as promised, we are here today to talk about meatballs.
A few weeks ago I was doing my second favorite bedtime activity, scrolling StreetEasy for apartments that might appear to be better than mine. I saw my friends place on the site and immediately texted her ARE YOU MOVING? She confirmed that she was, it happened really fast, how did I see the listing already, etc etc. Another friend lost to the sun and shine of Los Angeles, etc etc. I sent a series of cry-face emoji and we figured out a plan to make dinner together one last time before we never see each other again* (*in a few months when I go home to LA for the holidays).
When I asked what her and her husbands FINAL MEAL WITH ME would look like, they said it had to be meatballs. See, we had a meatball dinner together once before that ended so poorly it became “kind of a story,” and, you know, in the spirit of tying up loose ends, closing a chapter, reliving our youth, remembering a simpler time, it just had to be meatballs.
This quickly became Italian American Night, because of course, who would eat spaghetti and meatballs without a side of intensely dressed iceberg lettuce, raw onion and a dusting of pecorino cheese? Would you even WANT spaghetti and meatballs if there wasn’t well toasted, almost too-garlicky garlic bread? I wouldn’t dream of it, especially knowing that this is the LAST TIME we would ever eat together. Do they even HAVE meatballs in California???
Anyway, that story: A few years ago, these friends that I’ll probably never see again (who are, it should be mentioned, excellent cooks) invited my then boyfriend and I over for dinner. We arrived, climbed the stairs to the kitchen and before we even found out what we were having, my friend shouted “they’re bad! We think the meatballs are bad.”
I guess we were having meatballs! I took a look in the pot and immediately did not recognize them as my own children (I always know my own children!). I asked where they got the recipe (code for: “this doesn’t look like my recipe”) and they told me they “couldn’t remember” (code for: “not your recipe, please don’t shame us for not using your recipes, you know there are other recipes out there that also sound good, can we please cook those too without you asking where we got the recipe?”).
Figuring they were just being hard on themselves (again, they really are great cooks!), I was still excited because even a bad meatball is generally pretty okay if there is cheese on hand and the sauce has done its job. We sat down, poured the wine, shared a laugh (boy, did we laugh) and served ourselves some meatballs. Reader, there was not enough cheese in Brooklyn or a sauce delicious enough to hide the fact that the meatballs really were bad. It’s not worth getting into why (dry? Hard? Not salty enough?) but you’ll have to trust us when I say that collectively we agreed they were BAD, so much so that it became the only thing we talked about the rest of the night. Was the mixture over-mixed? Was it the wrong type of breadcrumb? Was the pork not sustainably raised?
I took a look at the recipe and had a LOT of questions. Looking at some of the steps, ingredients and cook times, I thought “Not what I would do.” No, I will not be sharing those details, because that is not the point of the story. The point of the story is that my meatballs are GREAT, the recipe for which I will eventually share, but not before I finish this dumb story!!
[FWIW: I took no pleasure in this, only relief that they were not mine. There is nothing more embarrassing to me than the thought going to someone's home where they have cooked a recipe of mine that didn’t turn out well.]
We made up for the shitty meatballs by getting absolutely drunk as hell and having what I thought was a total blast.
The next morning, I woke up to toast and coffee in bed from my then live-in boyfriend of two years (sweet, right?), followed several hours later by him asking me if we could have a talk in the living room real quick before we headed to a holiday party. The energy was decidedly weird and I couldn’t tell if I was getting broken up with or proposed to, but I’ll spare you the suspense: I was getting broken up with!
I’ll save those juicy bits for another time, but later that week after I stopped crying long enough to send a coherent text, I let my two friends know that [REDACTED] and I had broken up. They asked when it happened and I told them the day after we had been over for dinner, which is so wild because didn’t it seem like we were having a great time and could they have ever guessed he was probably thinking of breaking up with me the whole time even though we were just having the best time and we were so affectionate and what could have possibly happened from that day to the next to make him break up with me out from out of nowhere*? (*lol it’s never out of nowhere- PAY ATTENTION, Y’ALL!)
She texted back: “Was it the meatballs?”
Meatballs so bad someone had to break up with me, can you imagine?
these meatballs will keep you in a healthy, happy relationship until the end of time!
Hate to tell you, there isn’t really a “secret” to the meatballs being great. “Secrets” aren’t really my thing (unless it’s using mayonnaise in cornbread, which was met with mixed results except by everyone who made it who said it was AMAZING), but I will say there are two important steps that I feel like make a huge difference:
1. Letting the ricotta/egg/bread crumb mixture soak for at least 10 minutes. This is essentially the “soak milk in bread” step you’ll find in many meatball recipes, but I don’t like soaking bread in milk. Soaking bread in CHEESE though, yeah, I am FOR that.
2. Searing the meatballs in the pot, *then* making the sauce. I have done them on a sheet pan, and they are fine. They are not bad at all. But they are not brown. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but putting your meatballs on a sheet tray in the oven to “brown” them will steam and potentially overcook by the time they look anything close to “brown”.
I have tested them in multiple ovens in different homes, and either coincidentally ALL the ovens absolutely suck, or this method isn’t great (unless you’re doing meatballs for a LOT of people). Doing them in a pot is more work, sure, but I do think you reap the rewards in the form of fat and juicy bits and browned, delicious meat that all flavor your tomato sauce as you finish gently cooking those meatballs.
FOR THE MEATBALLS
1 cup whole milk, full fat ricotta cheese (I have also used cottage cheese and it worked perfectly, surprise, because cottage cheese is perfect!)
