Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Asleep at a criminally early hour last night for who knows why, I was logically awake at a double jeopardy prelight hour - so I made meatballs, and am having an early lunch.

The meatballs are in a vodka arrabbiata sauce, which isn't the standard vodka sauce, but that's the thing about vodka sauce: there shouldn't be a standard, there shouldn't be just one.

If vodka is by definition flavorless, or at least so subtle in flavor that every nuance is drowned out by any mixer - which is true even of the vodkas I love - then why on Earth would you add it to a tomato sauce, much less a strongly flavored one with onions and chiles and all that?

Well, you do it because it's flavorless.  The vodka isn't important: the alcohol is.  Certain flavors are alcohol-soluble and respond positively to the addition of alcohol - the tomato will taste more like tomato, the all that will taste more like all that.  Vodka is higher proof than wine or vermouth and doesn't add the flavors that they would.  It's like adding citric acid instead of lemon juice, or salt instead of anchovies.  The classic vodka sauce - a little vodka, a little tomato, a little cream - originates in the late 1970s or early 1980s, in the immediate wake of the marketing push that swept most of the classic bar ingredients off the table and replaced them with a couple handles of flavorless potato squeezings.

Normally I make meatballs with beef, lamb, and pork, but I didn't have lamb or pork this morning - just ground chuck I had bought yesterday when craving a cheeseburger with Marmite.  The vodka sauce added some extra interest to make up for that.

The spaghetti, which is very good, came to me as part of a Serious Eats tasting panel, which I would link to but it hasn't been posted yet; it's from Azienda Agricola Mancini.

Spaghetti and meatballs with vodka sauce

The spaghetti is oversauced - ideally, you should use little enough sauce that your plate is clean when you're done.

Meatballs and vodka sauce -

Puree the peeled cloves from one bulb of garlic with about a quarter cup of cream.  Mix in to a pound or so of ground chuck, with a quarter cup (ish) of breadcrumbs, a beaten egg, and half a cup of grated Pecorino Romano.  Form into balls and let sit in the fridge while cooking the sauce.

Fry chopped onions in a little bit of olive oil until they start to brown.  Add another quarter cup (ish) of cream, a couple healthy shakes of crushed red peppers, a shake of rosemary, and a little marjoram, and continue to cook until the cream breaks.  Add a large can of crushed tomatoes and about a quarter cup of vodka and simmer on low for an hour.

Brown the meatballs and transfer them to the simmering sauce.

When the meatballs have been cooked through, add another splash of vodka, a splash of cream sufficient to make the sauce more orange than red, and remove from heat.

The alcohol does not boil off while cooking: that's a myth. Don't serve vodka sauce to 12 year olds or poorly behaved relations.

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