Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Ode to the Meatball

If there is one thing I am a sucker for, it's Italian food. I know, I know. That's not really "one" thing, but I am, if nothing else, an equal opportunity eater. Growing up my mom made Nana's sauce a lot. In my family, we cook our meatballs in the sauce. Yeah, that means some of them fall apart, but who the hell doesn't like small bits of delicious meatball dotting their tomato saucy goodness? Crazy people, that's who.  Alas, there are no recipes for Nana's sauce and meatballs. It's really about patience, experimenting, taste tests, and that little Italian foodie who sits on your shoulder and screams "More WINE!".

Nana's meatballs begin with saltines. Yup, saltines. Half a sleeve of them, crunched up in the bottom of a big bowl. Pour whole milk in just to cover the little guys and then let them sit to soak it all in. Chop up some shallots, a bit of garlic, and parsley...maybe even a wee bit of basil if you are feeling fancy. Mix that all together with some salt and pepper, a bunch of Parmesan or Pecorino cheese (or both if you are like me) and one egg. Once that is well combined, use your hands to work in the meat. I use buffalo. Good buffalo. Any meat will work but I think the buffalo has such a great flavor. Don't over work the meat but you want to be sure it is combined well. I tend to use a pound and a half of meat or more depending on how many meatballs I want. If I need more saltines, milk etc, I use them. This is where the patience, experience and taste testing comes in handy.
Mmmm. Once the meatballs are mixed, I cover them with plastic wrap and put them in the frige for a bit while I get the sauce together. This helps all the flavors meld together. Making sauce (aka gravy) is a whole other discussion, one I'll save for another day. But once the sauce has cooked itself for a while, it's time to put in the meatballs. I let the meatball mix rest on the counter for about 20 minutes before actually rolling them into balls and putting them in the sauce. This helps them cook more evenly, keeps the sauce temp from diving, and...well, I don't know, it's just how I do it. Anyway, here's my sauce before meatballs.

Now some folks like small meatballs and that's alll fine and good. They can have their small meatballs. But me, I like GINORMOUS meatballs. I figure some of it will come off in the sauce anyway so I should go ahead and make them massive that way when it comes time to eat they're still big. I just roll them in my hands and plop them in. They don't all have to be the same size. You can't overcook a meatball when you are cooking them in the sauce. They only get better! So just plop them in and then gently tuck them under the sauce. They don't have to be buried in there, just make sure they have a wee layer of sauce over them and they are not over crowding each other. The key here is to simmer your sauce but DON'T STIR for at least 30 minutes after plopping in the meatballs. If you must stir, and this would have to be like some kind of serious stirring emergency, please please please!! use the end of a wooden spoon. The spoon end is more likely to help you make bolognese than sauce and meatballs.
 I like to give mine a full hour to hang out in the sauce bath before I'll let anyone eat them and I have been known to let them sit even longer. That's not to say I don't get to test run one after 30 mins. Again, the whole cook gets to taste test thing really works for me. There are those out there who would rather not spend all the time required to make a serious batch of sauce (Nana, cover your ears!) in which to cook ones meatballs. I am a modern girl, so I've tried to embrace this idea and sought out a new way to cook my meatballs. It was on the Food Network (big surprise) that I found my answer. Alton Brown makes baked meatballs! Now I definitely prefer my sauce method, but if you have a hankering mid-week for some meatballs then this will do. I use my above recipe for the mix and just follow his instructions for baking. If you go ahead and try his full recipe, let me know how it goes. I have to say, only so many meatballs fit into my massive sauce pot so when having a gang over for spaghetti and meatballs, baking a second batch really helped me feed everyone and no one seemed to know the difference once they were smothered in sauce.

1 and 1/2 lbs of meat (buffalo or beef or both, can also add some pork)
1/2 sleeve of saltines
whole milk (1/2 - 1 cups worth)
2+ large shallots, diced small
1 garlic clove, minced well
1 egg
Basil, chopped
Parsley, chopped
Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses


  1. Looks like you have mastered Nana's sauce! I have attempted it once or twice....it's never the same as hers though!