Meatballs! They're a red sauce classic that evokes images of checkered table cloths, dusty plastic grape bunches and chianti bottle candle holders. But when you don't have time to go to your local Italian eatery and order a plate, they're an easy and rewarding dish to make at home.
I like to use a mix of beef and pork for my meatballs. All beef is just too....beefy. And the texture is a little tougher. I also like to bake my meatballs on a rack in the oven so the fat drips off, which automatically turns them into a health food. (Ed. Note: No it does not) They don't get quite as browned up in the oven as they would if you browned them on the stovetop, but I don't think that makes too much difference. They're covered in sauce anyway, no one will ever know. Unless they sneak one out and wash it off. If they do that don't invite them back to dinner.
Oh, and one of the best things about meatballs? Leftovers. Meatball subs, meatball pizza, more spaghetti and meatballs. It's a win, win, win. I'll give you a quick rundown on making meatball subs after this column is finished. You'll be happy you waited.
To the recipe!
Note: We're getting detailed on the meatball making in the recipe and there are lots of pictures of raw meat and they aren't all beautiful. Just thought I should tell you. If you've made it this far your probably decently carnivorous and as carnivores it's something we should strive to be comfortable with, but if you are of delicate sensibility I understand.
- 1 lb. Ground beef (15% fat at the most, 7% at the least. More than 15% is going to make them fatty and flabby, less than 7% is going to make them dry rubber)
- 1/2 lb Ground Pork (I grind my own, because ground pork can be hard to come by and is often very fatty. You can sub ground turkey here, or Italian sausage, but will have to adjust the spicing)
- 1/2 Cup Breadcrumbs (I used panko, but any unseasoned bread crumbs will do. You can also sub one slice of white sandwich bread, crusts removed)
- 1/2 Milk (Whole is best but roll with what ya got)
- 1 Egg
- 1/2 Cup (or more!) Grated Parmesan (Not the green shakey can kind! Don't cheat yourself!)
- 1/4 Cup Chopped Parsley (Which I forgot to put in. Don't be like me.)
- 1 tsp Dried Oregano
- 1/2 tsp Dried Basil (Optional. Dried basil is not great any means, but it has that classic "American Italian food" flavor to it)
- 1 hearty pinch Red Pepper Flakes (to taste)
- 2 teaspoons Salt
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh Ground Pepper
- 1 small Onion (or half of one large onion)
- 2-3 cloves Garlic (To taste. I like to overdo it here)
- 2 jars or one recipe spaghetti sauce
- As much pasta as your family requires for a meal (I cook one pound for the three of us and leftovers)
Preheat your oven to 425 and make sure the rack is in the center of the oven.
Gather all your ingredients and tools. You're going to need a large bowl, a small cutting board, a box grater and a microplane if you have one. (A microplane is a nifty little grater that is shaaaaaaarp. They're great for zesting citrus, and grating things like Parmesan, ginger, garlic, chocolate, etc. You deserve one. )
Now crack your egg into a large bowl. You need a big bowl because you're going to want to really get in there and mix things about.
Now mix that egg up.
Now add your bread crumbs, herbs, salt, pepper, chile flakes, parsley and cheese. If you don't have a pepper grinder you can use pre-ground. (I really, really like this OXO grinder. You can adjust the grind from coarse to fine and anything in between. Most pepper grinders have the pepper come out on the bottom and they leave little dusty rings of pepper wherever you set them. Not this one! The pepper comes out of the top! No more mess! Brilliant!)
Grate your onion on your box grater directly into the bowl. You can mince the onion instead but I find the grated onion mixes better and more evenly into the meat. Microplane or mince your garlic and toss it in the bowl as well.
Now that you have all that looking so beautiful in the bowl it's time to mix it up. Grab a spoon and go to town.
Now that we've got that lovely mess it's time to add the milk and mix it up some more. It should be a fairly smooth, not too liquid mix but it should be able to flow, not sit there like jello.
I know, I know, its a gross, gloppy, chunky starchy mess. But you've just made a panade, the classic French mix of starch and liquid that is used to bind and moisten ground meat preparations. Look at you and your fancy French culinary techniques! Tres bon!
Now that we've finished congratulating ourselves on our new found fanciness it's time to add the meat. You can play with the proportions but for this recipe we're doing one pound of beef to one pound of pork. Add them to your glop! I mean, combine them with the panade. Yeah, that's it.
Now things are going to get real messy. Your hands should already be pretty clean, because you washed them before starting the recipe, right? Good. Because it's time to roll up your sleeves and go to town on this mess o' meat. That's right, get your hands in there and mix the meat together. I know it's gross, but you just can't get a good, even mix with a spoon. You could try a stand mixer but that will probably overwork the meat and make your meatballs tough. So get in there and mix the meat, gently, folding it together with your hands until you have an even distribution of ingredients.
There! Well done. Looks like a nice distribution of stuff. Now wash the hell out of your hands. Time to taste the mix.
