It’s been a while.
I’d almost forgotten how much I like meatballs cooked in thick, velvety tomato sauce and that when they are good and carefully made, they are surely one of the most gratifying of comfort foods.
Especially, when they are made in the morning from good freshly ground beef and then they have the rest of the day to go cold and hang around, wallowing and mellowing so the flavours settle and deepen before being gently reheated. Especially, when once the meatballs are warmed through you remove them from the sauce and set them aside on a warm plate while you stir some spaghetti into the sauce. Especially, when you serve up steaming bowls of spaghetti and tomato sauce with 3 meatballs balanced on top.
I didn’t grow up eating meatballs. We had savory mince made by my grandma Roddy which we ate in true Lancastrian style with buttery mashed potato on Tuesdays and the Bolognese sauce (we are talking England 1980 here) made by my Mum to top our spaghetti. Both were essentially deconstructed meatballs give or take an ingredient and delicious to boot……but they weren’t meatballs, our friends had fun little balls of mince…….this kind of thing can damage a child.
So deprived as a child and not bothered with much, nevermind meatballs, during in my wasteland years - a long, tedious and unhappy phase which had it spawned a blog, it could have been called ‘Rachel doesn’t eat much and when she does it’s faddy‘ – I came to Meatballs late.
Thankfully, probably because I was a late starter, I managed to avoid encountering bad dry – mealy or worse greasy – slimy meatballs, thin sauces and general meatpatty nastiness which I have heard is dreadful and can put you off for life…..I do seem to remember something suspicious in the school canteen but I knew better than to look never mind taste – remember we are talking England circa 1980. My meatball initiation was a thankfully a good one, afterall I was in the safe hands of Elizabeth David and her recipe from Italian food.
Because of Elizabeth David – the woman who helped establish many of my better kitchen habits – my early meatball education was leaning heavily towards the Italian school of thought, the inclusion of parmesan, the flat leaved parsley. the flick of nutmeg…….. and then I came to live in Italy…..
……and I was given Vincenzo’s nonna Sara’s recipe, polpette al sugo or as she would say in Sicilian Purpette ca sarsa. In theory nonna Sara’s recipe is not actually so very different from the other 3 fine recipes I have come to trust. Her ingredients are almost the same, the ground beef well marbled with fat, the bread soaked in milk, the parmesan, the sauted onion, the parsley, the egg, the flick of nutmeg. Her measurements however, like so many recipes passed by word and observation not pen, are not as reassuring as the books. It’s the fact the recipe is soaked in family history, has been part of so many meals that makes it important. By following her recipe it I too feel part of the story, a story you can taste.
I’d also forgotten how nice they are to make, while the tomato sauce bubbles away on the hob in it’s gently reassuring away you can roll up your sleeves and get on with gentle kneading, mixing and moulding of the soft squishy mince mixture into pleasing little walnut sized balls.
About the sauce.
The tomato sauce for meatballs should be smooth, rich and thick so passata is a good base. You can buy it, you can pass tinned plum tomatoes juice and all through a food mill or kitchen aid to get a fine passata pulp, or best of all you can make your own passata from red, ripe, flavoursome fresh tomatoes.
As we have still got nice September tomatoes around here I made some. I do this by washing and cutting a couple of kilo’s of Roma tomatoes in half and then putting them cut side down in a heavy based pan with 2 teaspoons of salt. I cover the pan and put it over a low flame. After a couple of minutes when the tomatoes are just starting to soften I squash them with a wooden spoon to release some juices so they collapse and cook but don’t burn. I cover the pan again and leave them to cook away for about 20 minutes or until I have a pan of slushy, soft tomatoes.
Which I then pass through the foodmill which sifts out skins and seeds and other obstructions to a fine smooth passata.
Now the passata is going to cook with meatballs for about 30 minutes and some people think that is enough. I like to give it a head start. So once you have passed the tomatoes through the foodmill, back in the heavy pan warm some olive oil and then add a couple of cloves of garlic you have squashed with the back of a knife. Once the garlic is soft but not brown add the passata, stir and raise the heat so it bubbles at a gentle simmer. Leave the pan for about 20 minutes, the passata reducing gently while you make the meatballs.
