This is for my friend Jill in Brooklyn...
Having grown up in a big Italian family one of the first things I learned how to cook was a tomato sauce. According to my mom there were a few things you had to know how to cook, so I'd say by the age of 14 I knew how to put together a decent tomato sauce, roast a chicken in the oven, whip up various side dishes, and so forth and so on. However it would be many years later until I would finally attempt meatballs. My grandma, Florence Pizzi Feleppa, would make the most unbelievable Sunday feasts of pasta and sauce and meatballs with sausage, all but the sausage made from scratch. So when my girlfriend gave up her vegetarian ways to rip back into the glorious world of pork and beef I figured it was time I stepped up to the plate and honor Grandma Flo. I am sure it can and will be adjusted and improved upon but here's a good straight forward recipe for tomato sauce with meatballs. So roll up your sleeves, sharpen your favorite chopping knife, get a bottle of red wine and pour yourself a glass, throw on your favorite Louis Prima record, and start thinking like an Italian.
- 1/3 - 1/2 lb. ground pork
- 1/3 - 1/2 lb. ground beef
- 1/3 - 1/2 lb. ground veal
(usually you find the three packaged together in your grocer's meat department advertised for making meatloaf, that's the package you want. somewhere between a pound and a pound-and-a-half total weight is good)
- 1/2 cup breadcrumb
- 1 egg
- 1 can (28oz.) whole peeled tomatoes in basil (I use Progresso)
- garlic (at least three good-sized cloves)
- crushed red pepper
- any other Italian spices you enjoy
- grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
- sundried tomatoes (optional)
- capers (optional)
- black olives (optional)
You are going to be cooking for a good 30-45 minutes at least and the general timing goes like this. Begin with the forming and browning of the meatballs. About halfway through the browning you will begin the sauce, and when the meatballs finally go into the sauce then you can turn that down and turn on your pasta water on. At that rate your sauce will be at a good place when your pasta is ready.
In a mixing bowl combine the ground meats, egg, 1/2 cup of breadcrumb, maybe a little parsley and oregano, pepper. Work mixture with hands until homogeneous. Because of the egg your mix is going to have some moisture to it but will not be runny or oozy, or at least you certainly don't want it to be. I make my meatballs about 2" in diameter and I think that is a good size, and this size recipe tends to create 6-8 meatballs, or dinner for three in our house. Using your fingers scoop the meatballs into even portions and roll them in your hands, working them until there are no major cracks or creases. Once formed begin a heavy duty pan on medium to high heat with a drizzle of oil to coat the bottom. Your goal for the browning is just that, to brown, not try and cook the meatballs through. The meatballs will sizzle and brown and with thongs you will continue to rotate until you get all sides evenly dark brown.
While you're browning the meatballs prep your sauce. Peel and chop finely at least three healthy cloves of garlic, and always err on the side of more than less. This is also where all those optional ingredients come into play. If you have sundried tomatoes around slice then chop about 8 of them so that your pile is a little bit larger than that of the garlic. If I have black olives or capers in the fridge I will chop a small handful (olives) or a few large tablespoons (capers) and have them ready on the cutting board too. Be experimental with your amounts of different ingredients and learn from your successes or failures to create your own signature sauce. It's all good stuff so it's not like you can mess this up. For me I have to admit I don't actually measure anything, I just have played enough that I know what works without being too much in one taste direction or another. Have fun with it.
Your meatballs should be looking pretty good by now. The pan is probably spitting a little bit but don't pay it too much mind. Don't panic and turn the heat down, remember, you're not cooking, your browning. If the meatballs seem browned before you have had a chance to begin your sauce that is fine, don't stress, turn them off and let them sit while you get the sauce going.
A few tablespoons of olive oil (more or less) to coat the bottom of your medium/large sauce pan. Heat on medium to medium-high. When warm throw into the oil your garlic. Toss garlic and let everything get hot and smelling good, without letting the garlic get too dark in color or burned. Add any "optionals" and a pinch or two of crushed red pepper. Saute everything hot and fast while you open your can of tomatoes and pull out a colander or strainer. After a few minutes of the flavors amalgamating pour the tomato juice from the can into the saucepan holding the tomatoes themselves in the can, and stir the pot. Using your hands or a small paring knife stab and break the tomatoes and mush them until you have a mix of the pulp and the rest of the tomato juice. Using a colander over your cooking pot pour in the rest of the contents from your can of tomatoes. With your hands or a large flat spoon strain all of the tomato juice into the pot and discard the leftover pulp. If you want a chunkier sauce you can add the pulp, which I sometimes do, but the other is the way my brother learned from grandma and if he swears it makes the sauce a million times better I believe him. Add a teaspoon or so each of oregano, basil, and parsley and stir well. Let the sauce get to a boil.
Once the sauce is at a boil add your meatballs and turn down to low or simmer. Get your pasta water going. Stir the sauce occasionally and let all those flavors meld, rotating the meatballs if not completely submerged in the sauce. (insert photo above) When your pasta is almost ready you can turn off the meatballs and sauce and let that sit for a few minutes. We find that three meatballs with sauce over a plate of spaghetti covered in a healthy dose of grated Parmesan and another glass of vino you are well on your way to being very full and very happy. Enjoy.