Saturday, January 28, 2012

Secret Ingredient Meatballs Simmered in Sauce

Somehow, and I don't know how, but I have never made meatballs for Matt. I've seduced Matt with risottos, braciole, ragu, sausage and peppers, stuffed shells, lasagne, and presented him with a panoply of cured meats and cheeses. But somehow, in over four years of cooking for the man who hasn't met a meat dish he doesn't like, I had overlooked this basic Italian-American workhorse. I don't even have an excuse, for I have the perfect meatball recipe from my mother (which is of course her version of her mother's, with an addition from my dad's mother).  And, as is not only my right, but perhaps a family imperative, I put my spin on the recipe: a secret weapon of flavor and fat by adding in some italian sausage to the mixture.  This amps up the flavor complexity, and the pork fat adds great mouthfeel and unctuousness to the meatballs.

The key to making these meatballs moist and tender, but not falling apart, is to mix the meat mixture thoroughly, but gently.  Here's a general tip: don't knead the meat, but using your fingers, move the mixture around and then lift some up and fold over.  Try not to use the heal of your hand too much, it's all in the fingers.

There are a few ways to cook the meatballs, but by far the best is to pan cook, then simmer in sauce.  When deglazing the pan, use some good wine.  If you have found yourself without wine proper, as I did yesterday, call your mother for advice.  Okay, no really, I called my mom for advice, and her suggestion was to use a small splash of Marsala and couple splashes of dry Vermouth (two fortified wines I keep in the pantry).  Brilliant suggestion, and perhaps what I will do regularly, but if you don't have those, but have some red or maybe white wine, then use that!  We took the meatballs and made meatball subs atop rolls with melted mozzarella...which was heaven.  And now these meatballs will be entered into the regular rotation, a fact that has brought great joy to Matt.

For the meatballs:
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1/4 pound Italian sausage, casing removed (hot or sweet)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • generous 1/4 cup parsley, chopped
  • 3/4 tsp dried basil
  • 2 pinches dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth (or water)
  • 2/3- 1 cup bread crumbs (fresh homemade are best!)
To make the meatballs:
  • In a large bowl, whisk together egg, garlic, parsley, dried herbs, salt and pepper, and broth.
  • Add beef and sausage, mixing together gently until sausage is distributed in the beef.
  • Start adding the bread crumbs, 1/4 cup first, mixing gently and thoroughly, then adding more until the mixture is malleable, and will hold into a ball when molded.
  • Turn mixture out onto a board, divide into four quarters, then divide each quarter into five pieces, rolling each piece into a ball, for a total of 20 meatballs.
For cooking meatballs and the sauce:
  • 2 TBS olive oil
  • a few splashes of wine
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • scant TBS dried basil
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flake (optional)
  • 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
To cook the meatballs and make sauce:
  • In a 5-7 quart dutch oven or other large heavy bottomed pot, heat 1 TBS of the oil over medium heat.
  • Add onion, and cook until softened.
  • Add garlic, stir for about 30 seconds until fragrant.
  • Clear a spot in the pot, and add the basil and red pepper flake, and cook for a minute to bring out flavor.
  • Add can of tomatoes, rinse out can, and add half the can's worth of water.
  • Bring to a simmer.
  • Meanwhile, in a wide skillet, heat the other TBS of oil over medium-high heat. 
  • Add the meatballs to the skillet, browning nicely all around.  As the meatballs are browned, sink into the simmering sauce.  Make sure to give the meatballs space in the pan to brown, so they don't steam, but get a good caramelization.  You will need to do this in batches, probably three.
  • When meatballs are all browned and placed in sauce, pour off fat from the meatball-cooking pan.
  • Keeping the heat where it is, add a few splashes of wine to deglaze the pan.  Pour the deglazing liquid into the sauce.
  • Simmer sauce for about an hour, or until sauce is the right consistency (at least 30 minutes to ensure full cooking of meatballs).
  • Serve in a sub, over pasta, over polenta, or in a bowl with some bread on the side. 

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