It’s hard to beat meatballs as a crowd-pleaser. I love them because they’re so versatile. You can bake them or brown them, use nearly any kind of ground meat, and tuck in all sorts of herbs, spices, and even veggies. They’re good on their own, in a soup, or in a sauce. You can make them in a half-hour or let them simmer for an afternoon. Really, it’s hard to go wrong with a meatball. And recently I’ve discovered three tricks to make my Italian-style meatballs even better.
First, choose your meats wisely. Many classic meatballs recipes call for a mixture of ground beef, ground pork, and ground veal. For me this is the gold standard of meatball mixes. In the past, when I was feeling ambitious, I bought a pound of all three meats, took a third of a pound from each package, and mixed them together. I would freeze the remainders and usually forget about them.
Most of the time, I was a tad lazy and used all ground beef for my meatballs. They were still good, but nothing like the luxurious flavor and texture the three meats offer.
So I was thrilled when the nice people at Suzy Sirloin sent me a few packages of their Gourmet Meatball and Meatloaf Mix. It’s a mix of beef, pork, and veal, perfectly portioned and ready to cook. I tested it out, and no surprise, the mix of meats really does make all the difference, giving the sauce a rich, savory flavor.
(To get your own meatball mix from Suzy Sirloin order it online. Or in NYC, you can find it at Gristedes and Morton Williams among other spots. Suzy Sirloin also offers ground beef, ground lamb, steaks, pork, and more, all of which I’m now going to pick up based on the deliciousness of the meatball mix.)
I have my Italian mother-in-law to thank for the second and third tricks. In the past I had made my Italian meatballs in the “standard” way – combining the meat, breadcrumbs, egg etc. Form into meatballs, brown in a pan, remove, start the sauce in the pan, add back in the meatballs and simmer. Whew!
When I saw Iolanda making her meatballs in February I was honestly stunned for a moment. Her first trick was to make the sauce first and add some of it to the meatball mixture. This gives the meatballs a hint of tangy flavor. Her next trick was to skip the browning step all together and just simmer the meatballs in the sauce. I had always wondered why her meatballs were so tender, and here was why! Yes, you have to cook the meatballs longer, but it’s almost completely unattended and you skip the browning time on the front end.
So before it gets too hot, take a leisurely afternoon and make meatballs in sauce. This recipe will likely give you three meals – two with meatballs and sauce and one with just leftover sauce (which can be frozen). Sometimes I serve the meatballs and sauce with pasta, other times just with delicious bread to sweep up every drop of the leftover sauce on the plate. It’s that good.
Meatballs in Sauce
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
crushed red pepper (to taste)
Two 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes
½ teaspoon sugar
1 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt, and more to taste
1 lb. ground meat, preferably a mix of beef, veal, and pork. Or just ground beef
1 egg, beaten
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup chopped parsley
½ cup panko or other breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
1. To make the sauce: heat the olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other large pot. Add the onion and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the onions are soft, but not brown, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper and cook for another minute or two. Add the crushed tomatoes, sugar, and 1 1/4 teaspoons salt. Bring to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
2. Taste the sauce, adding salt and/or freshly ground pepper if you’d like. Remove a half-cup of the sauce and let it cool enough so that it won’t burn your hands. Cover the pot and let the sauce continue to simmer.
3. Add all of the meatball ingredients, plus the ½ cup of cooled sauce to a large bowl. Using your hands, mix gently until all of the ingredients are incorporated. Form the meat into balls about the size of large walnuts and drop them gently into the simmering sauce. Continue to cook the sauce, covered, for 2 hours. Stir occasionally to make sure the meatballs aren’t sticking to the bottom of the pan.
4. Taste one last time for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if you’d like. A few torn basil leaves are nice at this point as well. Serve on pasta of just on a plate. Either way you’ll have some happy eaters at your table.