I love meat balls. I really, really do. Wif does not. I grew up eating spaghetti (really any pasta) and meatballs with my Mom’s marinara sauce twice, something three times a week. If I still could, I would, but Wif likes more variety and fewer carbs than I. Plus she just does not like meatballs. So I have to sneak in some balls when I can. Yup. I read over that sentence. Nope, I don’t see anything wrong with it.
Let’s start with a brief discussion concerning the meat for the balls. Classic Italian meatballs are made with equal parts beef, veal, and pork. I say “equal parts” like I know what the butcher is giving me, but I assume they’re about equal. You can make meatballs with just beef (like my mom does), or a combination of pork and bacon, or lamb, or whatever meat you have on hand. Meatballs are a way of using up extra meat, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
As to the bread — I like to use a lot. I find it gives the balls wonderful texture. Yup, I know how that reads too. The extra bread also makes them more absorbent for when you stick your balls in the sauce . . . to finish cooking. Ahem. On to sauce.
Note that you should cook your sauce before you start cooking your balls so that the balls can finish cooking in the sauce. Conveniently, a great tomato sauce only takes 5 minutes to prep and 20 minutes to cook.
You’ll need the following ingredients:
- 1 28 ounce can of tomatoes (I like diced, but you can use whole and crush them, or crushed. I don’t like pureed because they have no texture)
- 4 cloves of garlic, whole but smashed, to remove their skin and break them up a little
- 1 bunch of basil (if you’re counting, maybe 30 leaves)
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Note well, this will produce enough sauce to dress your pasta, but probably won’t be enough if you want extra sauce on top (Italian-Italians are shuddering as I write that). So double the recipe if you want plenty for putting on top. You can use the extra for pizza or something.
Heat a sauce pan on medium high. Add the olive oil after the pan is heated. Tilt the pan and add the garlic whole. Once the garlic starts to brown, untilt the pan and add the tomatoes. Add 1/4 of the basil, chopped. You’re adding some basil now to let it get the “cooked” basil flavor. You’ll throw the rest in at the end to get the “fresh” basil flavor. It makes the sauce multi-dimensional. Let the sauce cook for 20 minutes or so at a simmer (low). Add salt and pepper to taste. As the sauce is cooking, ready the meatballs.
- 1 pound of ground meat (preferably beef, pork, and veal)
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
- 3 cloves of garlic, diced
- 1 bunch of basil (maybe 20 leaves, if you’re counting) chopped
- 1 egg
- 1 cup of bread crumbs (or a couple of slice of white bread, or whatever’s in the fridge) — note I like a lot of bread crumbs because I like the texture and absorbancy they give the balls
- 1/2 cup of milk
- Pinch of crushed red pepper
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- Lots of salt and some pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl till they’re combined. Be sure to add plenty of salt. Add what you think is a little too much, then add some more. Grab some mixture with your fingers and roll the mixture in your palms till the mixture forms a ball. If your ball is too small, add meat and roll again. If it’s too big, remove some meat. But keep in mind, we’re not going for perfection here.
Next, heat a large frying pan on medium high. Once it’s hot, add 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add balls to the pan, but do not crowd the pan. You’ll have to cook them in 2-3 shifts depending on pan size, and ball size. The balls should not touch, though incidental ball touching is inevitable.
Alternatively, heat your oven to 425, preheating a sheet pan with sides so the fat rendered from the balls doesn’t drip into the oven. No one likes drippy balls. Remove the heated pan from the oven, and add your balls. Put them back in the oven and let them cook for 15-20 minutes — until they’re slightly browned. Take them out of the oven, then add them to the sauce.
If you’re cooking in a pan, let the balls brown. After 2-5 minutes, turn each ball. You’ll need to turn each ball two or three times till they’re cooked all over. They don’t have to be uniformly browned or cooked through. They will be finished in the sauce.
As the balls finish in the pan, throw them in the sauce. If you have a little leftover wine, deglaze the pan to pick up the tasty brown bits, or “fond” as the Frogs say. By any name, it’s delish. Add it to the sauce.
Cook your pasta according to directions, minus 1-2 minutes for al dente. Remove the meatballs from the sauce after they’ve cooked for 20 minutes or so, up to an hour or probably more. What do I care? They’re your balls. When the pasta’s done, mix the pasta and sauce together for a minute or two. Chop and throw in the basil at the last minute, reserving some for garnish. Serve.