If you’d told me as a spaghett-and-meatballs loving kid that in Italy, these two things are never served together, I wouldn’t have believed you. What’s next, no pepperoni pizza, fettucine alfredo or rainbow cookies? No Italian dressing? At least we know those jars of Italian seasoning are the real deal (phew).
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 in 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.]