It’s still unseasonably warm in UK for the time of year but it’s been relentlessly wet since my return from Crete a couple of weeks ago and I’ve had a cold (it’s that time of year!). I had a packet of organic mince (10% fat) in the freezer I wanted to use up. I use mince mainly in Bolognese ragu but decided to make meatballs tonight; I haven’t done that in a while. I thought it would be nicely comforting food for the weather and the last stages of my cold. I’ve made meatballs many times but decided – since I was planning to write it up on the blog – to consult the ‘experts’ and see what they had to say. It seemed to me that the experts made it all a lot more complicated than I normally do. Angela Hartnett adds not only egg but Parmesan and breadcrumbs soaked in milk; Jamie Oliver adds mustard, Jacob’s cream crackers (!!) and egg; Gordon Ramsay adds breadcrumbs soaked in milk, garlic and Parmesan – though no egg. Gino d’Acampo actually came up with most straightforward recipe – just mince, seasoning and parsley … but then spoilt it be adding the wretched egg as well! Why do they want eggs? NO – don’t tell me. I know why people put eggs in mixtures like this but I simply don’t like it. I do, however, approve of the breadcrumbs: breadcrumbs give the meatballs a certain lightness that works well. But not too many. I added 40g to my 400g mince – in other words 10%. And as for Parmesan in the mix … yes, grated Parmesan nicely showered over the finished dish is great, but I personally don’t want it in the meat mixture. I decided to stick my with usual very simple mixture: mince, breadcrumbs, some dried herbs and seasoning. Then I’d make a nice rich tomato sauce for them to finish them off in; perhaps a hint of warming chilli in that. Perfect!
I put 400g good quality minced beef in a bowl, with 40g fresh breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme and seasoning of freshly ground black pepper and sea salt. (Traditionally in Italy, a mix of minced beef and minced pork are used, so you can try that if you prefer.) I mixed it all together with my hands, making sure it was all blended together well. Don’t, however, be tempted to use a food processor or any kind of machine: that will only make you a paste and not good meatballs. Now divide the mixture into whatever size meatballs you want. I made mine about golf ball sized, but that’s reasonably big and you might prefer smaller bite-sized ones.
Roll them in a little olive oil and if you have time, pop them in the fridge for an hour or so to firm up before frying. Then make the tomato sauce. Fry a finely chopped small onion with 1 crushed clove of garlic in some olive oil. I also added 1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes. This gave the sauce quite a kick of heat, which I like, but you can just as well leave the chilli out if you prefer.
When the onion has softened and is starting to go translucent, add 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and also add 1 teaspoon sugar to bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes. Give it all a good stir, bring to almost to the boil and then turn down to a simmer gently for about 15 minutes. I like to then blend my sauce with a hand blender. It makes a smoother sauce that clings better to the meatballs and spaghetti, but it also seems to give the sauce a smoother taste. Check seasoning.
Set aside and cook the meatballs. Fry them in a little olive oil until nicely browned on both sides.
Now tip the prepared tomato sauce into the meatballs.
Stir round well. Scatter over a handful of freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley.
Stir and then put a lid on the pan and leave to cook gently for 10-15 minutes – depending on the size of your meatballs. You want them to cook through but overcooking will make them tough.
Meanwhile cook some spaghetti (about 100g per serving) until al dente. Drain. Return to the pan and add the meatballs. I added just one portion; the other two portions I’ll bag up when cold and freeze. Gently mix the spaghetti and meatballs together and then transfer to a serving dish. I sprinkled over a little extra parsley, drizzled over some extra virgin olive oil and then grated some Parmesan over the top.
I served a rocket salad on the side. The meatballs were really good: very tender and had held together well (no egg needed!); they were very tasty too. The sauce was so rich and delicious and its smoothness meant it clung beautifully to the pasta and meatballs. I liked the chilli hit but if you don’t like chilli or want a fresher taste, leave it out. Your sauce will still be great. It’s such a simple recipe – for both the sauce and meatballs – but such is the brilliance of Italian cooking that simple equals excellent. That’s why I love Italian cooking so much!