I don’t know about you, but whenever I think of meatballs, two things come to mind: The Godfather and that scene in Disney’s ‘Lady and the Tramp’ where Lady shares a plate of spaghetti with the less refined Tramp. Maybe I’m just odd that way. In terms of ‘The Godfather’ reference, this dish has nothing to do with a horse’s head in your bed – but rather a dish that just screams Italian and tradition. So last night, I set about making spaghetti and meatballs, as winter approaches her final stages, it seemed fitting to create a heartwarming and gutsy dish before the lighter eating months of spring. I have made these meatballs many, many times but yesterday’s attempt was my first disaster. I was lazy and did not feel like making my own breadcrumbs, and so I bought a tub of the commercial kind, which are far finer in texture than when using bread. BIG MISTAKE! Please don’t do it – the crumbs sucked up almost every ounce of moisture in the mixture and I ended up having to use three eggs, just to get a suitable consistency. The final product, whilst full of flavour was heavy and dry – and if you wanted to dump a body in the river true Mafia style – I wouldn’t have weighed it down with bricks – instead I would have used my meatballs! So for the best, most juicy and delicious meatballs, use fresh breadcrumbs from a good loaf of bread ( I usually use ciabatta), that you have processed to a crumb consistency in a food processor, or grated using a cheese grater. As for the sauce, it is one that I have been tweaking for some time – and I think I have got it right. The special ingredient being, red wine, which adds a wonderful depth and richness to the sauce. In fact the sauce alone on spaghetti is delicious and needs nothing more than a grating of parmesan to take it to new heights. A trick I have gleaned over the years, is to season your food as you go – to ensure that you build the flavour – it really does make a difference to the finished product. So having said that, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”, or in this instance, the meatballs!
The Godfather of meatballs in homemade tomato sauce
Serves 6 generously
1kg free-range minced beef
1 cup of homemade breadcrumbs from a good loaf of bread
Maldon salt and pepper
1 tsp dried origanum
40g freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
3 tbsp olive oil
For the sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 heaped tsp crushed garlic
2 tins organic, chopped tomatoes
1 bottle (690g) organic tomato puree or passata
1/2 tsp sugar
Maldon salt and pepper
3/4 of a glass of red wine
1 handful fresh basil, chopped
Spaghetti, freshly grated parmesan and fresh basil to serve
Start by making your meatballs, this is a really hands-on job and you can tell a lot about what the finished product will be like by the consistency of the mincemeat mixture, so get your hands dirty and use your instincts as a cook. You ideally want the mixture to be moist and not struggle too much to roll it into balls. If it’s too moist, add a few more breadcrumbs, if it’s too dry, add some beaten egg. Combine the mince, breadcrumbs, 2 tsp Maldon salt, a good grinding of black pepper, origanum and parmesan in a large bowl, add the beaten egg and work it into the mixture using your hands. Once it is the desired consistency, using wet hands, roll the mixture into meatballs a little bigger than a golf ball in size. You should end up with about 26. Put these onto a tray or into a bowl and leave in the fridge to firm up while you make the sauce.
For the sauce, start by heating your olive oil in a large saucepan, add the onion and a generous pinch of salt and cook until the onion is glossy and golden, add the crushed garlic and continue to cook for a minute, stirring to ensure it does not burn, then add the 2 tins of tomatoes, the bottle of tomato puree and the sugar. At this point, check the seasoning again and add another generous pinch of salt. Stir in the red wine and bring the mixture to the boil over medium heat, then turn the heat to low and allow it to simmer for about 20 minutes. The idea is for the sauce to reduce a little, but not so much as you need enough to coat the meatballs and pasta.
In a large, non-stick frying pan, heat a good glug of olive oil (about 3 tbsp), brown your meatballs. Once they are brown on the outside, gently put them into the simmering tomato sauce, ensuring that they are mostly covered. Simmer for about 20 minutes – or until the meatballs are cooked through and no longer pink inside. Add the chopped basil and taste for seasoning. Serve with spaghetti, parmesan and fresh basil to garnish.
“Hey, come over here, kid, learn somethin’. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys someday.” Peter Clemenza, The Godfather.