My mother taught me how to make meatballs, just like my grandmother taught my five aunts. However, my father swears that all of our meatballs have a slightly different taste. “Everyone’s hands have a specific chemistry,” he says. “It gets into the meat.”
Chemistry aside, I think I make a pretty good meatball, largely because I’ve stolen everyone’s secrets and tricks.
My mother buys ground pork and ground beef separately and then mixes them together. She says that the veal in pre-made meatball mix makes for a drier, tougher meatball. At least one of my aunts grinds her own meat, but that’s a little too intense for me at this point.
My mother says its very important to crack the egg into a bowl before adding it the meat, in case it comes out rotten. My mother is the most practical person I know, and I try to follow this excellent piece of advice but usually forget.
Meatballs need some kind of bread to bind everything together. When I was a kid, my mother would soak a piece of white bread in milk until it got really soft, and then she’d mix it with the meat. At some point, she switched to regular, store-bought breadcrumbs, and I know this is kind of sacrilege, but I prefer it that way because I think it incorporates better. Also, not to gross you out, but I have clear memories of sitting at the kitchen table picking out bread chunks from my meatballs, because I thought they looked like snot.
My father’s cousin said the secret to a good meatball is not to over mix the ingredients. Always use with your hands, never a spoon, and only until everything is just combined. It should take less than a minute.
A family friend said to add a bit of water to the mix if it’s too dry. A bit of milk would work too.
Someone on some television cooking show said she rubs a little olive oil onto your hands before she starts shaping the meatballs because it flavors the meat. I know this doesn’t make sense, because you then go and fry them in olive oil, but I do it anyway.
The most important tip comes from my father “Don’t overpack them. Meatballs should be light.”
I don’t think he’s ever made a meatball in his life, but he is nonetheless an expert on the topic. Heavy, overpacked meatballs are no good at all.
Ingredients for the meatballs (makes about five or six):
- half a pound of ground meat (I like a combination of beef and pork)
- one egg, cracked and beaten
- 1/3 cup of dried, Italian bread crumbs
- three cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup grated Pecorino cheese
- half a cup of oil (I use a combination of olive and vegetable)
Ingredients for the sauce:
- two 28 ounce cans of San Marzano tomatoes
- three cloves of garlic, smashed with the back of your knife
- two to three tablespoons of olive oil
- pinch of red chili flakes, oregano, salt and sugar, to taste
Make the Meatballs:
Combine the first five meatball ingredients together in a large bowl, being careful not to over mix. It it feels dry, add a little bit of water until it’s moist. Form into balls. I like mine a little bit bigger than golf balls.
Add the oil to a pan and cook over medium heat. The oil is hot when a drop of water in the pan causes it to sizzle. Carefully add the meatballs to the pan, being careful not to crowd them or burn yourself with a splash of oil.
Fry the meatballs for a few minutes on each side, and use a spoon to turn them over in the pan. When the meatballs are fried and brown on all sides, remove from the pan and place on some paper towels to drain off the excess oil.
Make the sauce:
Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to a large pot along with the remaining cloves of garlic. Fry for a minute or two on medium-low heat, and then add the chili flakes if using. Add the two cans of tomatoes, and crush them down with a wooden spoon. Cook for about ten minutes, and then add the meatballs, a pinch of oregano if using, and the basil. I usually just add the basil leaves whole.
The longer this cooks, the better it will taste, so leave it on the stove for at least an hour or two, stirring every once in awhile to make sure nothing sticks and burns to the bottom of the pot. Give the sauce a taste each time you stir to make sure it doesn’t need a little bit more chili flakes or oregano. Sometimes, I add a pinch of salt or sugar, depending on how things are going.