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.
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!