Like anyone who’s known for a love of hanging about the stove and the theater of setting platters of food before the famished, we’re asked for the occasional command performance. Beef Wellington, on the list, will have to wait for a suitable celebration. Egg white omelet or vegan anything? Unlikely to happen in this kitchen – well, not again. But a request for meatballs came into the home office recently, and how could we refuse? What’s not to love about a good meatball?
Except they’re not always so good.
Meatballs as we generally know them — as they are often served in restaurants, the size of an orange and bland as the fillers that bind them -- are hardly authentic Italian fare. Spaghetti and meatballs, however, is very much a dish on this side of the Atlantic, with historical roots, and worth pulling together well. Let’s revisit the source but resist the urge to cling too strongly to the notion of old-world authenticity.
Consider size and shape. Meatballs, known as polpettes, appear throughout Italy, some small and round, others larger and formed into flattened oval or tiny football shapes. The flattened versions have the advantage of browning more easily, of course. For meatballs, opt for spheres roughly the size of a walnut or golf ball.
Now, serving. Pasta and meat are separate courses in Italy. Meatballs would never be served heaped on top of a plate of spaghetti. And more often than not, the meatballs themselves would not be smothered in tomato sauce. Red sauces, some sweet and sour, are seen in Sicily and southern Italy, but well-seasoned polpettes appear on their own, garnished simply with herbs, or lemon wedges or thin slices, sometimes simmered in water or broth after frying and deglazing the pan with wine until the liquid reduces to a glistening wisp.
Ingredients are the heart of the matter. Recipes abound and most agree on the fundamentals to add to the meat: eggs, breadcrumbs, cheese. Some add bechamel, olive oil, milk, parsley. Some mix beef with pork or veal or sausage freed from its casing. Polpettes can be made with minced vegetables, fish, or poultry. Here’s a basic recipe for beef meatballs that works well.
- 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
- 1/2 to 2/3 cup fine breadcrumbs, preferably homemade
- 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan, Romano, or Pecorino
- 2 eggs, slightly beaten
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cloves finely minced garlic
- Handful of chopped parsley or basil leaves only
- Small finely chopped onion, if desired
- Splash of white wine, if desired
- Up to 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper
- A pinch to a teaspoon of dried oregano, thyme, or crushed red pepper, if desired
In a large bowl, moisten the breadcrumbs with the milk. Add the remaining ingredients and mix quite well, more thoroughly than you might for hamburger patties. Should mixture appear too wet, work in a small amount of cheese or crumbs. If too dry, a splash of wine or milk should suffice.
Shape into meatballs of uniform size, using a cookie scoop or heaping tablespoon. Wet your hands under the faucet and roll the balls rather densely and evenly between your palms. Consider allowing the faucet to drip ever so slightly as you work, or filling a small bowl with water, so you can easily refresh your hands.
Now to preparation. The easiest method is to simply drop them into a large pot of your favorite tomato sauce, and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through. Some recipes recommend simmering for an hour or better. I rarely cook meatballs this way, and here’s why. I don’t often make vats of sauce. I prefer one cooked simply and quickly. I fear burning the meatballs on the bottom of the pan or breaking them when trying to stir the sauce. And being a mixture of ingredients -- and the mixer herself only human -- meatballs tend to seep now and again during cooking. I don’t want bits of egg or crumb floating about in the sauce.
My solution has been to drop the meatballs into a large pan or pot of simmering broth or slightly salted water. Cook about five to seven minutes, giving the pot an occasional gentle stir. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with a paper towel. They’ll cook rather quickly if you simmer in batches and don’t crowd the pot.
From here, you can drop them directly into your sauce, heat through, and serve. Should you miss the texture gained by frying, try dusting the cooked meatballs with a little flour and sautéing lightly. Heat two or three tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and brown in batches as desired.
Why not simply fry the meatballs? Of course, that’s truly authentic and the result, utterly delicious. Toss the just rolled meatballs in flour. Place your largest skillet over a medium, medium-high burner, and heat a quarter cup or more of oil until fragrant. Fry the meatballs in several batches, turning often to brown, then lowering the heat to cook the meat thoroughly, about ten minutes total. Add more oil if necessary and watch for splashes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a platter lined with paper towel.
One more method: baking. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the raw meatballs -- be sure they have some breathing room -- onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake for about ten minutes, then remove from the oven and turn the balls over. Bake another ten minutes or so, until cooked through. You’ll want to test to avoid overbaking and drying out the meatballs. Drain away any fat or egg that might seep from the meatballs, which, alas, will not emerge from the oven perfectly round. But baking lends the meatballs a crust, a welcome texture, with the health benefit of avoiding extra oil. Once baked, add to your favorite tomato sauce and simmer briefly before serving.
I won’t pretend to offer meatballs in tomato sauce as a course on their own. But I do set them aside from the pasta on a plate or serve in a bowl for those around the table to enjoy as they wish. Top with more grated cheese if desired. And give a nod to those who sailed across the ocean in ships with names like the Prinzess Irene and the Sannio for not only safekeeping the old recipes, but for their ingenuity, and the pleasure they took in creating a new staple from the beef, canned tomatoes, and pasta they found most readily at hand in their new world.