As a cook (and as an eater), I’m very passionate (ok opinionated) about certain foods–For instance, I feel the texture of matzo balls must be extremely light and tender and literally swollen with flavor. Then there’s roast chicken, which should be incredibly crisp and well-seasoned with cooked flesh that’s perfectly succulent (even the white meat). Ethnic, artisan breads (the large round and/or oblong kind) need to be externally VERY crusty–actually cracking in places– The color of the crust should be deep and dark–which indicates a caramelized, slightly charred taste–and the inner crumb needs to be soft–tender, yet chewy–but never tough. (FYI: Some recipes that aim for “big holes” in the baked flesh sacrifice tenderness–so home-bakers beware!) I like gravies that cling without being gloppy, tarts that celebrate the crust as much as the fruit and muffins that are so good that you eat the whole thing–not just the tops.
I’m also very particular about my meatballs. First inspired by Mabel, a large, round, southern woman-of-color (who had a gold front tooth), she worked for my parents when I was growing up in Long Island. Mabel was–how should I say it?–She was on the mean side–but she also made a mean meatball, which were almost base-ball sized, very tender and always gurgling in red sauce. (I think her sauce of choice was “Ragu”). I loved her meatballs so much that just smelling them simmer made me like her –even though she had absolutely no personality–except when being mean.
Since I didn’t grow up cooking (along side the meanie) I just would sit and ponder how making my own meatballs someday might make my children feel–My initial reaction to Mabel’s meatballs is actually quite integral to why I became so committed to “the power of cooking” for my “someday” family–I would fantasize about how my kids would walk into our home (after school) and feel immediately kissed –completely bathed in sensory deliciousness–and I would be at the helm. From the time I was the ripe-old-age of seven, I knew, for sure, that being the creator and orchestrator of such a satisfying dimension to life would be something to be very proud of–I still do. I also felt that doing so would be very healing for me–it was and still is.
So, you see, great meatballs are a big deal to me and growing up in a house that didn’t actually teach me how to make meatballs–I’ve had several twists and turns along the way to being able to make them successfully and (now) to teach them to you.
Meatballs after Mabel…
As soon as my two older brothers were secured in college, my parents decided to fire Mabel, give away Peter, my Maltese dog, and to sell our house in Long Island. Since I was only 15, they were stuck with me. So, the three of us (me and my parents) moved to NYC, where I finished high school. They employed a Chinese couple, the female (named MiMi) cleaned and the male (pronounced “I-O” as if saying each letter alone) –he cooked. I would try to watch I-O cook–He was very good at making Chinese food (duh..)–His food was more refined, though, and more of a French-Chinese fusion cuisine—So (I know) I should have thought twice before I adopted his “meatballs” as my own, especially considering they didn’t speak to either his Chinese heritage or his French-Chinese specialty…But, then again, I learned early on that sublime-ness can be found in the most unexpected places (remember who my original inspiration was (!) Don’t get me wrong–it’s not that I-O’s meatballs weren’t tasty–they were–and tender, too (although much smaller, they were almost as good as Mabel’s). But, his ingredients would make any Italian worth a dime gag. Listen to this: He reconstituted crushed cornflakes in milk and added this to the ground meat–See, I told you.
So, although these, my first stab at making homemade meatballs, were a good start, (I actually came up with a pretty good concoction and put that recipe in my first cookbook) they weren’t close to the meatballs that I make now –which I do believe are simply perfect.
The night I heard how to make real meatballs…
One night, a few years back, Jon and I were out to dinner, at an Italian restaurant. Because it was crowded, we decided to eat at the bar–which we actually choose to do often, since we’ve met some very nice, interesting people that way. This night, the conversation (amongst the bar-tender and several women at the bar) turned to meatballs. As they talked, my life in Long Island (and my passion for meatballs) flashed before me–I became totally quiet and, with an intensity in my eyes that my husband knows well, I looked at Jon with that “oh my God, I’m going to finally hear how real Italians make meatballs” look. I was determined to hear every word.
Like all Italians that cook innately, they don’t measure anything –they just talk about food as if a dish would appear simply by uttering the words…(Trust me, I was being internally serenaded–visualizing meatball heaven, just by listening). I came home and, the very next day, I went to work—It took several times–and I deviated a bit from what I learned that night at the bar–adding a few ingredients that I feel made exactly what I wanted: Meatballs that are loaded with flavor and an oh-so-soothing texture.
Finally, here is my meatball recipe that I proudly give to you, with love.
(I think I’m gonna cry…)
Homemade Meatball Heaven
OK, don’t be mad but I’m going to give you a large recipe–simply because these meatballs are so delicious (and freeze so perfectly) and also because you need the exact same amount of tools and cookware to make a small batch. Having said this, I purposely created a recipe that can be halved right down the middle.
Another thing–I make BIG meatballs–I like it that way–so if you want yours smaller, be my guest (that’s part of the beauty of home cooking).
