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Stella's Spaghetti & Meatballs

Stella's Spaghetti & Meatballs

Lots of people are lucky enough to have family recipes that have been passed down through the years. Dishes that sort of reincarnate, if only for a meal, the spirit and adventure of a lost loved one. A dish that at times of triumph and also times of melancholy, can bring forth a special kind of comfort. A rare security blanket of flavors.

One of my most treasured recipes is my Grandma Stella’s Spaghetti & Meatballs recipe. It's not really the most authentic spaghetti and meatballs recipe out there, but it's been passed down through the years, mother to daughter, and in my case grandmother to granddaughter. It's dear to my heart.

Grandma Stella was Welsh? English? I also think German.  And if you asked her if she was Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, well, we are Irish, too, apparently. There are better record keepers in the family, but for me to paraphrase, she was born in 1919 in Memphis, Tennessee. Somehow she ended up in Chicago where she worked as secretary before meeting her husband (my grandpa) Budge, who she married.

They moved to the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago in the 40’s and had three daughters and a son. Carol, my mother, was the oldest. My Grandpa Budge had a hot dog & tamale cart and Stella stayed home and raised four kids.

They weren’t wealthy people, but they did okay. The family of six had a modest bungalow in a neighborhood filled with other young families. They went out here and there, but mostly the young couple spent a lot of weekends with neighbors, where young couples in the Roseland neighborhood would take turns hosting weekly potlucks and bridge parties. 

On many Friday’s, Stella would whip up a batch of her spaghetti and meatballs for the kids, put them to bed, throw on a nice dress and some lipstick and off her and Grandpa Budge would go, heading a few doors down. A night out from the kids. Later in life, she just made it out of habit and it fed the three little grand kids that sat around her table during the summers. It was one of my grandmother's staples.

This spaghetti is my comfort food. A recipe I know by heart. Some of the best comfort foods aren't perfect. They are satisfying and warming in a way that's similar to an inside joke. This spaghetti is like a big hug from a lady I miss with all my might.

There really is no trick to Grandma Stella’s Spaghetti, but I find that it gives me comfort when I make it. Like a warm bath after walking in the cold. 

I like to throw on a little Nat King Cole and tag along a batch of Katherine Hepburn’s Brownies for dessert.


Stella’s Spaghetti & Meatballs

(Appears in my cookbook “Dirty Food”, page 77.)

Serves: 4-6


For the sauce:

1 small onion, chopped

6 cloves of garlic, minced

¼ cup/50g extra-virgin olive oil

2 x 14 oz. (2 x 400 g) cans whole, peeled tomatoes

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. granulated sugar

1 fresh Bay leaf

6 oz. (170 g) tomato paste/puree

¾ tsp. dried basil

½ tsp. ground black pepper


For the meatballs:

2 T. extra-virgin olive oil

½ lb. (225 g) of lean ground beef

½ lb. (225 g) of thin short rib, ground

1 cup of freshly ground bread crumbs from old bread

1 T. dried parsley

¼ up of Parmesan cheese, grated

¼ tsp. ground black pepper

Pinch of garlic powder

1 egg, beaten

1 ½ lbs. (500 g) of dried spaghetti noodles

Salt to taste


For the spaghetti sauce, in a large saucepan over medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until the onion is translucent. Stir in the tomatoes, salt, sugar and bay leaf. Cover the saucepan and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 1 ½ hours. Stir in the tomato paste/puree, basil and black pepper. Remove from heat and set aside until ready to use. 

Preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C, Gas 5).

For the meatballs, combine all ingredients well in a mixing bowl with your hands and form into golf ball sized balls. Place on a baking sheet and transfer to the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Use immediately or turn out onto a plate to cool and then place them in a re-sealable plastic bag in the freezer.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti. When the spaghetti reaches an al dente texture, about 8-10 minutes, remove and drain. Mix with the sauce, add the meatballs and finish by adding a generous sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. (NOTE: Stella was stingy with the Parm. Feel free to add as much as you want.)

To make a slow-cooker, set the heat to its lowest setting and cook the meatballs and sauce for 6-8 hours. Follow the above directions for cooking the spaghetti.

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