Throughout history, immigration patterns as a result of struggle and displacement through war, political upheaval or economic crisis can impact a country’s cuisine. Certain cuisines can also be changed and developed through an abundance of produce and the necessity to adapt. Italian American cuisine, one of the most iconic in the world is a result of the latter. It is a cuisine that stands on its own that has developed through immigrants evolving their traditions with the produce available to them in the Americas.
In the late 1800’s, America had the largest surge of “New Immigrants” into the country consisting of Italians, Slavs and Jews. Over 5 million Italians migrated to the United States between 1876-1930. The majority were from Southern Italy and consisted of labourers, farmers and a small percentage of craftsmen. With grain prices falling in Italy and disease spreading through grapevines that were used to produce wine, The United States seemed to be the answer for many Italians offering lower taxes, better wages and plenty of land to grow produce. Poverty and political hardship were the two driving factors for the mass surge of Italian immigration around this period.
From the South of Italy came pasta, red sauce and meatballs, however post war America seemed to break away from ‘greasy’ and ‘garlic peasant dishes’ and just as Italian fashion from Milan became recognized as high class, as did Northern Italian food. Ingredients and dishes such as risotto, polenta, porcini mushrooms, balsamic and Parmigiano Reggiano grew more and more popular from the 1970’s onwards. It was also during this time that the American Trade laws were lifted allowing more ingredients to be imported resulting in a more diverse range of regional Italian dishes could be readily cooked.
Many Italian American dishes were born from immigrants having access to very little Italian ingredients yet a plethora of local produce. Dishes became heavy on beef or veal and laden with cheeses such as ricotta and mozzarella. Italian American food today is extremely broad and a mixture of comforting, indulgent, high class and rustic and has developed over time becoming deeply rooted in American culture. Typical Italian American dishes include eggplant parmigiana (layers of eggplant, parmesan and marinara sauce), porchetta (pulled pork usually served as a sandwich), veal marsala (veal cutlets or scaloppini in a mushroom marsala sauce), and lobster fra diavolo (spicy tomato sauce pasta with lobster).
Spaghetti and Meatballs, I believe, is the quintessential Italian American dish. When the southern Italians immigrated – meat was in abundance and they used whatever cuts were available and turned it into something magical. Originally bulked up with bread at a 50/50 ratio, meatballs developed into more meat and less bread. The red sauce known as marinara sauce consisting of garlic, olive oil and canned tomatoes. Canned tomatoes and spaghetti were two of the most common Italian ingredients available at the time.
There are many versions of spaghetti and meatballs and I present to you my version. It is a quick and easy dish where the sauce can be made in advance and if there are too many meatballs you can always freeze them for another time. The key is in the timing of the pasta and sauce which results in a steaming, hot saucy bowl of comfort food and one of the most iconic Italian American dishes in the world.
Serves: 4 people
Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 40 minutes
Red Sauce - The Ingredients
4 cloves garlic
1 medium/100g chopped brown onion
3 cans good chopped tomatoes (you are welcome to use fresh tomatoes if they are juicy and sweet. There is nothing wrong with good canned tomatoes)
2 tblsp tomato paste (optional depending on how flavourful your tomatoes are)
200mls red wine
1 tsp brown sugar
2 dried bay leaves
2 tsp dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Small handful of chopped basil
Fry the onion until translucent, then add the garlic, bay leaves, canned tomatoes and tomato paste (if using). Stir until combined and then add the sugar, oregano, red wine and water.
Allow the sauce to reduce (15-25 minutes) on a low heat.
When it has reached the desired consistency to clinging onto the pasta and meatballs, take off the heat and allow to cool slightly. Season with salt, pepper and a handful of basil.
Meatballs - The Ingredients
250g pork mince
250g beef mince
100g finely chopped brown onion
2 tsp fennel seeds
2.5 tsp paprika
1 tsp chilli flakes
½ tsp cinnamon powder
40g fine breadcrumbs
1.5tsp salt and pepper
30g grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
A good handful chopped Italian parsley
Extra virgin olive oil
Mix paprika, chilli powder, salt, pepper and cinnamon into the breadcrumbs
Add the breadcrumbs to the pork mince and set aside
In a fry pan, add onions and fennel seeds and fry until the onions are just cooked. Place this in the bowl with the mince.
Add egg, Parmigiano-Reggiano and chopped parsley
Mix well and shape into 20 round meatballs
Meanwhile cook the pasta while cooking frying the meatballs. Have a medium pot of water and plenty of salt (it should taste like the sea) come to a rolling boil. Add 500g of spaghetti and allow to cook for 7-9 minutes or until al dente.
Heat a large fry pan with a bit of olive oil. Cook meatballs (do not overcrowd) until brown on the outside. Add a few spoons of the sauce with a dash of pasta water, cover and cook through (3-5 minutes). Throw in cooked spaghetti, toss then pile it into a pasta bowl.
Garnish with plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, torn basil and extra virgin olive oil.