October 30, 2020

A la Carte: Meatballs are Perfect for (Small) Pandemic Gatherings

Lee White

Feeding small groups of people during the pandemic is a problem.

For our fundraiser for Democratic candidates (you knew I was a Democrat, didn’t you?), I decided to make meatballs and red sauce. As I learned long ago, everyone’s favorite “ethnic” food is Italian and, even though I have not a whit of Italian blood, I make lots of foods from Italy. 

So, the question was: how could I make sauce and meatballs at home, get it into a slow cooker, get it plugged it outside our headquarters and allow people to get their own portions without using a ladle, or big spoons and giant forks, because of double dipping. The answer, I decided, was toothpicks and a lot more meatballs than sauce.

I make a killer marinara that is ready by the time pasta is al dente and wondered if it would hold long enough for the tiny meatballs to cook thoroughly. They did. The other problem was getting the meatballs tender enough so they were soft but still tasty. They were.

I used a new recipe that I found on the internet, once again from a “blog” called Kitchn. I doubled the recipe, made the meatballs smaller and used panko instead of bread crumbs. They were incredibly good and the sauce made the meatballs so much better than had I roasted them in the oven.

One problem: they were so tender that the plastic toothpicks turned the balls almost to shards.  As it turned out, I wound up using a fork to put them on small paper plates.

When I got home, I had some left in the fridge so I boiled a small pot with ditalini (tiny pasta cylinders) and realized that the sauce may have been the best “meat sauce” ever.

Below is the new recipe for meatballs, followed by quick red sauce, which I use with most all of my red sauce recipes, although I change the herbs, spices, a bit of vodka (for vodka sauce) and a bit of heavy cream depending what I have on hand.

That sauce recipe is great when making lasagna or chicken parm.

The ever-popular meatballs in red sauce. Photo by Fidel Fernando on Unsplash.

Meatballs

Adapted from Emma Christensen, Kitchn, August 20, 2020

Yield: makes around 40 1-inch meatballs

1 cup fine, dried breadcrumbs (I use panko)
1 cup milk
2 large eggs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
3 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 to 2 ½ pounds ground meat (I used ground beef, or a mix of pork and beef)
1 cup freshly chopped onion (or grated on the large holes of a box grater)
2 cloves garlic, minced

Combine milk and breadcrumbs in a small bowl and stir to combine. Set aside while preparing rest of the meatball mixture. Breadcrumbs will absorb the milk and become soggy.

Whisk egg, salt, pepper, parmesan and parsley. Add ground meat and use your hands to thoroughly mix together. Add the onions, garlic and soaked bread. Mix them thoroughly together with your fingers. Try not to overwork the meat; pinch the meat between your fingers rather than kneading them.

Form the meatballs, again gently. I then take the meatballs into the simmering sauce and cook them for at least 45 minutes, stirring every ten minutes or so. 

Perfect Marinara Sauce

Yield: serves at least 8 to 10 people; sauce freezes beautifully with meatballs or alone

1 cup chopped onions
3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
2 to 3 28-ounce cans good canned tomatoes (I use only Muir Glen)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a very large skillet or a Dutch oven, saute the onions and garlic over low heat, until the vegetables are soft and translucent, but not browned. Add the canned tomatoes (I buy whole canned tomatoes and puree them quickly before adding them into the pot). Bring to a nearly bubbling boil, Add salt and pepper to taste. You can simmer the sauce for just a few minutes, or add meatballs or sausage for up to an hour or a little less, until the meat is done. Stir every five or 10 minutes.

About the author: Lee White has been writing about restaurants and cooking since 1976 and has been extensively published in the Worcester (Mass.) Magazine, The Day, Norwich Bulletin, and Hartford Courant. She currently writes Nibbles and a cooking column called A La Carte for LymeLine.com and the Shore Publishing and the Times newspapers, both of which are owned by The Day.

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