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What would your first thought be if you were asked to baby-sit your friend’s kids? Would you reply, “Yes, but only if they’re asleep”? Would you pause if it involved the changing of dirty nappies? Would you scan your bookshelves to see what DVDs you could take to keep them entertained? Would you check the forecast before deciding that a trip to the park was in order? Or would you go straight to your well-laden pantry and dog-eared cookbooks to find a recipe you could all make together?

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Yep. That’s totally what I did. What I do, when asked to baby-sit (during daytime hours). Last time, the kids and I made chocolate crinkles while their mother slept. And yes, I would understand if you interpreted my plan as somewhat self-serving, but the truth is, kids love to help in the kitchen, and this time it was completely practical; we were making dinner. The family was flying out on an overseas holiday the next day, so this was my way of making their last evening just that little bit less stressful.

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Not having any real idea of where the equipment was located, we winged it, and several pairs of little hands eagerly tore bread into breadcrumbs in the absense of a food processor. They happily mixed and shaped meatballs, though my original suggestion of making the balls large was over-ruled and we ended up with double the number of meatballs as a result! While the meatballs cooked, my helpers went outside to eat fruit and play, while I continued with crushing the garlic and making the sauce.

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Once the meatballs were out of the oven, it was simply a matter of adding them to the sauce in a large pot, and leaving them to simmer for (at least) thirty minutes, until we were ready to eat. Meanwhile, a large pot of water was put on to boil, and the spaghetti cooked while my helpers set the table for dinner. Once their parents got home, dinner was ready and it was time to eat!

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Great Spaghetti and Meatballs
I suspect any type of minced meat would work here. Apparently, pork mince is traditional. If you like, throw a teaspoon of fennel seeds into the pan with the onion and garlic – it adds a nice touch!

Rather than frying the meatballs, I prefer to bake them at high heat. This involves less oil and less mess. It also frees the cook up to get on with preparing the sauce.

Serves 6

Ingredients
700g (1 ½ lb) beef mince
1 ½ cups fresh bread crumbs (3 slices bread)
1 large egg
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 x 800g tin crushed or diced tomatoes
1 x 150g tin tomato paste
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon dried basil leaves
500g dried spaghetti
Grated Parmesan cheese to serve (optional)

Method
(Begin about 1 ½ hours before serving)

Preheat oven to 220deg C (200deg fan)/440degF.

You can use bought breadcrumbs, but if you have a food processor it’s easy to make your own. Remove the crusts from day-old white bread slices and cut into cubes. Transfer the cubes to the bowl of a food processor and process until finely chopped. (We used our fingers to break the slices up, but the end result was rather chunky, and I wouldn’t recommend it!)

In a large bowl, mix beef mince, bread crumbs, egg, ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper, and ¼ cup water or milk. Shape meat mixture into 18 meatballs (or more if you like them smaller).

Place meatballs on a lightly greased baking tray and cook for 10 – 15 minutes (10 minutes for small meatballs, 15 for large) or until well-browned.

Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon or two of oil in a heavy-based pan and fry onion and garlic until tender, stirring often. Stir in tinned tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, basil leaves, salt and pepper to taste and ¼ cup water.

Add meatballs, and over high heat, heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 30 minutes, turning meatballs occasionally.

Meanwhile, in a separate pot, prepare spaghetti as label directs, and then drain.

Serve spaghetti with meatballs and sauce. Top with grated Parmesan cheese, if desired.

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