Spaghetti and meatballs

Delicious, scrumptious, moist, steamy meatballs.

I must have made thousands of meatballs in my life. I have toasted them, fried them, pan-fried them, deep-fried them, cooked them in broth or in the sauce. I have flavored them with God knows what, added vegetables to them, made them meatless, just name it and I have done it. All these trials were not always very succesful however and I have had a few strikes.

I will share with you the secrets to moist, meaty, tender and flavorful meatballs.

  • Use more than one type of meat: I usually use lean ground beef and lean ground pork in the proportions listed below. It adds richness and complexity to the meatballs. Veal is also an interesting addition and will make them lighter tasting.
  • Don’t be shy to add breadcrumbs: breadcrumbs will soak up juices from the sauce and will help to make your meatballs very moist.
  • The secret to moist meatballs is: adding water! What gives moisture? Water. It is as simple as that. If you don’t add water to your meatball mixture, they will be dry. You have the same effect if you add ground vegetables like zucchini or mushrooms to the meat mixture because these vegetables contain a lot of water. For added nutrition, do this instead of water.
  • Do not pre-cook your meatballs: cook them directly in the sauce. Pre-cooking the meat will take some of the moisture out. Believe me.
  • Season your meat: underseasoned meatballs are tasteless meatballs. The small amount of salt in everyday cooking is usually never enough to be harmful.
  • Don’t use strong flavors in the meatball mixture: I mean by that, do not use strong-tasting herbs like rosemary or fresh oregano. Strongly flavored herbs hide the taste of the meat and give an off taste to the meatballs. Of course, that is a personal preference. When using parsley, make sure that you don’t use the stems. They give an unpleasant mouth feel.

For the sauce:

1/4 cup olive oil
3 medium onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste (I use a bit more)
100 g pancetta slices, finely chopped
1 28 oz can whole tomatoes, crushed with your hands
1 bottle Passata
1 cup water
salt and pepper to taste (only use at the very end)
extra virgin olive oil, for finishing
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, to pass at the table

For the meatballs:

500 g lean ground beef
250 g lean ground pork
1/4 cup of the onion and garlic mixture (see method)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
1/2 cup dry, unflavored breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup water
salt and pepper to taste (I use 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and 10 grindings of pepper for this amount of meat)

454 g dried spaghetti


1. Start by making the sauce. Over medium heat, cook the onions in the oil until translucent and soft, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and the red pepper flakes and cook one more minute.
2. Take about 1/4 cup of this mixture and set aside. You will put this with the meat to form the meatballs.
3. To the pot, add the celery, carrot and pancetta and cook a few minutes more, until the pancetta is golden.
4. Add the tomatoes, passata, bay leaf and water and cook, uncovered, while you make the meatballs.
5. Make the meatballs. Mix all the ingredients with your hands, adjusting the consistency by adding a bit more water or a bit more breadcrumbs. You want a rather mushy mixture that will hold together when you form a meatball.
6. I highly recommend you take a bit of the mixture, cook it over medium heat and give it a taste. There is nothing worse than an underseasoned meatball. Remember that your sauce will be a bit salty because of the pancetta.
7. Run your hands under cold water and do not dry them. With wet hands, form the meatballs and drop them directly and gently in the simmering sauce, distributing them evenly on the bottom. Make sure they don’t touch each other. When meatballs cover the bottom of the pot, stir very gently to coat them with the sauce. Continue until you have used up all the meat.
8. Simmer, uncovered, for about one hour or until the sauce is thick and delicious. Season with salt and pepper at the very end. It may not need more seasonings.
9. Cook the spaghetti in salted boiling water according to the instructions on the package and drain.
10. Remove the meatballs from the sauce and set aside. Mix the spaghetti with a bit of the sauce (2 cups for 454 g uncooked pasta does the trick) and combine over medium heat. Serve in individual bowls, add a bit more sauce on the top, drizzle with your best olive oil, add a few meatballs per serving and a bit of grated cheese.

4 to 6 servings.

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