Maybe it’s the season. Maybe it’s the recession. I’m not sure of the reason, but meatballs are back in the spotlight.
Suddenly, everyone’s interested in meatballs. They appear on covers of glossy food magazines, posed on mountains of spaghetti. TV chefs season, roll and fry them competitively. Restaurants tout them on menus.
Maybe it’s the season. Maybe it’s the recession. I’m not sure of the reason, but they’re back in the spotlight.
To some cooks, meatballs never went away. Delicious and filling, they’re the pride of everyone’s Italian-American grandma, auntie, neighbor or co-worker. Even if you are one of the above people, renowned for your recipe in your family or neighborhood, you might take notice of the revival of this old favorite. Many recently published recipes provide a nice tweak on the old standby –– enough make an old hand re-think her recipe. Certainly, a cook new at the skill will find it very interesting.
As you might imagine, I’ve seen my share of meatball recipes, from plain, old ground beef and breadcrumb fillers to the delectably traditional Italian mixture of pork, beef and veal. I’ve seen meatballs studded with raisins or capers as well as meatballs filled with the surprise of a small cube of mozzarella. Some turn out too “bread-y,” too brown, too rare or well-done. Most cooks have had similar results when first trying to create a decent meatball.
It all starts with a good mix of meats –– not just ground beef, but a combination of meats. (Some cooks use turkey or chicken rather than veal for purposes of conscience.) Then, there’s the issue of extender and flavoring, like bread, herbs, salt and pepper. But the greatest difficulty for a new cook is keeping a meatball in shape during the cooking process. So many times the mixture turns out so dense or mushy that the meat flattens out in the cooking process.
Recently, I was flipping the pages in a cookbook that has sat on my shelf for a long time, but that I never referred to for meatballs. The recipe incorporates an exterior coating of beaten eggs and breadcrumbs to hold the meat together in the searing process. What follows is adapted from that book. Cooks with a renowned recipe need not change –– just improve it by using the coating. New cooks might follow the recipe entirely.
The marinara sauce that follows is my own. It’s just an easy mix of a few pantry basics like canned tomatoes and olive oil enhanced with fresh basil, which cooks for a short 20 minutes. It’s faster than the pizza delivery guy. Put the two recipes together (make the meatballs a day ahead) for a memorable meal.
GOOD OLD-FASHIONED MEATBALLS
4 slices Italian bread, about 1/2-inch thick, crusts removed
10 ounces ground pork
10 ounces ground beef
10 ounces ground veal
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
8 fresh sage leaves, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Salt, ground black pepper
4 large eggs
1 cup plain dry breadcrumbs
1/2 cup olive oil, for frying
2 cups Marinara Sauce
* A good Parmesan cheese (not the cardboard canned type) works as well as Pecorino in this recipe.
1. Soak the sliced bread in 1 1/2 cups water for 10 minutes.
2. Separately, combine meat, garlic, parsley, sage, onion, Pecorino, salt and pepper, 1/3 cup water and 2 eggs. Squeeze excess water from the bread; crumble it into the meat mixture, blending well. Scoop out heaping tablespoons of the mixture and roll each to form a ball, about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, to make 24 meatballs.
3. Beat the remaining 2 eggs with 2 tablespoons water in a shallow bowl. Place dry breadcrumbs into a separate shallow bowl. Roll meatballs first in the egg mixture, then in the breadcrumbs to coat.
4. Heat half of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Fry half the meatballs, browning on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a large saucepan. Add the remaining oil to the skillet; repeat with the remaining meatballs.
5. Add marinara sauce to the saucepan with meatballs. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes until hot.
Makes 24 meatballs.
-- Adapted from “The Italian-American Cookbook” by John Mariani and Galina Mariani
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 (28-ounce) cans chopped Italian or Roma tomatoes
Small splash of white wine
A few leaves of fresh basil, torn
* Some cooks “over-garlic” the sauce, but if you crush the cloves rather than chopping, and “give them a walk” around the pan, they will flavor the sauce lightly and fragrantly.
1. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic, stirring it around the pan and pushing with a wooden spoon. Turn garlic so it cooks to lightly golden, about 3 to 5 minutes. Discard the garlic.
2. Add tomatoes, wine, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer; cook for 20 minutes (add the seared meatballs after 10 minutes). Sprinkle in the fresh basil in the last 3 minutes of cooking. Taste and add more salt if needed.
Makes about 8 to 10 servings.
Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com.