Don’t worry, however, I am not here to chasten you, myself or my spaghetti-and-meatballs loving kid for eating food you/we/he exactly the way you like it. Smitten Kitchen is a sanctimony-free zone. I only mentioned this because when, as an adult, I began to consider the meatball as something apart from the flavor-anchors of spaghetti and a busy marinara sauce, I realized I wanted much more out of my meatballs. I wanted them to be good enough to fly solo as a dish, whether or not there was bread, or roasted potatoes, polenta or, yes, even spaghetti on the table. And I couldn’t stop fiddling with them.
For years, I fried meatballs before cooking them through because this was the Authentic way, even though I rather hated it because it’s such a splattering mess and you always lose a chunk here or there and the meatballs are far closer to meat blobs when you’re done (unless you’re willing to deep-fry them). Plus, it made them much more of a special occasion dish and I wanted ones we could eat any old day of the week. But when I dropped my meatballs uncooked into sauce, they’d fall apart. If I made them more firm, they wouldn’t fall apart but I didn’t like them as much. And so it went, back and forth; no meatballs went to waste as I puttered around with my recipe, but it was never quite right.
Last month, I had a breakthrough which I realize will not sound like anything wild, but the simple act of more than doubling the amount of egg I usually put in made a meatball that stayed together even if not fried first but that was still tender and completely amazing at the end. And now I can’t stop making them. You can serve them with anything that makes you happy — alone with a side of greens or salad, tossed with spaghetti but whatever you do, please do not do either of the following (unquestionably authentic) things: 1. Bake them “parmesan”-style the way you son likes from a local pizza place, i.e. with mozzarella and crunchy crumbs on top or 2. Find out what they taste like with a side of garlic bread or 3. Both, scooping one onto the other to form something of an open-faced meatball sub. Nothing good comes from knowing this combination exists. Trust me.
One year ago: Spaghetti Pangrattato with Crispy Eggs
Two years ago: Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew
Three years ago: Blood Orange Margaritas
Four years ago: Double Coconut Muffins
Five years ago: Spaghetti with Lemon and Olive Oil
Six years ago: Monkey Bread with Cream Cheese Glaze, Cauliflower and Caramelized Onion Tart
Seven years ago: Devil’s Chicken Thighs and Braised Leeks
Eight years ago: Pear and Almond Tart
Nine years ago: Vegetable Dumplings
And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Angel Hair Pasta with Raw Tomato Sauce
1.5 Years Ago: Strawberries and Cream with Graham Crumbles
2.5 Years Ago: Almond-Crisped Peaches
3.5 Years Ago: Mediterranean Baked Feta with Tomatoes
4.5 Years Ago: Hazelnut Plum Crumb Tart
Yield: 22 to 24 small (about 1.5-inch or 1.5 tablespoon) meatballs
1 pound ground meat (I use a mix of beef and pork)
2/3 cup fresh bread crumbs or 1/2 cup panko
1/3 cup milk or water
2 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (optional)
2 teaspoons coarse or kosher salt, divided
Pinches of red pepper flakes or few grinds of black pepper
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
2 large eggs
2 garlic cloves, minced, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 28-ounce can of tomato puree or crushed tomatoes
Place meat, crumbs, milk or water, parsley, cheese (if using), 1 teaspoon salt, pepper, onion powder, eggs and half of your minced garlic in a large bowl. I like to mix all of this together with a fork, which does a good job of breaking up the eggs and chunks of meat. Form mixture into 1 1/2 to 2-inch meatballs and arrange on a plate. I like to let them set in the fridge for a bit — 30 minutes, if you can spare it — which helps them keep their shape.
In a large pot, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add remaining garlic and some pepper flakes and let sizzle until garlic is golden, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add tomatoes (beware the splatter!) and season with remaining salt. Let mixture simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes (with a thicker puree) or 20 (for crushed tomatoes, which are usually more watery), stirring occasionally.
With stove on the lowest heat possible to maintain a gentle simmer, add meatballs to sauce one by one, and cover with a lid. It will be hard but please don’t touch or move them for at least 20 minutes of the 25-minute cooking time, so that they have a chance to keep their shape. Meatballs should be fully cooked through at 25 minutes, but it cannot hurt to cut one and half to verify.
Eat however makes you happy:
— with spaghetti: I’ll cook it very al dente, a generous minute shy of done, reserve a little pasta water, then once the spaghetti is drained, place it back in the pot with a splash of the water and a ladle or two of the sauce beneath the meatballs and cook it together over high heat for a minute. Tip spaghetti into a large, wide bowl, add the meatballs on top. Note: If your family likes a lot of sauce with their spaghetti, you might consider making the meatballs with an extra half or whole can. Just use what you need.
— “parmesan”-ed: Place meatballs in a shallow baking dish with some of their sauce. Tear about 8 ounces mozzarella over the top and broil until melted. Finish with some parmesan, if desired, some breadcrumbs fried in a little olive oil and/or chopped parsley.
— with garlic bread (don’t do this, just don’t). [But here’s a recipe for my favorite, to make the decision more difficult.]