Ingredients for 22 to 24 large meatballs (mine start out the size of small soft-balls but, after simmering, they end up smaller):
- 4 slices “hearty” style white or wheat bread, crusts removed and the bread cut into small cubes
- ½ cup milk
- 2 extra large eggs
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into quarters
- 6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
- ½ cup prepared basil pesto (homemade or your favorite store-bought brand)
- ½ cup freshly ground best-quality Parmesan cheese (plus more for rolling meatballs and serving)
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 4 pounds ground meat (Ask the butcher to grind equal amounts of beef and veal together. You can also include ground pork in the mix.)
- Between 5 and 6 quarts Marinara sauce (preferably with lots of fresh basil and sautéed mushrooms)
To soak the bread: Put the cubed bread in a bowl and add the milk. Use your hands to help the bread absorb the milk. Set aside.
To assemble the meatball mixture: Put the eggs, onion, garlic, pesto, ½ cup Parmesan and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper into the blender. Puree until smooth.
Put the ground meat into a large (preferably wide) bowl and pour the pureed mixture on top of the meat. Add the softened bread cubes to the bowl, as well.
Using your hands, work the pureed mixture and moistened bread into the meat, using a tender hand—you’re not squeezing or kneading the meat aggressively—which can toughen the meat. Just use your hands to fold the two consistencies together, turning this into one mixture.
To set up to form meatballs: Line two large shallow baking sheets (or trays) with wax paper and then sprinkle the paper generously with more grated Parmesan.
To form meatballs and chill: Use your working hand to scoop up some of the meat mixture (again, mine start out the size of a small soft-ball–but they get smaller after simmering). Gently round the shape by rolling the meat mixture between two hands. Lay the round on the cheese-lined tray and continue until you’ve finished shaping all the meatballs, dividing them between both trays (expect the meatball mixture to be soft).
Then, one by one, roll each meatball in the cheese, then round the shape again, helping the cheese to adhere.
When all the meatballs are coated with the cheese, cover the sheets with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (and up to several hours).
To set up to cook the meatballs: Bring the marinara sauce to a simmer in a 10-quart heavy bottomed saucepan, over low-heat, with the lid ajar. Remove the meatballs from the refrigerator.
To brown the meatballs and simmer: Heat one or two large non-stick skillet(s), over medium-high heat, with a shallow layer of olive oil. When the oil is hot, brown the meatballs, in batches, turning the meatballs over carefully, to brown on at least two sides—(Before placing the meatball into the pan, use your hands to re-round the shape and avoid damaging the meatball when turning—using a non-stick turning spatula as well as tongs, will help give you the dexterity you need.)
Try to shift the meatballs, so they brown on three sides…
As you brown the meatballs, place on a clean tray. Once all the meatballs are browned, lower them into the simmering sauce. Once in the pot, don’t stir—using oven mitts, shimmy the pot –using the side handles—to help the meatballs settle in and become submerged in the sauce. The sauce should be on VERY low heat.
Cover the pot and simmer the meatballs (very gently!), over very low heat, for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Don’t wait for the sauce to return to a simmer before you begin timing–If the sauce was simmering at the start, you will only see the barest bubble at the center of the sauce, after adding the meatballs. If your meatballs are smaller, you’ll simmer them less.) Turn off the heat and add more black pepper and, if desired, a few cloves of minced raw garlic and more fresh basil, to taste. Shimmy the pot to distribute things. Take the pot off the stove.
No joke. This recipe makes the best meatballs I’ve ever had.
To divide and store: If not serving right away, allow the meatballs to cool in the sauce (uncovered). Divide the meatballs between squatty-shaped plastic tubs. If you’d like to serve some and store the rest, transfer the amount of meatballs and sauce you’d like to serve into another pot and, if planning to reheat within two days, store that in the refrigerator, covered. (If planning to serve withing a few hours, leave the pot at a comfortable room temperature.) Place the rest into a freezer container and attach a label with the contents and date. Freeze. To thaw, remove from the freezer and leave in the refrigerator overnight. Once thawed, reheat very gently until piping hot, adding some more fresh pepper and basil, to taste.
To reheat and serve: Reheat the meatballs, covered, over very low heat, shimmying the pot as needed, to help things heat evenly. Serve the meatballs with sauce, piping hot, over freshly cooked spaghetti or linguine.
The Point: As a lonely little girl, I never would have guessed that meatballs constructed (simmered in Ragu, no less) and offered by someone I deemed “a meanie” could possibly help to create the impetus for so much of what my adult life would be about, both personally and professionally, but they DID just that! So, today, when I reflect back on Mabel, on her often hard, stoic ways–all mixed and simmered with her amazingly tender meatballs –I remind myself that these experiences are examples of how easy it is to acknowledge adversity -and then to simply stop there. But, (and this is the important part) when we choose to use that same perception of lack as fuel to build the kind of life we really want –Now, that’s the secret of a great meatball in a whole different category.
Click here, for a printable version of this meatball recipe.