There are memories from childhood that are so ingrained in our brains they have become an integral part of us. Sometimes they merge from our subconscious to pay us a visit when we least expect them and we are transported back to a time when problems were solely related to whether we’ll finish our homework in time to go out and play with our friends—yes, we’re talking about a time when kids still played in the streets, ran around, talked to each other and didn’t spend their free time in front of their computer.
Perhaps it’s not astonishing that many of these memories are associated with food. The first time we tried something new, what we were eating during particularly special moments, the smells we’d wake up to on a Sunday morning.
With one of us being brought up in the Mediterranean and another in an Italian-American family, it is inescapable that one of the dishes that is embedded in our childhood is meatballs. We remember walking into our grandmothers’ houses to the smell of sauce that had been simmering for hours, many times overnight, ready to be poured over freshly-made pasta. Or that day after being sick with the flu when you’ve recovered enough to have your taste buds back and actually craving food and being presented with meatballs swimming in tomato sauce.
Having fantastic memories of particular dishes makes it really tough to try them out ourselves. Somehow those dishes that we grew up with never taste as good. It’s tough to replicate the flavor. And we know that this is more psychological than real. We know that these dishes have been elevated in our memories to the status of almost deities, and irrespective how good our efforts are, we simply cannot make a dish that’s as good as the ones from our childhood.
This is probably why we haven’t made meatballs in a very long time. We just feel that it’s hard to measure up to our grandmothers. There’s some fear stemming from respect. We feel the pressure of not letting our ancestors down with a paltry imitation.
But fears need to be overcome, and when the result is a steaming bowl of meatballs in rich tomato sauce, well, it’s a good enough incentive.
It also helped that we have a couple of bottles of nice red that will go perfectly with the rich sauce. So we decided to make another attempt at making this dish.
Unfortunately our grandmothers are no longer here to give us their recipe. So we turned to the next best two people—America’s national culinary treasure, Kenji López-Alt, and cowgirl extraordinaire Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman. We poured over their recipes, hyperlinked here, and decided to tweak them to take into consideration our memories and also make them more convenient for us.
We love Kenji’s idea of a slow cooked sauce, being firm believers that time does make it taste better. But we didn’t want to spend our Saturday at home watching the pot. Unfortunately our beloved slow cooker doesn’t work in this country, due to its US voltage, despite purchasing an enormous voltage adapter. And we didn’t want to leave the stove on while we’re out—the last thing we need is to burn down the building.
So we came up with the next best idea. We prepared the meatballs, browning them, and put them aside, then started the sauce, letting it simmer on low heat until we were ready to leave the apartment. Then, we put in our trusted Wonderbag, which keeps it warm but doesn’t involve electricity, so aside from being totally safe is also a power-saver.
While we absolutely love Kenji’s well-thought and meticulously tested recipes, we disagree with his broiler method to brown the meatballs. We firmly believe that the flavor that comes out of the meatballs while they’re being browned in the hot oil is integral in giving the sauce extra flavor. Also, that’s what we remember our grandmothers doing, and who’s to argue with grandma? So, sorry Kenji, but they win.
But we did want to follow Kenji’s suggestion to use meat with a good fat content, which, we believe, is essential to have succulent meatballs instead of dried ones. Unfortunately our trusty M&S only had the low-fat variety (10% for beef and 7% for pork) so instead of making the trip to a proper supermarket, we improvised. We have some leftover lard which we used to make pork confit, which means that this is infused with the flavor of the pork belly that was cooked in it. We measured out around a tablespoon and mixed it into the meat. It’s a messy job, especially if you insist on doing it by hand instead of using a stand mixer. But that’s how our grandmoms did it, and if it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.
We wanted to use some pancetta to intensify the flavor of the sauce, but couldn’t find any. Again, we simply didn’t want to go to a proper supermarket—the closest one to our flat is around 3 miles away! Since we were using the lard, we decided that this step could be skipped without really taking away from the flavor.
Another change we were going to make but made a last-minute decision not to was to use some leeks in the sauce. Our plan was to replace half the onion with thinly diced leeks. Leeks tend to give a depth to dishes that onions simply don’t. And right now they’re in season. But at the last minute we decided to stick with onion only since we were making quite a few changes and wanted to test those out before making even more.
