Friday, August 15, 2008

Grandma Betty's Meatballs

Of the many lessons in life I count as blessings, having the chance to stand alongside my grandmother while she taught me how to make her meatballs is high on my list. I can picture the day clearly in my mind. Her worn, green Pyrex bowl filled with torn bread, ground beef, grated cheese, and chopped parsley. Two perfect egg yolks sitting at the top of the pile.
She always mixed them with her hands, forming each handful into balls exactly the same size as the first. Something that came with ease after years of honing her skill. There was no recipe involved, because like her method, the ingredients were committed to memory.
The meatballs served when I was a young child and the ones I was served as a teenager had minor changes along the way. The basis of what made them amazing was the same, but like most cooks, she catered to her audience - which for her was four hungry grandchildren. When I was little she would sometimes add pine nuts and raisins to them {something that might seem odd, but is actually quite popular in Southern Italy}. But I suppose after one too many dinners witnessing her grand kids picking out each and every one, she stopped that practice.
Another, quite significant change came much later down the road, when my grandmother decided that frying meatballs wasn't the healthiest way to prepare them. Quite frankly, I don't remember ever noticing a difference in how they tasted, but it was at that point when she began baking them in the oven and never looked back.
On a special occasion I might spend an afternoon frying a few dozen meatballs and let them simmer in 'gravy' all afternoon, but in my opinion, for everyday purposes the extra effort is simply not worth it. I can do without the grease and sauce splattered stove, walls, floors, and counter tops. But for those who might think any other method but frying is sacrilege, I've included my method for frying in the recipe as well.
While I wanted to note some of the evolutions, there are a few components to making great meatballs which will never change {at least not in my world}. I've made them with ground turkey. I've used them in soup. I've served them on toothpicks as a party appetizer. But what makes them taste so good no matter how I've served them is a generous proportion of Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley. None of that silly ground beef/veal/pork combo nonsense. No aromatics, like chopped onions or garlic {sorry, but once you add those to meatballs, you've got meatloaf}. And certainly, no dried oregano. This is one of those instances where keeping it simple really does pay off.
Meatballs for dinner is something I can count on every member of my family eating with enthusiasm. It can be relied on when I need a guaranteed-to-please meal for company. And I'm fairly certain that the person who first uttered the words "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach" was suggesting you serve him meatballs.
I'm also sure that my grandmother knew exactly what she was giving me when she told me how to make them.
Note: This post was originally written in August 2008, but was given a facelift and update on July 12th 2012 - Enjoy!
A few more of my Italian favorites - Baked Pasta with Mini Meatballs | Tomato Sauce with Onions & Butter | Italian Style Mini MeatloavesHomemade Italian Salad Dressing | Zucchini Blossom Fritters | Ciambotta | Spaghetti with Braised Kale

Grandma Betty's Meatballs

Makes 16 - 2" meatballs, and enough sauce for 1 lb. of pasta
This is my 'messed-with-many-times' version of my Grandmother's Meatballs. By 'messed with', I mean they have evolved over the years, both in her kitchen, and mine. But there are a few important things that have never changed - most importantly, they should include a generous dose of freshly grated Parmesan, chopped parsley, and love.

For the Meatballs
1 3/4 cups fresh bread crumbs {3 3/4 ounces}
1/2 cup milk
2 pounds ground beef
3/4 cups freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
2 large eggs, beaten
1/3 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper {about 10 grinds}

For the Sauce
2 {28 ounce} cans of whole, peeled tomatoes {I like to use San Marzano tomatoes}
1 large clove garlic, smashed
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

Begin a double, modified batch of Tomato Sauce with Onion & Butter {or your favorite Marinara Sauce recipe} by adding all of the 'Sauce' ingredients listed above to a large, heavy saucepan, and bringing the mixture to a boil, over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Begin the meatballs by preheating the oven to 350 degrees. Add the bread crumbs to a large mixing bowl, and pour in the milk. Toss to coat the bread crumbs, and let them soak for 10 minutes.

Add all of the remaining 'Meatball' ingredients to the bread crumb mixture, and mix gently, using your hands. You want to mix just until all of the ingredients are evenly distributed, but try to avoid over-mixing.

Using your hands, shape the mixture into 2" balls, and lay them out on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, then use tongs to transfer the meatballs to the sauce. Simmer the meatballs in the sauce for another 10-15 minutes. Serve with your choice of pasta, topped with an extra sprinkle of grated Parmesan.

Some Notes/Options
// Store-bought, dry bread crumbs can be used in a pinch, but making your own is worth the effort, whenever possible. To make your own fresh breadcrumbs, process sliced bread in a food processor until evenly ground. Or, you can cube fresh, or day-old bread {crusts removed} by hand. Any type of sandwich bread will do - you can even use whole wheat, if that's your preference. I have given the proportion of bread crumbs by dry measure, and by weight, to make this easier.
// For the sauce, I like to use a modified version of Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion & Butter because it's the best tomato sauce I've ever tasted! I've modified it,  because as written I find it to be too rich for serving with meatballs {but fantastic alone with pasta}. You can also substitute your favorite Marinara Sauce recipe, or even use your favorite jarred sauce - I won't judge, and have been known to do so myself on many a pressed-for-time, weeknight dinner occasion! My most favorite jarred sauce is 'Michael's of Brooklyn' Marinara - which is expensive, but worth every penny!
// If you use extra-lean ground beef {i.e. ground sirloin, or 90% lean} you'll need to line your baking sheet with parchment, or give it a quick coating of non-stick cooking spray, to prevent the meatballs from sticking.
// Over the years, I've made many a 'fried' meatball. Your Italian grandmother may tell you this is the only way to go, and there's no question it's delicious! But it also creates a big mess, and requires much more time standing over a hot stove. Not to mention, baking them is healthier. However, if you'd prefer the frying method, simply follow the instructions as is, but to cook the meatballs - Heat a tablespoon of oil in a heavy skillet, over medium-high heat. Add some flour to a shallow plate, or bowl, and roll each formed meatball in the flour, tapping off any excess. Fry the meatballs in batches, until evenly browned on all sides. Transfer the meatballs to a paper towel lined plate when done. Add the browned meatballs all at once to the sauce, and let them simmer until cooked through, about 30 minutes for 2" meatballs.


mamalizza said...

should the bread be stale? making this for dh's bday dinner tomm!

Susan said...

Looks fabulous. My Mom always used the "meatloaf mix" instead of straight beef- I miss her cooking, as I'm sure you miss your G-Mom's! We are of Lithuanian descent (lots of cabbage&potatoes!) but my mom was a fabulous Italian cook. Thanks for sharing.

Denise @ TLT said...

What beautiful memories and what a beautiful pictures of this dish. I need a plate of this. As in now!

cindy* said...

family dishes like these are my favorite. there's really nothing better than spaghetti and meatballs!

Megan said...

Whoa. This looks so very very delicious! And your photos are so pretty!

I love that this is a family recipe.

2-Pops said...

As the living person most familiar with the original Grandma Betty and her meatballs, this looks damn pretty authentic! However, it should be noted that back in the day, Kraft parm in a shaker jar was probably used (who knew from Parm Regg?!). And Morton's salt was the only salt known to the modern world. But I'm confident she would approve of the substistutions and be very proud of her granddaughter for memoralizing her recipe.

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