Hope that makes sense.
If not maybe the recipe with be clearer.
Anyway sorry I don’t have any photos of the spaghetti, that happened later in the day with Vincenzo’s parents. It was a nice evening, I kept thinking how lovely it is to have done everything in advance, the meatballs were cooked, I made some bread, the salad and grapes washed, all I needed to do was cook the pasta while I warmed the meatballs through and dressed the salad. It nearly wasn’t like that, I nearly panicked and cooked something else at the last minute thinking is wasn’t enough, I nearly launched into something complicated which could well have left me red faced and stressed in front of the cooker rather than enjoying an aperitivo and the fact I had already done the work.
It was a good dinner, a friend of mine once described meatballs as humble and homely which I think is a very good way to put it, it was an honest and humble dinner…. no….. supper sounds more appropriate, more frayed around the edges….. kitchen supper….now, does that sound nice or silly, maybe it’s confusing, suggesting we might have other kinds of supper in other rooms which we don’t.
These meatballs are also nice with rice…..
Meatballs in Tomato sauce
Serves 4 abundantly which is the way I like it
for the meatballs
- 2 slices of stale good quality white bread with crusts removed.
- 100ml whole milk
- 500g ground beef (chuck is very good)
- 1 small mild white onion chopped very very finely
- 1 heaped tablespoon of finely chopped parsley
- 3 heaped teaspoons of finely grated parmesan
- 1 egg – lightly beaten
- a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil for cooking the onions
- 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil for mixing in the meatballs
- very fine, dry, plain breadcrumbs on a plate.
- olive oil or vegetable oil for frying the meatballs
For the sauce
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and still whole but gently squashed with the back of a knife
- 2 400g tins of best quality plum tomatoes or a 800g of passata (or 800g of your own homemade passata)
Chop the onion for the meatballs very finely and saute it for about 10 minutes in 1 tbsp of olive oil until it is soft and floppy. Set it aside.
In a small bowl cover the stale bread with milk and leave for 10 minutes so the bread absorbs the milk.
Start with sauce. In a heavy based pan warm the 3 tbsps of olive oil with a couple of cloves of garlic you have squashed with the back of a knife. Once the garlic is soft but not brown add the passata, stir and raise the heat so it bubbles at a gentle simmer. Leave the pan for about 20 minutes, the passata reducing gently
Make the meatballs. Put the minced beef in a large bowl. The bread should have absorbed all the milk by now and seem quite cool so mash it to a pulp using a fork. Add the mushy bread, the sauted onion, the parsley the parmesan, the beaten egg, the tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, the nutmeg and some salt and pepper to the beef. Gently knead the mixture without squeezing it until all the ingredients are combined.
Gently shape the mixture into walnut sized balls (about 2.5cm/1 in diameter) and then roll each one in the fine breadcrumbs and set aside on some grease proof paper.
Choose a large saute pan which can accomodate all the meatballs in a single layer and warm a good glug of olive or vegetable oil for frying (I reckon my glug was about 3 tbsps.) Raise the flame to medium high and slip in the meatballs. Brown them on all sides, turning them carefully so they don’t break.
Once the meatballs are browned lower the heat slightly and add the tomatoes to the pan, you can pick out the garlic at this point. Turn the meatballs once or twice to coat them with sauce and incorporate the meat juices from the bottom of the pan.
Cover the pan and cook at a gentle and quiet simmer for about 25 minutes.
Taste both meatballs and sauce then adjust the seasoning.
To serve with spaghetti.
Cook 400g of good quality spaghetti in a large pan of well salted, fast boiling water.
While the spaghetti is cooking, gently reheat the meatballs and sauce over a modest flame, nudging them around with a wooden spoon so they don’t burn. Using a slotted spoon remove the meatballs from the sauce and set them onto a warm plate and cover with foil. Drain the spaghetti reserving a little of the cooking water. Stir about 50ml of the pasta cooking water into the sauce to thin it a little and then add the spaghetti to the sauce and toss well.
Devide the spaghetti between 4 bowls and top each with 3 meatballs and a spoonful of the any sauce still clinging to pan.
Serve and bring the rest of the meatballs to the table so people can help them selves.