Penne and Meatballs Stuffed with Mozzarella

Dear World,

I have only a week and a half left before my trip to Shanghai, yet here I am sitting with a muffin top and a pair of love handles.  Why are they called love handles when I feel anything but love about having them?  If anything they cause me stress and much strife when I wear my low rise skinny jeans or that nice body hugging dress that looked good that week when I bought it (before I bought 2 boxes of Girl Scout Cookies) but now looks horrible.  They should honestly rename them "hate handles" because I HATE THEM.

Also, why do pastries give you a muffin top?  My mother was right, you are what you eat.  I am slowly watching  the edge of my stomach hang over the band of my pants -- the muffin top effect is full fledged and ready to attack.  Good thing over the years I've learned the tricks of the trade like conveniently tucking in the muffin top underneath the pants, or wearing a loose fitting shirt, or better yet one of those "Spanx" thingys that wraps your fat so tight you can barely breathe.

Either way, the stress that I'm causing myself about losing weight is ironically having the opposite effect and making me gain weight.  As Alanis Morisette would say "Isn't it ironic, don't you think?"  Yes a little Alanis, except the irony is far from funny.  Every time I go back, my relatives always comment on how "healthy" I look -- grabbing my arms as their eyes widen exclaiming "OOOOooo HENG ZHUAN!" or very fit; it's pretty much a nice way of saying "Man dude, that is one meaty ass arm you got there."

But then this weekend I had an epiphany.  Life can be much worse than having meaty arms or not being a size nothing, like not ever being able to experience the perfect bowl of Spaghetti and Meatballs.  Now before you stamp crazy across my face, allow me to explain.  Not just ANY spaghetti and meatballs, but the PERFECT spaghetti and meatballs – picture this with me if you will: a trio of meats veal, pork and beef mixed with herbs and spices then seared off to trap in all the delicious juices, then finishing the meatballs off by slowly simmering them in a fresh basil tomato sauce.  What more do you need?  Though the origins are Italian, spaghetti and meatballs have become a comfort food to every American kitchen – and spaghetti and meatballs were my culinary introduction to the American culture.

My mother never made them; I think to this day she doesn’t really like any food outside of Chinese, she finds American food “heavy” so 7 days a week it was always Chinese for dinner.  So you can imagine my excitement when I slept over at a friend’s house in elementary school and her mother invited me over for dinner, FINALLY something NOT CHINESE.  You must realize now, I fully appreciate my upbringing, but at the time I really hated having to eat Chinese food all the time. My only access to “American Food” were those awful school lunches they would serve in the cafeterias, yes that depressing gray looking food that was either too salty or tasteless.  The only exciting days were Fridays when they would serve really nasty mushy pizza, but it was pizza and when you’re 7 that’s totally awesome.

Remember the cartoon Lady and the Tramp?  Remember that scene when the dogs share that plate of spaghetti?  Well while most people were probably concentrating on the developing relationship of the Lady and the Tramp, I was drooling over the cartoon spaghetti and meatballs. AND NOW I was about to experience my very FIRST “American Dinner” and not just any dinner, but a spaghetti and meatball dinner.  And it was beautiful, it was soul satisfying, and even after almost 20 years I still remember it.

I recently had my love for spaghetti and meatballs renewed when I tasted Chef Thomas’ recipe last week.  It was moist, savory and filled your nose with aromatic herbs and spices – I had to close my eyes as I tasted it, to pay respect to the meatball gods because it was FREAKING delicious.  I threw my arms up in amazement and exclaimed – “CHEF YOU GOTTA TELL ME WHAT THE SECRET IS!!!!” And he didn’t want to tell me.  It wasn’t until an intense ninja battle in the kitchen where I finally had to twist Chef’s arm behind his back and threaten to dump him into a gigantic pot of bubbling bisque that he finally said “Milk and bread, MILK AND BREAD!!!!”

Okay. So the ninja battle and the threatening fight didn’t happen, but Chef was gracious enough to share the secret – Milk and Bread folks.  I’ve never had a yummier meatball, it gives the meat a velvety texture that just melts in your mouth and immersed in a homemade tomato sauce with fragrant garlic and herbs, life doesn’t get any better than this.

Now, before yall get your panties in a bunch, the reason why I didn't do Spaghetti and Meatballs was because...I'm an extremely messy eater.  Every freaking time I eat spaghetti and meatballs I ruin a shirt with spaghetti sauce -- it's inevitable.  So I used penne here instead, less sauce splatterage, no loose noodles dropping onto my shirt, and instead of the art of fork twirling, it's simple fork stabbing :)  BUT by all means, use spaghetti, just because I am a slob during spaghetti and meatballs doesn't mean you have to be. To each it’s own I always say!

