When my children were young, on the rare occasions that I was called upon to cook for them we had a delicious concoction we called ‘spaghetti and meatballs a la papa’. Truth to tell, although we all loved it and my children have fond memories of it, it actually wasn’t very good, consisting of a couple of tins of Campbell’s meat balls in tomato sauce, a teaspoon of dried oregano and some packet spaghetti.
Like so many things in life, it was the circumstances in which we had it that made it special: It’s spaghetti! Dad is cooking! We can stay up late!
We always had a lot of fun making it; we all mucked in, they were little and I was almost useless so we all muddled through it together. They were happy times.
Every time I make spaghetti and meatballs I am transported, misty-eyed, back to those days, and when my now-adult children come to visit we very often have the new, updated and very much improved meatballs a la papa. I still use meatballs that have been made by somebody else (though I do actually make a pretty good real meatball) but now they are made of quorn and they are enhanced immeasurably by a proper, rich and flavourful tomato sauce which began life as a Jamie Oliver recipe. Many times I have made this for carnivores and they have had no idea that they are eating quorn rather than mince; when they found out they didn’t care and went back for second and third helpings.
I have specified cans of chopped tomatoes here, though you can use canned whole tomatoes. You have to handle them slightly differently though; whole tomatoes are picked and canned before they are fully ripe, because it is easier to remove the skins and keep them whole when they are firm and immature. This means that the seeds can be bitter so when you cook the sauce down don’t break the tomatoes up before the cooking is completed, somehow this completely removes any bitterness. Chopped tomatoes are picked and canned when they are fully ripe so this problem doesn’t arise.
Please don’t try and shortcut the cooking time, the sauce here is everything and it needs the time to reduce, thicken up and intensify its flavour. Some things can’t be rushed, and you will be glad that you took your time.
This is a sauce that is best made early and allowed to sit for a few hours, or even overnight.
RECIPE – for 4 people
2 tbsp olive oil
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes
2 tsp dried oregano
3 tins of chopped tomatoes
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
500g Quorn meatballs
1 ball mozarella
a small handful of basil, leaves only, shredded
salt and pepper
120g of spaghetti per person (a generous serving)
Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat and add the garlic, cook gently for a minute until aromatic, then add the chilli flakes and oregano. Cook for a further minute, allowing the flavours to infuse the oil, then add the tomatoes and fish sauce. Mix thoroughly, bring to the boil, then simmer gently for an hour to allow the sauce to reduce, thicken and intensify.
After an hour, add the red wine vinegar, cook for a couple of minutes then check the seasoning. At this point you can set the sauce aside for a few hours or overnight to allow the flavours to develop further.
In a large pan of salted water at a rolling boil, cook the spaghetti.
Meanwhile, add the quorn meatballs, simmer for 10 minutes, then add the mozarella (cow or buffalo, it doesn’t matter) and shredded basil. Stir well, the cheese will melt and make the sauce stringy and unctuous, the basil will wilt and add lovely flavour and aroma.
Drain the spaghetti, then tip it into the sauce. Toss the spaghetti in the sauce until thoroughly coated.
Serve with a simple green salad dressed with the juice of half a lemon. Lovely!