There are meatballs, and there are meatballs. For years, I wasn't interested in them. I must have experienced rubbish ones early on. The type that are made of flavourless, poorly seasoned beef, with little else in them. This is not what meatballs should be! Yet so many people, I suspect, eat meatballs like this (if the trays of ready made ones in the supermarket are anything to go by). The perfect meatball should be fairly small, no bigger than a large grape (but more spherical); it should be made of good quality, fatty, minced pork and beef (or I quite like purely pork meatballs, but not just beef); it should be well seasoned with salt; it should contain a serious amount of fresh herbs, finely chopped; and finally, my perfect meatball is rich with parmesan too.
We have them every so often at home. The toddler likes them a lot, and it makes a hearty, iron rich meal, perfect for Friday nights and just great if you have other children with you too (like we did tonight). A simple, garlicky tomato sauce and some thick ribbon pasta like mafaldine (I eat this a lot but I didn't actually know what it was called until I googled it 5 minutes ago!), pappardelle or tagliatelle is the obvious accompaniment. When making something simple like this, it's important to use high quality ingredients, so I urge you to get to the butchers' shop for great free-range pork and quality beef, choose great parmesan reggiano, and always use a generous amount of fresh herbs. Then you are guaranteed to get a great result. The tomato sauce recipe here is a great standard that you can use for multiple of purposes. Yes it takes 3 hours to cook it down, but it's worth it, and it's beyond easy, if not quick...
When I do these, I make a large batch and freeze half in their raw, ready to fry state. So I did double the amounts below. However I have revised the amounts to make a meal for 3/4 people - simply double the amounts of the meatball component to make enough for another meal. I like to make the sauce and the meatballs in advance then put it together last minute, which only takes 10 minutes, the time it takes to make the pasta basically.
To make enough for 3/4 adults, depending on your appetite (about 40 - 45 meatballs):
For the meatballs:
225g minced pork (free-range or organic)
225g minced beef
Large handful of fresh herbs (I used 50% flat leaf parsley, then chives, thyme, oregano), finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon of salt
50g parmesan, finely grated
For the tomato sauce
6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 x tins or equivalent (800g) of good quality tomatoes
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of sugar
100g of pasta per person (50g for young children)
- Using your hands, smoosh both minced meats, salt, fresh herbs and parmesan.
- Roll the meatballs into small balls, a teaspoon's worth is about right. Put aside to chill in the fridge for an hour. You could skip this step but I'm sure the chilling helps keep them together.
- Make your tomato sauce by finely slicing the garlic, and let it sizzle over a medium heat in lots of olive oil. When it starts to colour, add your tomatoes. Bring to boil and simmer for 3 hours with the lid on. For the last 20 minutes, take off the lid to let it thicken.
- To make the pasta, fill the biggest pan you have with water and bring to a rapid boil, add 2 teaspoons of salt (it should be as salty as the Med, they say!) and chuck the pasta in. Time it so you check it one or two minutes before the suggested time.
- I find it best to get on with the meatballs while the pasta is cooking. So... heat a large frying pan with tablespoon of oil. Let it get quite hot, add your meatballs and don't move them around until you think they are quite charred on the pan side. Give the pan a good shake, and for the ones that are sticking, give the pan underneath an assertive scrape using a fish slice to shift it. Shake the pan again and let them cook for another couple of minutes. It doesn't matter if a few stick, you are going to deglaze the pan with the sauce anyway so you'll pick up all the nice charred bits. Carry on cooking them like this for 5-10 minutes. As soon as you think they are almost done, take one out, cut in half and test. Don't let them overcook!
- Add your tomato sauce to the meatball pan and gently shake. When the sauce has warmed through, push a spoon or fish slice around the pan to deglaze. Let it bubble for a minute or so.
- Before you drain the pasta, reserve half a mugful of pasta water (always do this, as the water will help the sauce amalgamate and not become claggy - pasta soaks up a lot of water in the sauce, you know!). Drain pasta and add to pan of meatballs and sauce. Toss gently, adding a splash of pasta water. Let it sit and soak up sauce for 1 few minutes, tossing gently.
- Serve with lots more parmesan.
For once I had the foresight/energy to take a few pics as I cooked... don't be alarmed by the vast amount in the 3rd shot below, there are about 90 there as I doubled up!