Our sense of smell can be transporting.
We tumble back to childhood.
On the second day of fall, I was making soup. It was still a pot of ingredients—celery, onion, crushed tomatoes—when I walked outside with Emma where the air had started to feel different. September is often our warmest month in Los Angeles, and even though the temperatures hadn't dropped significantly, the sun was shifting.
By dusk or just before, a crispness emerged. Not cold or brisk, just a whisper of the cooler days to come, when the sun lets us down gently that soon it will set at the unfortunate hour of 5 pm.
Out of the blue that afternoon I'd suddenly craved spaghetti and meatballs. It's a quintessential fall dish, and for this Italian, something of a comfort food. Who am I kidding. It's the comfort food. But I had no spaghetti and no pork and no beef. I wasn't prepared for this fierce a craving, so I went on making another Italian comfort food, the minestrone I've been making for the past couple of years with chard and plump white beans. Sometimes squash or sweet potato.
There I was outside, letting my dog sniff the grass and search for pinecones, sorting through the long week, hungry for pasta. When she pulled me back inside (and she has this habit of pulling down the hall only on the way back, like she can't wait to get home) I started smelling something familiar, perfumes of the Italian restaurant I grew up eating at, and very specifically of their minestrone. It was composed of a thin broth with translucent onions and soft carrots gathering at the bottom of the bowl that I used to dip saltine crackers into and tentatively take small sips of from a silver spoon.
When we arrived at our door, I realized I had been smelling my soup the entire time. Not a neighbor's dinner as I had assumed, but the one I'd put on the stove and poured homemade beef stock over and slipped a Parmesan rind into before slipping outside. I somehow managed to comfort myself that night, in the simplest yet profound way.
But I still needed the meatballs and two days later, the kitchen filled once again with the scent of tomatoes and garlic and parsley and meat simmering away in a sauce laced with butter and onion.
And it happened that I read T.S. Eliot's preludes that morning, as delivered from The Poetry Foundation to my inbox. I couldn't deny the timing, and the fierce connection I felt to the poem with its "smell of stems in passageways" and "burnt-out ends of smoky days." If there were ever a perfect meal (and poem) to usher in the new season, I believe I have found it.
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
-T.S. Eliot, from Preludes
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg's recipe. (Serves 6)
A few notes.
- Definitely chill the meatballs. They'll be slightly damp beforehand and will need the chilly air to firm up before forming.
- I doubled the recipe, making approximately 22 golfball-sized meatballs, offering plenty to freeze for later.
- I followed her sauce recipe, too, a version I make often, but added a Parmesan rind to the sauce as well. If you have one on hand, slip it in for added depth of flavor.
For the sauce
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
4 ounces unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
1 onion, peeled and halved through root end
3/4 teaspoon salt
Parmesan rind (optional)
For the meatballs
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/3 cup whole milk
8 ounces grass fed ground beef
8 ounces ground pork
1 cup finely ground Parmesan (plus more for serving)
1/3 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
2 plump garlic cloves, grated
1 pound spaghetti
To make the sauce, combine the tomatoes, butter, onion, salt, Parmesan rind (if using), and 1 cup water in a heavy stockpot. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with more salt and freshly ground pepper if needed.
While the sauce bubbles away, start on the meatballs. Combine the breadcrumbs and milk in a small bowl; stir until well combined. Let stand 10 minutes.
Dump the beef and pork into a large bowl. Add the Parmesan, parsley, salt, pepper, and garlic. Whisk the eggs, then pour into the bowl. Use your hands to squeeze milk from the breadcrumbs, then add them to the bowl. This is when the real work starts. Dig your hands into the bowl and quickly and gently mix until all ingredients are evenly combined. Chill for at least 15 minutes.
Turn the sauce onto low heat. While it warms up, roll clumps of meat into golf ball-sized balls and arrange them in a single layer in the pot. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a bowl.
Cook spaghetti in a large pot of salted water until al dente, about 7-8 minutes. Drain, reserving a bit of the cooking liquid. Add spaghetti to the sauce, along with a bit of the reserved water, and stir to coat. Divide pasta among plates and top each serving with meatballs and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.