Being a purist and someone fiercely adheres to tradition, it was hard to imagine making meatballs in the oven. In fact, I often mocked along with others, the very thought of using an oven. Part of the Italian experience is sleeping late Sunday morning only to be waken by the smell of mom frying meatballs in the kitchen for supper. Of course, if you begged, pleaded and/or did some chores before going to church, you might be rewarded with one single meatball before then to hold you over until 2-3pm when Sunday supper was served.
I will be the first to admit that I have no patience for making meatballs. Its not difficult, its just that getting them that perfectly round shape, size and then frying them in oil is messy, and often I want to get it done more quickly than the minimum time required. Obtaining that perfect outer crust and dark brown color on the outside is something I could never do like my mother after all these years.
The only time I ever got close to even tasting something like what my mother made, was at a place called The Orange Squirrel, which now, is sadly closed. When I took a bite of one of theirs, tears nearly came to my eyes, no joke. I asked the chef how they were made and if they were fried and he told me they were baked. I did not want to believe him, and told him these were as close to my mother’s as anything I ever tasted, but she always fried them and he laughed and said “something cooked with love makes all the difference”, and he is right. Because while I love meatballs, I never made them with love. It was always a task I had to get out of the way to get them into the sauce so they can simmer for 2 hours.
Now I know better, and after 100 years of a family tradition of frying, I realize that baking is the way to go. The only reason why they probably were fried 100 years ago is because not everyone had a stove, but every one had an open flame, hotplate, stove, or anything similar.
Minutes after I posted this method on social media, many of my old school Italian friends, some that lived on the very same block of all Italians where I grew up admitted as to doing the same “for years now”. Thanks for holding back on me paesani. But to my credit, they loved my mini muffin tin idea, and this is the genius and justification behind breaking from tradition. Read on and I will explain why later.
Normally I would make the meatballs about 2 ounces or 60grams. That was about the size I remember from my childhood. However now, the recipe has been modified so that they are 1.5ounces each or 45grams. How can you tell? Get an ice cream scoop, use your mini muffin tin as a guide, or better yet, use a digital scale. Its not pretentious, its simply a perfect way to consistency and its a helpful tool.
- 1.5lbs Ground Meat: It can be all beef, but traditionally its beef, pork and veal.
- 1/3 Cup finely chopped onion
- 1/3 Cup finely chopped fresh parsley
- 1/3 Cup bread crumbs (the unseasoned store brand is fine for this recipe)
- 1/3 Cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
- 1/4 Teaspoon Salt
- 1/4 Teaspoon Pepper
- 1 Large egg, beaten
In a very large bowl add all these ingredients in and mix well by hand. Don’t mangle or manhandle the meat, don’t use a blender, don’t use a potato masher, do it gently, by hand. Next gently roll them into balls the size of a golf ball, about 1.5 ounces or 45grams each. For those wondering where the garlic is, I hate garlic that is overpowering. I prefer to use smashed garlic in the tomato sauce instead. I hate garlic particles in my meatballs.
Now, here is the genius behind the mini muffin tins. Use just a mere drop of olive oil per tin and rub all 24 sections down. Now you have the flavor of the olive oil the same as if you had fried them, but the fat from the meat renders out and even though these are baking, they are also frying in their own little section at 400F. If you flip them gently with a spoon halfway through (about 15-20 minutes each side), you will see you have a perfect evenly browned meatball.
I feel that if you leave the meatballs on a rack so all the fat drains away, the meatballs will be dry and with less flavor. If you are that concerned with excess fat, simply drain them on paper towels before adding them to the tomato sauce.
For the tomato sauce, brown 5 smashed garlic cloves in olive oil along with a mere handful of chopped onion, celery and carrot, about 1/4 cup. Add a tablespoon of tomato paste, deglaze with 1/4 cup of red wine, add in 1 can of crushed tomatoes and 1/4 to 1/2 cup of fresh cold spring water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, add in meatballs, allow to simmer for 2 hours.
Once in the tomato sauce, cook for 2 hours until the sauce thickens. Now you have meat sauce for your pasta. Some call it gravy, some call it sauce, but the fact is, once you simmer meat with sauce, it becomes gravy regardless of any argument. It need not be brown like the stuff you put on mashed potatoes and turkey, but it has been simmering in sauce, so its gravy. For those who insist on calling it sauce because its red, call it whatever you like, but get over it when we call it gravy.
And by the way, you don’t have to add these to tomato sauce. You could now eat them as is, or put them on a loaf of bread with marinara sauce and mozzarella for a meatball parmesan sandwich, or even put them in a variety of sauces like teriyaki, honey and soy sauce, or even sautéed with pineapple chunks for a Hawaiian or Polynesian meatball type appetizer.
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