½ cup finely chopped parsley
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
⅓ cup panko bread crumbs (I call for panko because this is what I always have on hand and I find them texturally closer to real bread crumbs, but fresh bread crumbs would of course work, too— just avoid the Italian style, too sandy IMO)
2 large eggs
2-3 garlic cloves, finely grated or chopped
½ medium yellow or red onion, very finely chopped (you’ll use the other half of the onion for the sauce)
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
Freshly ground black pepper and/or crushed red pepper flakes
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
2 tablespoons olive oil
FOR THE SAUCE
1 ½ medium yellow or red onions, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper
A few anchovies or couple of dashes of fish sauce, if you want
2–3 tablespoons tomato paste, if you’ve got it
1 22 ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes
12 ounces fresh tomatoes, whole if small, halved if medium, chopped if large (these can be cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, whatever tomatoes you have, really)
FOR THE MEATBALLS
1. Mix ricotta, parsley, parmesan, bread crumbs, eggs, garlic and onion in a medium bowl. Season with salt, pepper and crushed red pepper flakes if you like and let sit for 10 minutes or so (this will hydrate your bread crumbs, which will make the meatballs v tender).
2. Add beef and pork and remaining 2 teaspoons salt. I have never had good luck with mixing this with a spoon, so I just get in there with my hands. Feels kind of good, IMO.
3. Once everything is well-mixed (it should look like...sausage or something), roll one tiny sacrificial meatball.
4. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the sacrificial meatball and cook until it’s well browned on all sides and is cooked through. Take it out of the pot and eat it. Does it taste amazing? Salty? Meaty? Tender and juicy without falling apart? Do you want it spicier? Go ahead and adjust seasoning as needed (occasionally I’ll add more salt or decide this is when I want them spicy).
NOTE: This raw meatball mixture freezes well, so you could always make half now and freeze the rest for later.
5. Roll the rest of the mixture into balls about 2-inches in diameter. This is my preference, so if you enjoy a LARGER meatball, then be my beautiful guest. I get roughly 24 meatballs from this mixture, more or less.
6. Working in batches, brown the meatballs on all sides. This is not a round meatball contest, it’s a brown meatball contest. Nobody will say “damn, these taste good but I wish they were just...a little rounder?” This will take about 3–4 minutes per batch. They will not be cooked through, that’s fine-- they will finish cooking in the sauce.
7. Once the meatballs become browned, transfer them to a large bowl and continue with the rest of the meat. Once they are all browned, congratulate yourself on a job well done and let them hang out while you make the sauce.
i don’t know much, but i know a meatball “browned” in an oven will never look that good.
FOR THE SAUCE
8. Without wiping out the pot, add onions and garlic to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until they’re translucent and tender but not yet browned, 8–10 minutes. Add anchovies if you’re using them and tomato paste if you have it and stir until the anchovies are melted and the tomato paste has begun to caramelize and turn a darker shade of red, 2–3 minutes.
9. Add the fresh tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Cook until they’re burst and jammy, 5 minutes or so. Add the canned tomatoes, fill the can halfway with water, swirl to get all the tomato bits and pour into the pot. Season with salt and pepper.
10. Bring to a simmer and adjust for salt, knowing the sauce will reduce a bit and become a bit saltier once you add the meatballs. Add your meatballs and all the juices that have collected at the bottom of the bowl.
11. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the meatballs in the sauce (uncovered) until the sauce is thickened and impossibly delicious and the meatballs are cooked through and perfectly tender, 30–40 minutes.
be sure to just PLOP the meatballs directly into the extremely hot tomato sauce, just to make sure to get as much of the sauce in as many place as possible.
If you are here for the salad recipe, you’ll get it in your inbox tomorrow if you’re a paying subscriber (along with garlic bread details, of course). What joy!
it’s not a bowl, it’s an unused paella pan (unused no longer!).
Make a playlist of Fleetwood Mac “Deep Cuts,” realize that maybe you’re not sure what “deep cut” means? Read this article by Amanda Arnold via The Cut about mutual aid (what it is, how to get involved). Yes, there’s an election this year (so much to get involved with!), but it’s a marathon, not a sprint, etc. Be grateful your funniest friends are into TikTok because they post a personal Best Of on their stories which means you don’t have to download TikTok. BUY A TOTE FOR DEMOCRACY! I miraculously found a box of totes I made to celebrate the release of Nothing Fancy, which means they are *back on the market*. Proceeds go to the Swing Left Immediate Impact Fund. Limited edition! Settle into fall and think: “maybe I wasn’t depressed, maybe I just hate summer?” (JK I was depressed, too) Celebrate the very full moon tonight by writing down all the things you want to let go of on tiny pieces of paper and then lighting them on fire. Read the excellent Chani Nicholas on other full moon things and heed all her wisdom. Get your hands on some of this Tart Celery Vinegar (I am not really a fan of “flavored” vinegars, but this isn’t really flavored, more just “made from” and damn, if it isn’t one of the best things I’ve tasted in a minute. I drink it with seltzer and last night I poured it over green tomatoes and thinly sliced shallots 🤠).
For the month of September, proceeds from paid subscriptions will go to Heart of Dinner, a NYC-based organization that’s working to provide home-cooked meals and handwritten letters, combating hunger and isolation for the homebound and elderly Asian-American community of New York. Learn more about them here.
Past supported organizations to put on your radar: The Okra Project / Food Issues Group / La Cocina