"Oh god, taste it?!? It's raw beef! And pork! And egg! Are you mad?!?!?"
No. I mean, probably. But not for that reason. I didn't say to taste it raw, did I?
"Oh. I suppose not."
Exactly. So just calm down for a tick and let me explain. You probably nailed the recipe and have some excellent tasting meatballs. Or maybe you forgot something important, like salt or parsley (Yup). You're going to take a small spoonful of mix and put it on a plate.
That's a decent amount.
Plop it on the plate and microwave it for about 15 seconds. It's going to pop and sizzle but that's fine. It's also going to look like a little grey meteor and be a little chewy. That is why we don't microwave meatballs. That would be a bad, bad idea. When it's cooked through pop it in your mouth and see if it tastes alright. I needed to add a little more salt. And I still forgot about the parsley. Sheesh.
Alright! The time has come to form the meatballs. We're going to get a little dirty again here, but first get out a sheet pan (one with sides) and a cooling rack, they type you cool your cookies on. Make sure the rack fits inside the pan. You can skip this step if you need to but putting the meatballs on a rack lets the fat drip off and keeps the meatballs from sitting in a lake of molten fat and getting too greasy.
So, meat is mixed, pan is ready, it's time to form the meatballs. Set your oven to 400 and grab yourself a small bowl or mug of cold water and set it by your bowl o' meat and pan. Don't drink it! You'll be dipping your hands into the bowl of water every meatball or so to keep the meat from sticking to your hands. If you really, really can't handle sticking your hands into the meat (but if you made it this far you probably are okay with that) you can use an ice cream scoop to form uniform meatballs, but they may come out a big shaggier than if you hand form them.
Okay, let's get forming. Dip your hands in the water and grab a handful of meat. I like my meatballs fairly substantial so I grab about a half cup of the mix for each ball, you can scale that up or down as you like.
Now that you've grabbed your hunk o' meat roll it between your hands until it's roughly spherical and smooth. Don't do this too hard, you're not pressing the meat into a ball you're only giving it the shape it needs. It should already be sticking together pretty well from all the mix ins we added earlier.
Now that you've formed your meat mix into a perfect sphere, plop it onto the rack, spaced about inch apart, dip your hands in your water, and keep rolling. I wound up with twelve big meatballs from this batch.
Once you've formed all your meatballs wash your hands. You probably didn't need to be told that but that's what I'm here for. Put the sheet of meatballs into your oven and set the timer for twenty minutes. It took 25 minutes for me to finish mine but I always like to check to make sure I haven't overcooked them. Put a 3-5 quart pot on the stove and start heating some tomato sauce. You can make your own (and we'll talk about that soon!) or you can use store bought. I used store bought this time because I was all out of canned tomatoes crazy, right?!?) and it was great. It doesn't matter how good the sauce is, letting the meatballs simmer in it for a couple minutes will make it much, much tastier. Magic!
Once your meatballs have reached a temperature of 165 they're ready to eat. If you don't have a thermometer there are a couple other techniques you can use to see if they're done. You can sacrifice a meatball by slicing it in half or you can do the old "poke and see if the liquid runs clear" trick, but that one is a little too imprecise for me. Another classic trick to see if something is warm enough is to stick a metal skewer or fork into it and then touch the skewer to your upper lip. If it's hot, it's probably done, but again, it's imprecise. Consider getting yourself a thermometer. They're great for cooking meat and also checking if things like bread or rolls are done. You can get a good one for $15 or spring for a right fancy one for $50 or more.
Now that our meatballs have come to temp take them out of the oven. I let them cool a little bit before I put them into the sauce because I remove them from the rack with my hands. You can use a spatula for this, but because the meatballs are on a rack they've kid of started molding into the crevices and you'll a.) lose a small bit of meat to the rack if you use a spatula and b.) then have to clean said meat out of the rack, which is kind of a pain.
So, once your meatballs have cooled enough to handle put them into your pot of sauce, stir gently and let them simmer while you prepare your pasta. I like a linguine, but whatever you have is good. I don't have pictures at this point because I believe in you and know you can make pasta, and also because I forgot. Anway, you now have a nice pot of meatballs simmering in sauce (also not pictured) and a pot of pasta cooking merrily away. Once the pasta is done place a serving (or, if you have a pasta problem like me, two) in a bowl, top with a little sauce, a couple meatballs, and a whole lot of cheese. It is not possible to over cheese at this point. If you have it (and you should, because it's in the recipe) put a little parsley on top because it looks fancy and tastes kind of nice.
And there you have it! A nice, hearty bowl of spaghetti and meatballs to enjoy with your family, a hunk of bread and a couple glasses of wine. Ideally you will have plenty leftovers. I like to make meatballs subs the next day or meatball pizza, or just make more pasta and repeat. I'll talk about meatball subs in an upcoming episode, too. Thanks for stopping by and putting up with all those pictures of raw meat, I appreciate it!