Ingredients for Italian Meatballs: (Adapted from Chow)

(makes about 30 meatballs)

  • 2 cups stale bread (I used a baguette), crust removed and torn into large
  • 3/4 cup milk (I used skim but whole can work here too)
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon white pepper
  • 4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 pound ground veal
  • 1/2 medium white onion
  • 3 large eggs
  • 6 tablespoon Italian Parsley, cleaned and finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Thyme, finely chopped
  • 6 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano- reggiano
  • 30 1" cubes of Mozzarella cheese

In a medium sized bowl, place the bread and cover with milk.  Make sure all of the bread is moistened and let soak until the milk has been thoroughly absorbed by all of the bread, about 20 minutes.

Place the garlic, fennel seeds, salt and pepper on a cutting board and finely chop the mixture until it becomes well mixed and paste like.  In a large bowl, place the meats with the fennel mixture and mix until evenly combined.  Add the bread and any remaining milk until it is fully incorporated with the meats.  Add the onion and eggs along with the parsley, thyme and Parmesan and mix thoroughly until combined.

Take about 3-4 tablespoons of meat mixture between your hands and roll into a smooth compact ball, about 2 inches.  Make a hole in the center of the meatball using your thumb, and tuck a cube of mozzarella cheese in the middle.  Roll the ball closed to envelop the cheese, adding more meat if necessary. Set aside and continue to roll out balls until all of the meat mixture is used, will make about 30 meatballs.

In a large pan heat a tablespoon of olive oil or coat with cooking spray over medium-low heat.  Place the meatballs in the pan, leaving about 1/4 inch between each one -- this will probably have to be done in a few batches.  Brown each meatball on both sides, making sure it is well browned on each side, about 4 minutes on each side for about 20 minutes.  Transfer the meatballs to a large heavy-bottomed pot or crock pot and set aside.

Ingredients for Tomato Garlic Basil Sauce:

(serves 6)

  • 1 can (14.5 ounce) whole peeled tomatoes
  • 4 roma tomatoes, cleaned and diced
  • 1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
  • 3 cups beef stock
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan Cheese
  • salt pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in large heavy bottomed sauce pan at medium heat.  Once heated, add onions and tomato paste and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add garlic and chopped tomatoes and cook for an additional 2 minutes.  Pour in the canned tomatoes, broth, sugar, and half of the basil and bring to a boil, stirring.  Reduce to a simmer and cook for 25 minutes or until thickened.

Once the sauce is a fork consistency, pour over the meatballs and place back on heat.  Bring back to a simmer on medium heat.  Cook uncovered, constantly stirring and allow meatballs to cook through, about 20-30 minutes.  Meanwhile, cook your penne.  Fill a large heavy bottomed pot 3/4 of the way with water, add 2 tablespoon of salt and bring to a boil.  Add 2 cups of dried penne and cook for 8-10 minutes or until el dente (Meaning still firm and almost cooked through).  Immediately strain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process.  Place pasta in a large bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil.  Once meatballs are cooked through add the remaining basil and cheese and remove from heat.  Serve immediately.

When ready to serve, place penne in serving bowls and spoon sauce over noodles and top with 2-3 meatballs.  Serve with fresh basil as garnish and toasted garlic bread if preferred.

Now you can cut this recipe in half if the quantities are too large or you can do what I have done, which is freeze the additional meatballs I didn't use.  I simply took a quart size bag, laid a piece of cardboard and placed my meatballs on top.  Now you have dinner ready for any day of the week you don't feel like cooking or if you have unexpected guests coming over.  These also make great appetizers, you can simply roll the meatballs smaller (in bite size portions) and freeze them off the same way.

Price of Items:

  • 1 lb of pork - $5.99
  • 1 lb of veal - $ 7.99
  • 1 lb of beef - $ 5.99
  • 1/2 lb Mozzarella - $3.50
  • 2 cups of dried bread - $.50
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan - $1.25
  • 3 eggs - $1.00
  • 1lb of penne - $1.50
  • 1 can of peeled tomatoes - $1.50
  • 1 can of tomato paste - $.75
  • 4 roma tomatoes - $.67
  • 2 white onions - $.50
  • 1 quart beef stock - $1.99

Total cost per serving: $4.14