple of minutes.
13) If using immediately, spoon out the fat or stir it into the meat (which is the traditional way). If you are not using it immediately, let it cool before chilling it, after which you can remove the solidified fat and store the ragu in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for a few months.

Polpette alla Napoletana
(From Mario Batali's Molto Italiano)

3 cups of 1-inch cubes of day-old bread
1 1/4 pounds ground beef
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 pecorino romano, freshly grated
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper, freshly ground
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1) In a shallow bowl, soak bread cubes in water to cover for 20 minutes. Drain the cubes and squeeze out excess water.
2) In a large bowl, combine soaked bread cubes with the rest of the ingredients, except the olive oil. Form meatballs with wet hands to prevent sticking.
3) In a heavy-bottom frying pan/skillet, heat olive oil over high, almost to smoking point, and cook meatballs until deep golden brown. Cook in batches to prevent overcrowding, which will result in steaming the meatballs and which won't allow for crust to form on the exterior of the meatballs. It should take approximately 10 minutes to brown each meatball.

Served with one pound of pasta, the ragù and the meatballs definitely were too much. The ragù in fact was a little dry once it had been worked into the spaghetti, which I think is on account of using meat with a low percentage of fat. Furthermore, though it smelled great when simmering, the ragù was spread quite thin, and I think it would have been best to use the Ricetta Tradizionale, which incorporates tomatoes. The polpette, on the other hand, were richly flavoured - the combination of pecorino romano and pine nuts is earthy and nutty.

Sadly, Baxter and Fran never get around to eating the meatballs and spaghetti, but I won't spoil the end of the film for you. Watch The Apartment for yourself to see if they end up together.

Post script See the round-up of Susan's food blog event, Food In Film.

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Shaun, the ragu sounds delicious. I've just received a Lidia Bastianich book, but I'm not sure which one. I am adding The Apartment to my list of movies to watch this year, you make it sound wonderful.
What an interesting event. I keep seeing meatballs on blogs = it's going to have to be done!

I'm not a big film buff and this would have been hard for me, well done to you.
I like your entry very much! And I'm so hungry right now so you know how much more attractive your food looks :)
Dear Shaun, I am MAD about ragu. The dense, deeply-melded flavors and textures practically dispense with the need for the pasta. Thank you (and Eric!) for a great finale to this event. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: delighted you are posting more often these days. Now that you are spending a sojourn in CA, your cooking has truly made you a "Man for All Seasons."
I enjoyed reading your post. Now I would like to watch the movie.
Sara - Lidia's books are quite thorough. Sometimes I wish for more discussion, and she delivers on this particularly with "Lidia's Family Table", which, in my view, is her best book. I have "Lidia's Italy" but haven't worked my way through it yet. "The Apartment" is a gorgeous movie - clever, cynical, compassionate...A movie for all-times.

Kelly-Jane - Meatballs seem to be the only meaty things other than hamburgers people want to eat during the summer, which is probably why they are popping up all over the place on the web. These were particularly delicious.

Cynthia - Thank you kindly for your comment. It was really great to make something for Susan's event.

Susan, lovie - It was an absolute pleasure for Eric and I to decide what would be a good representative dish of a movie we love. I, too, love ragu, but I feel this one was missing a herbal element, like thyme, but I love how slow-cooking entrenches the flavors. Have you ever tried adding curry to your ragu? I usually do so but was trying to be more "authentic" this time around, following a classic Italian recipe all but to the letter. It was actually better the next day. Thank you, kindly, for your sweet comments about my summer posts.

Simona - Welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed the post and that you are inspired to watch this great movie. I hope you check the round-up on Susan's blog.
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