Getting down to basics, and solving some mysteries

BOOKMARK

April 10, 2002|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Christopher Kimball and his staff have spent the last 20 years challenging the assumption that every good cook knows how to coddle an egg. His magazine, Cook's Illustrated, and now his PBS cooking show, America's Test Kitchen, are intent on explaining not only the how of good cooking, but also the why.

In The America's Test Kitchen Cookbook (Boston Common Press, 2001, $29.95), Kimball and his folks continue their mission. The recipes are not elaborate; this is not a book for gourmet cooking. But it is a primer for those who want to know the best way to grill a burger, bake a pie or prepare a classic Thanksgiving dinner.

Among the lessons: how to make pureed soups, pizza, simple sandwiches, fried chicken, french toast, muffins, pies, puddings and cobblers. Included are tips on the ingredients to buy and equipment to use. The authors also offer explanations to some cooking mysteries, such as why shrimp turn pink when cooked (a pigment in the shrimp separates from a protein when heated, allowing the reddish color to show).

In the chapter on preparing a spaghetti dinner, the authors set out to find the secret to moist meatballs. Their scientific approach pays off, yielding meatballs that retain their shape without becoming leaden.

Spaghetti and Meatballs Serves 4 to 6

MEATBALLS:

2 slices white sandwich bread (crusts discarded) torn into small pieces

1/2 cup buttermilk or 6 tablespoons plain yogurt thinned with 2 tablespoons of whole milk

1 pound ground meat (preferably 3/4 pound ground chuck and 1/4 pound ground pork)

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons finely minced fresh parsley leaves

1 large egg yolk

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

3/4 teaspoon salt

ground black pepper

about 1 1/4 cups vegetable oil for pan-frying

SMOOTH TOMATO SAUCE:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon minced garlic

one 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon minced fresh basil leaves

salt and ground pepper

1 pound spaghetti

freshly grated Parmesan cheese

For the meatballs: Combine bread and buttermilk in small bowl and let stand, mashing occasionally with fork, until smooth paste forms, about 10 minutes.

Place meat, cheese, parsley, egg yolk, garlic, salt and pepper to taste in medium bowl. Add bread-milk mixture and combine until evenly mixed. Shape 3 tablespoons of mixture into 1 1/2 -inch-round meatballs. (When forming meatballs, use a light touch. If you compact the meatballs too much, they can become dense and hard.) You should be able to form about 14 balls.

Pour vegetable oil into 10- or 11-inch saute pan to depth of 1/4 inch. Turn flame to medium-high. After several minutes, test oil with edge of meatball. When oil sizzles, add meatballs in single layer. Fry, turning several times, until nicely brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Regulate heat as needed to keep oil sizzling, but not smoking. Transfer browned meatballs to plate lined with paper towels and set aside.

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in large pot for the pasta.

For the sauce: Meanwhile, discard oil in pan but leave behind any browned bits. Add olive oil for tomato sauce along with garlic and saute over medium heat, scraping up browned bits, just until garlic is golden, about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, bring to boil and simmer gently until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Stir in basil and salt and pepper to taste. Add meatballs and simmer, turning them occasionally, until heated through, about 5 minutes. Keep warm over low flame.

Meanwhile, add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta to boiling water. Cook until al dente, drain and return to pot. Ladle several large spoonfuls of sauce (without meatballs) over spaghetti and toss until noodles are well coated. Divide pasta among individual bowls and top each with a little more tomato sauce and 2 or 3 meatballs. Serve immediately with grated cheese passed separately.

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