Monday, January 10, 2011

You're the sauce on my spaghetti...and meatballs

Bill has a little bit of a man crush on Mario Batali right now, so I bought him a set of Mario's cookbooks for Christmas. In addition to that, he downloaded a Mario Batali cooking app for his iPad. This has been one of the best things that ever happened to me because it means that Bill cooks dinner sometimes (as much as I love to cook, I do occasionally need a break).

One of Bill's favorite things to make is Mario's Basic Tomato Sauce (probably because it's the easiest dish ever, and still really delicious). Another of Mario's recipes we've wanted to try, which happens to involve his basic tomato sauce, is meatballs. Mario's meatball recipe intrigued me because it sounds so much like my mom's - light and soft instead of dense and hard.

There are two things about Mario's (and mom's) recipe that help achieve this:

1. The use of fresh, homemade bread crumbs
2. Cooking them in the sauce without frying them first (essentially, poaching them)

Now these meatballs aren't for everyone. If you're used to restaurant-style meatballs, there's a good chance you won't like them at all. Your typical restaurant meatball uses a very different proportion of meat to breadcrumbs, which gives them a completely different texture and taste. To me, most restaurant meatballs taste like balls of sausage - not at all what I grew up with.

These meatballs are soft, almost doughy, if that makes sense. You're using stale bread soaked in milk instead of your usual dry breadcrumbs, which contributes to that doughy-ness. Also, by skipping the pan-frying, you're not forming a crust on the meatballs.

Personally, I love this style of meatball because it's exactly what my mom and my grandmother made (give or take an ingredient or two). Bill still prefers a more dense meatball, but I think he's coming around. I'll let you decide for yourself!

Basic Tomato Sauce
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons fresh thyme (or 1 tablespoon dried)
1 (28 oz) can San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand (Mario insists on San Marzano - which is both a brand and a type of tomato - but I honestly can't tell the difference between these and other tomatoes)
1 carrot, finely grated (Which is technically optional. The carrot's not needed if your tomatoes are sweet enough.)

Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add thyme and carrot and cook 5 minutes more. Add tomatoes and juice. Bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Seriously. It's that easy.

3 cups basic tomato sauce
3 cups homemade bread crumbs
2 cups milk
1 1/2 lbs. ground beef
3 eggs
3 cloves garlic, grated
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
Black pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste

In a large skillet, bring tomato sauce to a fast simmer.

Put breadcrumbs in a medium bowl and pour the milk over them. (I used the leftover bread from the Italian loaves I baked last weekend. In my experience, the more stale the bread, the better. Too-soft breadcrumbs will lead to very crumbly meatballs.) Set aside.

In the bowl of a countertop mixer fitted with a paddle or dough hook, combine the beef and eggs. Grate garlic over the bowl with a microplane. Add cheese, pepper and salt. Mix briefly to just combine.

Add milk-soaked breadcrumbs to the meat mixture and mix for about 1 minute until it comes together, but still has some texture and moisture. Form the mixture into balls. Gently add the meatballs to the sauce and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook 25 to 30 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through.

One thing to note before you attempt these meatballs: I was very worried about the consistency of my raw meatballs because they were extremely fragile. But apparently that's the way it should be. When they're cooked through, they will firm up slightly. In fact, they turned out to be exactly the right texture. Mario described the mixture he started with as "mousse-like," so keep that in mind. I think they key is not messing with the meatballs once you get them in the sauce. Let them simmer and poach until cooked through, turning once at the most. They're not meant to be tossed around because they're sure to fall apart!

I'll be interested to hear if you like your meatballs like my mom's!


  1. Oh man, I just had a major story involving an eight hour long tomato sauce cooking allnighter, but something or someone is conspiring against me because I lost it before I could post. I think Mario Batali has got some shady ties extending all the way to little internet trolls that eat falsehoods and seeds of scandalous rumors about the Italian cooking. I hope their enjoyment of eating my post was at least a fraction as significant as the enjoyment I surely would've gotten out of eating these meatballs!

    Jackie and I were discussing the fact that meatballs are perhaps the perfect food, closely on the heels of pizza. And in combination with tomato sauce and starch.. forget it! I'd love to know how you nor Bill are tipping the scales at five hundred pounds, because I know I would be if I could cook like this :p

    Whenever I see anything involving ground beef, I think of this I used to eat as a kid. Except the way we made it was simpler, only involving ground eggs, diced raw onion, salt, pepper, egg yolks and soy sauce. Looks and sounds like a disgusting concoction dreamed up by Arnold wannabes, but it's so, so good.

  2. I can totally see Mario sending his minions to troll the internet in search of untrue cooking tales. He's got to be the biggest Italian food snob I can think of, right down to his slicing garlic razor-thin, godfather-style!

    I absolutely agree that meatballs are a near-perfect food, followed extremely closely by pizza. Really, Italian cuisine can't be beat! Perhaps that's because it's so laden with carbs ... which make it delicious!

    I'm super intrigued by that tartare recipe. I just don't know if I'm brave enough to try it :)