I learned my lesson. I no longer follow recipes, except my own, when it comes to making meatballs.
Last year, and I don’t know why, I tried a recipe for lamb and pistachio meatballs, and they were tough, gamy and ended up in the bin. The next time I proposed to make meatballs for dinner, JB accepted on one condition, and told me: “Do whatever it is you do to meatballs to make them soft and delicious, the way you usually make them.”
The trick to a delicious and moist meatball is not complicated: you need to add fresh bread soaked in milk, a bit of cheese, and a bit of water. Then you tighten the mixture up with a bit of dried breadcrumbs or with more cheese. The meat mixture shouldn’t be overworked, and it should be a bit sticky to touch, but be able to hold its shape when formed. With a bit of practice, and with the recipe below, this is the only meatball recipe you will follow from now on.
Now, in Italy, meatballs are served as a main course, with a contorno (a side dish), usually a vegetable if pasta was served earlier, or with soft polenta if no carbs were on the menu. Spaghetti and meatballs, although delicious, seems to be an North American concoction. There is a good reflection here on what is traditional Italian food, and does it really matter?
Polpette di manzo
For the sauce:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, whole
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1 bottle passata
1/3 cup water (approximately)
salt and pepper to taste
Make the sauce:
1. In a medium size saucepan over medium heat, cook the garlic in the oil until golden, a few minutes, then discard.
2. Add a pinch or more of red pepper flakes and the tomato sauce. Rinse the passata bottle with about 1/3 cup water and add to the pot. Season with salt and pepper and add the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer, and simmer gently for about 20-30 minutes, uncovered. While the sauce is cooking, make the meatballs.
For the meatballs:
2 slices whole wheat bread, with or without crusts
1/3 cup whole milk
600 g (1 1/3 pound) lean ground beef
olive oil, for cooking
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 large eggs
1/3 cup packed grated parmesan
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
a splash of water
1 or 2 handfuls of breadcrumbs
Make the meatballs:
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
1. Cut the bread slices in 1 cm squares and put in a bowl with the milk. Let the bread soak for 10 minutes, or until it has absorbed all the milk.
2. In a small pan, cook the onion in the oil over medium heat until soft and translucent, 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute and turn the heat off. Let cool slightly.
3. In a large bowl, add the meat, the cooked onions and garlic, the bread and all the other ingredients except the breadcrumbs. With clean hands, mix well until everything is combined. Add a few handfuls of breadcrumbs, just enough so that the mixture is a bit sticky when handled, but holds up its shape. Instead of breadcrumbs, you can also add more cheese.
4. Wet your hands under cold water and do not dry them. Form large meatballs, about the size of a plum, and put on a baking sheet lined with parchment. You should have 12-15 meatballs.
5. If you have time, but this is not necessary, leave the meatballs in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to firm up. Take them out of the refrigerator and reform them so they are nice and round.
6. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, then transfer to the sauce and finish cooking them in the sauce, another 10 minutes. Serve with a vegetable of your choice or with soft polenta.