“Spaghetti And Meatballs” Is An Italian-American Creation
The first thing you should know about Italian meatballs is that Italians never serve them with spaghetti. If you order a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in a real Italian restaurant, they'll just look at you like you've lost your mind. Let me clarify that: you can have a plate of spaghetti as a primo and follow it with a plate of meatballs as a secondo, but Italians would never serve “spaghetti and meatballs” together. That is an entirely Italian-American creation. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it; it's just not authentically Italian.
That said, let's get on with making some meatballs.
The secret to great Italian meatballs comes from three things; using a combination of meats, using breadcrumbs in the mix, and employing good mixing and forming technique.
First the meat. The recipe I'm about to relate calls for beef, pork, and veal. That's the best combination, but I've made meatballs quite successfully with just beef and pork. Don't try it using nothing but ground beef. You really need the extra fat and flavor from another meat source.
As to the breadcrumbs, a lot of people say they're not necessary, but they are, especially if you want lighter, less dense meatballs. In the Italian tradition of “cucina di povera,” breadcrumbs were used as meat extenders or fillers, but they really do serve a purpose in determining the ultimate moisture and texture of the meatball. Some people use a “panade,” meaning they soak the breadcrumbs in milk to achieve greater moisture. Try it. You might like it.
Finally, the biggest part of proper technique comes in not over mixing or over handling the meatballs. Even if you do everything else right, this can make for meatballs that are very dense and heavy.
Okay, here goes. You'll need:
1/3 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup diced yellow onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped fine
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1/2 pound ground veal
1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
4 to 6 cups prepared tomato sauce
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Ingredient notes: chicken broth is fine if you don't have stock. I prefer the reduced sodium variety. Fresh parsley is best, but dried is okay. Use a generous tablespoon. As I said, if you only go with beef and pork, up the proportions accordingly. Don't ever use the cheese-flavored wood fiber that comes in plastic cans. If you can't find or afford Parmigiano-Reggiano, use a wedge of domestic Parmesan. The tomato sauce can be homemade or jarred. Just use something plain like Ragu Traditional. Don't get the stuff “flavored” with meat or mushrooms or something.
Okay, and here's what you do:
Place the chicken stock, onion, garlic and parsley in a blender or food processor and puree.
In a large bowl, combine the pureed stock mix, meat, bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, parsley and salt. Combine with both hands until mixture is uniform. Do not over mix.
Put a little olive oil on your hands and form the mixture into balls a little larger than golf balls. They should be about 1/4 cup each, though if you prefer bigger or smaller, it will only affect the browning time.
Pour about 1/2-inch of extra virgin olive oil into a straight-sided, 10-inch sauté pan and heat over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs to the pan (working in batches if necessary) and brown the meatballs, turning once. This will take about 10 to 15 minutes.
While the meatballs are browning, heat the tomato sauce in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Lift the meatballs out of the sauté pan with a slotted spoon and put them in the sauce. Stir gently. Simmer for about an hour.
Smaller meatballs make a great antipasto. Larger ones can be served as a secondo, or an entree course of their own. And, of course, you can serve them over spaghetti if you feel you must. But if you do, you'll need to use the larger amount of sauce in the preparation.