It is such a beautiful morning. Through my open kitchen window, I can hear cars driving on the road beyond the tree line and saws buzzing in the yard behind ours. Birds are talking to each other and these sounds of spring come to me at last on a cool though slightly humid breeze lifting the cobwebs from my winter brain.
The fair weather makes today the kind of day when one might consider firing up the Weber and grilling a burger, medium rare, outdoors. I’m not quite there yet with that seasonal craving. For me, a pot of meatballs in gravy simmering on the stove alongside a giant pot of water rambunctiously boiling and lapping at great big handfuls of spaghetti is what I’m thinking this day begs for.
I’ve been around meatball-making since the day I was brought home from the hospital, only days old and swaddled in a blanket. Being raised in an Italian-American family in Jersey, meatballs are an important part of the Sunday tradition which includes a holy to-do list:
First, Church, followed by a visit to the cemetery to arrange flowers and trim weeds on the graves of loved ones, then to Chickies – the Italian market– for meat, cheese, and bread, then across the street to Frieda’s vegetable stand where we pick fresh peaches out of wooden crates in the summer; lift and drag our Christmas tree home from every winter.
This weekly processional was led by my stocky grandmother, Carmella, followed by my father carrying the groceries and then my sister and I falling behind. The two of us unable to casually walk past cardboard boxes filled with craggy sheets of salted cod would lean our heads and shoulders inside for a peak and a whiff.
In my family the recipe for meatballs is never written down — it’s a little of this and a little of that and mini marshmallow sized pieces of milk-soaked bread in every bite. As I’ve mentioned in a past post, I have upon my baker’s rack, Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and I have to say, I was aware that she had a recipe for meatballs. But be it pride or a little bit of apprehension over messing with my family’s meatballs, I wouldn’t even look.
But then one day I did, look and I’m looking over both of my shoulders before I tell you this…I will never go back to making my meatballs the same again. Oh Boy! is right.
It’s not so much Marcella’s ingredients, and to be honest, I pretty much stick with what I’m used to: ground beef, garlic, Amen!, Pecorino Romano cheese, fresh parsley, eggs, milk, olive oil, salt and pepper. It’s her technique that has improved my meatballs….Forever!
After placing all the ingredients into a bowl, she doesn’t just splash some milk over the top. She soaks a piece of bread in a little milk in a small pot on a low flame on the stove, which means no more mouthfuls of soggy bread! Then– and this is just genius — after forming her meatballs, she rolls them in fine breadcrumbs just before frying them. And, yes, you have to fry your meatballs before simmering them in your sauce.
Here is my recipe greatly inspired by Marcella’s “Meatballs and Tomatoes”
- A slice of good-quality white bread (I used 1/2 cup homemade breadcrumbs I made from Italian bread)
- 1/3 cup of milk
- 1 pound of ground beef, preferably chuck
- 1 tablespoon of onion chopped very fine (I used two cloves of garlic minced instead)
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese (I used Pecorino Romano instead)
- Whole nutmeg * I read that nutmeg deepens the flavor of your ingredients — you shouldn’t be able to actually taste nutmeg in your meatballs if you stick with the scant amount of 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated)
- Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
- Fine, dry unflavored bread crumbs, spread on a plate ( I used store-bought breadcrumbs and spread them in a pie dish)
- Vegetable oil (for frying)* I also just read in Cooks Illustrated, I believe that when frying in regular olive oil or vegetable oil there is no taste difference which is good news because vegetable oil is a lot less expensive. Be sure to use your good olive oil when making your meatballs though.
- 1 cup fresh, ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or canned imported tomatoes, chopped up, with their juice. (I used canned whole plum tomatoes and chopped them in a blender.)
- Trim away the bread’s crust, put the milk and bread (and I also put in the minced garlic) in a small saucepan, and turn on the heat to low. When the bread has soaked up all the milk, mash it to a pulp with a fork. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.
- Into a bowl put the chopped meat, parsley, egg, tablespoon of your good olive oil, the grated cheese, the tiny (1/8 teaspoon) grating of nutmeg, the bread, garlic and milk mush, salt and several grindings of black pepper. Gently knead the mixture with your hands without squeezing it. When all the ingredients are evenly distributed, shape it gently and without squeezing into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls lightly in the breadcrumbs.
- Choose a saute pan large enough to hold all the meatballs in a single layer. Pour in enough vegetable oil to come 1/4 inch up the sides. Turn on the heat to medium high and when the oil is hot, slip in the meatballs. Brown on all sides, turning them carefully so they don’t break apart.
- Remove from heat, tip the pan slightly and with a spoon, remove as much fat as floats to the surface. Return the pan to the burner over medium heat, add the chopped tomatoes with their juice, a pinch of salt, and turn the meatballs over once or twice to coat them well. Cover the pan and adjust the heat to cook at a quiet, but steady simmer for about 20-25 minutes. Serve at once!