April 9, 2019
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The Sketti Sando Lives
2019_04_06_Taste_Spagetti_Sandwich196

For chef Elliott Moss, the throwback spaghetti sandwich is a trip back to weird teenagehood.

There is only one hard and fast rule for spaghetti sandwiches, says Elliott Moss of Asheville, North Carolina’s Buxton Hall Barbecue. “I would never make spaghetti and then eat a sandwich. That was always the next day.”

The spaghetti sandwich is a staple of many a working-class household. In my home in Alexandria, Virginia, where my dad hauled other people’s luggage at the airport for work and my mother managed apartment complexes, meals for me and my two growing brothers would consist of affordable, filling solutions like giant Tupperware bowls full of cooked spaghetti plus jarred tomato sauce cooked with ground beef for a basic, meaty red sauce—along with frozen garlic bread on the side. These meals were meant to last a few days, sometimes the week, and once we all tired of the marriage of pasta and red sauce, we got creative. The spaghetti sandwich of my childhood was cold spaghetti smooshed between two pieces of soft white bread slathered generously with Land O’ Lakes butter straight from the tub.

Moss has been making “sketti sandos” since he was a weird kid growing up in Florence, South Carolina. His upbringing, working class to the core, is laced with chicken bog, hog’s head hash, and memories of his grandfather building block pits to feed the fire department, all of which influenced his path to becoming a world-class barbecue cook. But when he’s not holding all-night vigils to cook a whole hog or traveling in the name of barbecue, Moss is at home with his wife, Jennifer. On the stove, a batch of Sunday gravy simmers, with spaghetti and meatballs and a loaf of white bread at the ready.

Elliott’s love affair with spaghetti sandwiches began in a fashion similar to my own: at home with a big pot of leftover noodles and sauce. His mother, Debbie, would often make enough to last a few days, an efficient move for a working mom.

“There was always white bread in the house, and I think one day I just folded some [spaghetti] up in a little half piece of bread and ate it like a taco.” The sandwich evolved into two slices of bread, but always straight out of the bag, never toasted. “And one was never enough; I would almost always make another one,” Moss recalls.

Elliott Moss cooking at Buxton Hall Barbecue (photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee)

Moss has been enamored of Italian-American comfort foods ever since monthly spaghetti nights at his Aunt Terry’s house in the late ’80s. There was always a giant pot of spaghetti, store-bought tomato sauce flecked with peppers and onions, garlic bread, salad, and cubes of cheddar cheese, an odd garnish for the spaghetti that Moss still enjoys today.

As a teenager working at Chick-Fil-A (Moss is now a self-proclaimed Chick-Fil-Atheist), he started smuggling chicken home to transform into chicken Parmesan. Working at Stefano’s, a mom-and-pop joint in his hometown, he tasted homemade lasagna for the first time (he had only known Stouffer’s frozen lasagna) and picked up the art of lasagna making. This would later inform his process for pierogi lasagna, a layered dish made of frozen store-bought pierogis, red sauce, meat, ricotta cheese, and more cheese. “I like the starch-and-potato combination,” he says.

Today, pierogi lasagna stokes nostalgia in his partner of 20 years, now his wife, who remembers eating the dish in the earliest days of their relationship, when times were extra lean. She still speaks of Elliott’s grand “Tour of Italy,” a sampler platter of fettuccine alfredo, lasagna, and chicken Parmesan, inspired by his time at Stefano’s and Jennifer’s then employer, Olive Garden. Back then Elliott would doctor up the dishes with spices and herbs to make it his signature romantic gesture.

Now, with decades of experience behind him, Moss revels in home cooking. He’s traded semi-homemade creations for the pleasures of cooking real ingredients with patience and a chef’s measured hand.

“The older I get, and the longer Buxton’s been open, I don’t get to cook like I used to. My role is more of a restaurant owner, so I cook at home a lot more than I ever have,” he says.

What used to be a jar of Bertolli Four-Cheese pasta sauce is now a can of San Marzano’s transformed over a slow Sunday afternoon with garlic, herbs, red wine, and the flavorful scraps from his whole-hog life. “Sunday gravy has become one of my favorite things to make. I’ll put that up against most things,” says Moss. And the spaghetti sandwich recipe? That gets a bit of the chef treatment these days, too, by virtue of his red sauce.

Ingredients

  • Meatballs
  • ½ sleeve of saltine crackers, crushed
  • 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon herbs de province
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 palmful chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 palmful chopped basil
  • Sunday Gravy
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 handful crushed garlic
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 10 ounces ground beef, seasoned with salt, pepper, and ground fennel seed
  • 1 pork tenderloin, seasoned with salt and pepper, cubed
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • reserved meatball fat
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 2 cups pork stock (or chicken or beef)
  • 90 ounces can whole San Marzano tomatoes, hand-crushed
  • 3 smoked pork sausage links, sliced
  • 8 ounces smoked pork bbq
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoon salt
  • Parmesan, for serving
  • sandwiches
  • 1 package spaghetti
  • 1 loaf white bread
  • room temperature butter (optional)
  • Parmesan or cheddar cheese, cubed

Growing up, I was taught to never waste anything, and it’s the same in a professional kitchen. Sunday gravy is the adult version of my mom’s spaghetti sauce with hamburger meat and can be made with anything—a few sausage links, meatballs, or tender meat scraps to impart flavor. I think that’s why I like it so much. It’s like the Italian BBQ hash.

I never toasted my spaghetti sandwiches as a kid, but I encourage you to build a worthwhile sandwich that  honors the work of meatball prep and the hours of simmering needed for the Sunday gravy. Garlic-butter toasted bread layered with meatballs, spaghetti, and cubes of cheddar cheese is the move.

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Add saltines, dry spices, and heavy cream in a large bowl and incorporate well. Let the mixture sit for 15 minutes, so the saltines soak up the cream. Add eggs to saltine mixture and beat for 2 minutes. Add the ground beef, cheese, and fresh herbs. Mix until well blended but do not overwork. Roll mixture into golf-ball-size meatballs and place onto a lined baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 8 minutes on high fan. Let cool and reserve the meatball fat.
  2. In a large stockpot, sauté onion, garlic, red pepper, seasoned ground beef, and pork tenderloin in a large pot with olive oil and reserved meatball fat, until onions are soft and the meat is brown. Add bay leaves and red wine, then reduce wine by half. Next, add pork stock, crushed tomatoes, sausage links, pork barbecue, brown sugar, salt, and Parmesan. Bring the pot to a simmer and cook for 1 hour. Check for seasoning and carefully add the meatballs. Simmer, uncovered, for at least another hour, stirring occasionally. Make sure the sauce isn't sticking to bottom of pot, but be careful not to disturb the meatballs too much. The longer you simmer the Sunday gravy, the better, and the softer the meatballs will become. Some will break, but that will only add to the depth of the sauce.
  3. Cook spaghetti noodles until they are just a little overcooked (just like Mom made), drain, then mix with Sunday gravy to your preferred noodle-to-sauce ratio and enjoy with your favorite cheese.
  4. The next day—always the next day—warm the spaghetti and serve on white bread, buttered white bread, or garlic-butter toasted white bread, and always add more cheese. Enjoy spaghetti sandwiches the next day and the day after.

Keia Mastrianni

Keia Mastrianni is a writer, editor, cookbook author, and recipe developer based in Western North Carolina. She edits Southern agricultural 'zine, Crop Stories, and is the fancy hands behind Milk Glass Pie. In her spare time, she's out digging in the dirt with the farmer of her dreams.

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