Now it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration for me to say that most of you have eaten that ubiquitous bowl of spaghetti and meatballs—that old-school Italian dish generally found in restaurants and home kitchens everywhere.
But this post is not about spaghetti and meatballs, in fact we are going to skip the pasta entirely!
However, there was a time when meat was a luxury food item only families of means could afford while many others had to stretch their meals by substituting bread and cheese to fashion meatless meatballs. These rustic polpette, or polpettine as they are known, were assembled using day-old bread, grated cheese, eggs, garlic, and basil or parsley. They were lightly pan fried and finished in a tomato sauce.
These had the appearance, flavor, and texture so that someone who liked meatballs could appreciate them even without any meat in them at all.
But as meat became more accessible to many more people, both in their home country as well as for those who migrated here, meatballs made mostly with meat replaced those more humble offerings made only with bread.
It is not uncommon to find meatballs on restaurant menus as a stand-alone dish sans the pasta, served as a small plate starter, or as a bar snack. When offered as a main course accompanied by a side dish or two and a basket of toasted bread to sop up the sauce, a more substantial meal is achieved. That is mainly how I like to prepare them at home.
Now I realize many of you have your go-to meatball recipe, something tried and true that you have prepared many times over the years. It would be safe to say there are probably as many meatball recipes as there are home cooks and restaurant chefs who make them. For example, I have read recipes using only one kind of meat instead of a combination of two or three.
Recipes that include basil instead of parsley, or oregano instead of basil. One with the addition of minced Swiss chard for added moisture or another including green peas. Those that include grated cheese and those that don’t. Or even some substituting ground chicken or turkey for the more traditional beef, pork, or veal, and even some “designer” meatballs that don’t use “turf” at all and instead substitute some “surf” in the form of shrimp or lobster meat, but that is for another discussion.
What I would like to share with you is my approach to preparing meatballs as a stand-alone dish, not so much to change what you already know and love, but instead to leave you with some steps I have learned in an effort to perhaps enhance what you are already doing.
So here are some ideas and techniques to consider, followed by my preferred meatball recipe and a recipe for a simple tomato sauce used to finish and serve them.
I don’t grind my own meat, as I think most of you don’t either. For those of you who do, you most likely have all the equipment and understand the process so I will not focus on that here.
For those of us who don’t, my recommendation is to source a good local butcher and get the meat ground to order instead of purchasing any prepackaged grocery store variety. My preference is to use a coarsely ground mix of beef, pork, and veal. Be sure to include some pork fat in the grind. Lean meat will produce a less flavorful and less tender meatball, and the addition of fat gives the sauce extra flavor and body during the braising step.
Another key ingredient is bread. The bread should be day old, air dried, and cut into small pieces instead of using bread crumbs which tend to draw moisture from the ground meat yielding a less tender meatball. The bread should be soaked in whole milk or Half & Half because the bread and milk combination act as a binder requiring the use of a minimum number of eggs or no eggs at all in the ground meat mix. Generally I include one large egg in the mix along with enough bread to bind the mixture well, that yields a lighter overall texture to the finished meatballs.
Some garlic, seasonings, and grated cheese round out the mix. Let the formed meatballs rest 1 hour or more before cooking to allow all the flavors to meld and the meatballs to firm up.
I prefer to quickly roast the meatballs in a hot oven before braising in the tomato sauce to finish, however you can pan fry the meatballs first instead.
These meatballs can be made in advance, roasted, cooled, and then frozen. When the time comes to finish them, defrost them completely and finish the cooking in the tomato sauce.
One last thought: these same recipe ingredients in different proportions can be used to prepare a meatloaf (polettone), another childhood favorite which is finished in the oven with or without the tomato sauce.
Meatballs with Tomato Sauce
2 cups rough chopped, dried day-old bread, crust removed
¾ cup Half & Half
1 pound each coarsely ground beef, pork, and veal with extra pork fat
1 medium onion finely chopped
2 medium garlic cloves finely minced
½ cup finely chopped parsley
To taste: pinch of dried oregano, crushed fennel seeds or fennel pollen, red chili flakes, salt and pepper
1 large egg beaten
¾ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or an aged Pecorino
Remove the crust from the day-old bread and rough chop it into half-inch cubes.
Soak the chopped bread in Half & Half until it is absorbed.
Squeeze the excess liquid from the bread and in a large work bowl add the bread to the ground meat mix.
Add the onion, garlic, parsley, oregano, fennel, chili flakes, salt and pepper, along with the beaten egg and the cheese.
Using your hands gently fold all the ingredients together. Be thorough but mix only enough to evenly combine and distribute all the ingredients.
Before forming the meatballs, take a tablespoon-size sample, flatten it and sauté it on both sides until cooked through. Taste it to determine if the seasoning is right or needs to be adjusted.
Wet your hands and form the mix into approximately 1½-inch diameter meatballs placing them on an oiled, ovenproof sheet pan. There should be between 30 to 40 meatballs when done. Allow the meatballs to rest for at least an hour, keeping them chilled.
When ready to cook, allow the meatballs to return to room temperature, then either roast them in a preheated 400-degree oven for no more than 12 minutes or pan fry them in olive oil until lightly browned.
Cool the meatballs and freeze them on the sheet pan and then place them in freezer bags for later use.
Alternately, lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees, place the meatballs in a roasting pan or an ovenproof pan with a lid.
After browning, the meatballs are finished in a simple tomato sauce. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs and braise them, covered for 30 minutes.
This same tomato sauce can also be used as the base for other, more complex tomato sauces or ragus, such as one of many Bolognese sauce variations, for example.
The following is the recipe I prepare most often when I’m looking for a quick, flavorful, uncomplicated tomato sauce.
Simple Tomato Sauce
¼ cup olive oil
1 medium red onion cut in half
1 medium carrot, quartered
1 large garlic clove peeled and lightly flattened
2 bay leaves
1 35-oz can of peeled whole tomatoes with juice
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.
Slowly saute the onion, carrot, and garlic for 10 minutes, then add the bay leaves.
While the vegetables are cooking, over a large work bowl pass the tomatoes through a food mill that will remove any seeds and what skin and core remains, to yield a smooth tomato sauce base.
Or if you prefer a sauce with a little more more texture, simply crush the tomatoes by hand in a large bowl breaking up all the large pieces.
Add the prepared tomatoes to the saucepan, bring to a quick boil, then lower to a simmer uncovered for 45 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Once the sauce is done, remove the vegetables, check and season with salt and pepper to taste.
This sauce can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a week or frozen for six months.
To serve, plate 3 to 4 meatballs per person, spoon some sauce over and around, sprinkle some additional cheese and minced parsley over the top, and drizzle with a little olive oil to finish.
Pair this dish accompanied by a sautéed green, (spinach, escarole, or radicchio), or a mixed green salad instead. Toasted crusty bread or grilled polenta are also good additions to help sop up the sauce. And don’t forget the red wine!
Enjoy . . .
Eat Well. Be Well.
Never overlook the details. They can make the difference between just a good meal or an extraordinary dining experience.