We also had a little impasse. One of us wanted the meatballs with pasta while the other wanted a meatball Parm. Well, who says we couldn’t both get what we wanted? The beauty of meatballs is that they’re so versatile, so once the dish was complete, one of us boiled pasta — although the tradition is spaghetti, we used bucatini because the sauce enters the pasta infusing it from within — while the other made a sandwich. We were both pretty happy!
Anyway, here’s our mesh-up recipe:
- 300 grams (3/4lb) ground beef (25% fat)
- 300 grams (3/4lb) ground pork (25% fat)
- 1 tablespoon lard—if meat has a lower fat content
- ¾ cup bread crumbs—we just cut half a baguette in small pieces and left it out overnight to dry, then blitzed it in the food processor
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 Eggs
- ¾ cup Parmesan
- ¼ cup Flat leaf parsley, minced
- ⅓ cup milk
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon mint
- ¼ teaspoon Kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
- Freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, or if you’re feeling adventurous, ½ an onion and ½ a leek, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 cans whole tomatoes (800g)
- 2 cans crushed tomatoes (800 g)
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- Basil sprig
- ½ cup red wine
- ¼ teaspoon Kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- pinch of nutmeg
- ¼ cup flat leaf parsley, minced
- ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes—adjust to your heat preferences
- Pasta or bread, depending on how you’re serving it
- Extra parmesan for sprinkling
- Basil leaves, thinly cut (chiffonade) for sprinkling
- The night before cut a piece of baguette into small pieces and leave them out to dry. If you don’t have the time for this step, you can simply dehydrate the bread in a low heat oven. Or just get store-bought breadcrumbs, we won’t tell anyone.
- Pulse the bread through a food processor to create breadcrumbs and then soak them in milk for 10 minutes.
- Mix together the bread with the meat, garlic, Parmesan, eggs, salt, pepper, oregano, paprika and parsley. You want the herbs to be evenly spread through the meat mixture, so we first mixed the spices and herbs together, then folded them into the bread/milk mixture, before adding the beaten eggs and mixing thoroughly. Then we mixed this into the meat—which we’d already added the lard to—using our hands, although you can use a stand mixer.
- Create golf-sized meatballs. You might want to leave them in the fridge or in a cold place for a few minutes to firm up. We didn’t need to since it’s pretty chilly and the meat was quite cold.
- Heat olive oil in a heavy pot over medium heat and add meatballs in batches without crowding the pan, turning them to brown on all sides. Use a slotted spoon to remove the meatballs, careful not to break them, especially if they stick to the bottom of the pan. Of course, you can follow Kenji’s recipe and cook them under a broiler, which is probably quicker, but we’re with Pioneer Woman here for reasons mentioned above. Put the meatballs on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Once they cooled down, we transferred them into a dish and put them in the fridge.
- Now it’s time to start on the sauce. In the same pot, where you have the oil that’s been infused with the meatballs, add the onion (or onion/leek mixture) and garlic and cook them for a few minutes, careful not to burn them. You’ll notice that the onion/garlic will that a brown tint with the meat remains, and start smelling absolutely delicious! If you’ve browned the meatballs in the broiler and want to infuse more flavor in your sauce, you might want to brown some thinly cut pancetta in the pot before adding the onions and garlic.
- Add whole and crushed tomatoes and wine, salt, pepper, sugar, oregano, parsley, nutmeg and hot pepper flakes plus a sprig of basil. Bring to a simmer and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Transfer into the Wonderbag and keep it until ready to use.
- Take the meatballs out of the fridge and let them warm up. Put the crockpot back on the stove and bring the sauce back to a simmer. When the meatballs have warmed up, fold them into the sauce and bring the mixture back into a simmer, for around 30 minutes.
- In the meantime, boil water and put the pasta in just before the sauce is ready. Or if you’re making a meatball parm, slice the bread.
- Drain the pasta and put it back into the pot, spooning some sauce and mixing together. Serve in bowls, with another spoonful of sauce and meatballs on top, sprinkling some good cheese on top — we used Provolone, from Gazzano‘s in Clerkenwell.
- Sit back, open your jeans button, and enjoy.