With bumper crops of fully ripened tomatoes piled on kitchens counters, the annual quest for imaginative and delicious recipes begins anew. In “The Raw and The Cooked: Adventures of A Roving Gourmand” (Grove Press, 2001), the late poet, novelist and food-and-wine writer Jim Harrison (pictured above, 1937-2016) provides an innovative solution with a twist on everybody’s old favorite, spaghetti and meatballs.
Harrison’s entertaining essay titled “Meatballs” recounts his young adulthood as a proverbial “starving artist” in the late 1950s in New York City. Using his trademark full-throttle prose and vivid storytelling, he recalls developing a passion for dining at Romeo’s Spaghetti Parlor, “where a large bowl of spaghetti with marinara sauce was forty cents; fifteen cents more afforded you a meatball.”
“At odd times I still love spaghetti and meatballs,” he wrote. “It is soul food, a balm, a food nostrum that helps me understand the often questionable arc of my life.”
Instead of going out to a restaurant, Harrison advised preparing the dish at home using fresh tomatoes. His “Roasted Tomato Sauce with Fresh Herbs” recipe showcases a style rarely seen in America’s myriad Italian restaurants. He roasted the tomatoes in the oven rather than stewing them on the stove.
Put a liberal amount of olive oil in a baking pan. Then cut fresh tomatoes in quarters and puts them in the pan. In the spirit of the season, feel free to chop as many tomatoes as you’d like to use up, and don’t hesitate throwing in a few juicy yellow gems if it suits your fancy. Mini yellow tomatoes’ relatively low acidity allows their sweetness to shine.
Sprinkle the tomatoes “liberally” with chopped garlic, fresh basil and thyme. Harrison admitted having a “heavy hand” on garlic. For reasons both personal and gastronomic, Harrison once used 33 cloves for a single batch of sauce. You have to admire how that man rolled.
Cook the mixture for about 90 minutes at 325 degrees in the oven until the tomatoes roast thoroughly and almost liquefy. Chop any remaining tomato chunks.
Harrison recommends making homemade meatballs, certainly good advice. Mildred, my late mother was born in Arnold, Pennsylvania from, French, Beligian, German and Irish stock. But after marrying into my father’s southern Italian family, my Grandmother Libra from Montella near Naples, Italy, taught Mildred to make meatballs from scratch.
Simply blend 1/3 pound each of ground beef, ground veal and ground pork with 1 and 1/2 cups of bread crumbs, two cloves of minced garlic, one beaten egg, chopped parsley, salt and pepper. Form the meat into balls, and lightly fry the meatballs in olive oil. Then drain them on a paper towel before chucking them into the sauce to roast for the last 15 minutes.
Serve the sauce with tagliatelle pasta cooked al dente. These long, thin egg noodles soak up the flavors particularly well.
Serve the dish with one of Jim Harrison’s favorite southern Rhône red wines–and, I might add, my absolute favorite southern Rhône red–the Domaine du Cayron, Gigondas. Michel Faraud and his daughters–Delphine, Sandrine and Rosalind—make this untamed, delicious red from old vine Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre with a splash of Carignan. Fermented with stems and all with native yeasts in concrete vats, the wine then ages in large neutral foudres.
Year after year this Gigondas delivers enchanting aromas of wild lavender, thyme and ripe black fruits. Marvelous freshness and firm tannins age structure. It’s about as natural and delicious as it comes.
As his health rapidly failed in the last months of his life in 2016, Harrison wrote a work of fiction entitled The Ancient Minstrel and returned to the topic of spaghetti and meatballs.
‘It didn’t work to try to write about sex, doom, death, time, and the cosmos,” one of Harrison’s character observed, “when you were thinking about a massive plate of spaghetti and meatballs.”
Words to ponder over a plate of pasta with homemade fresh tomato sauce, homemade meatballs and a glass of Gigondas.