This is a dish that demonstrates how good well made simple food can be. Whilst not be the most glamorous of meals it is one that will deliver flavour and fill the emptiest of stomachs without fail; what more could you ask. There are many different ingredients that can go into a meatball and I do not have a set method. One thing that is certain is that you should always use a mix of beef and pork mince. This is no secret and most recipes will advise doing so. Some claim that the addition of the pork prevents the meatballs from drying out. This could well be true. For me it is all about flavour and the combination of the two meats is far better than beef alone. As the saying goes – two meats are better than one.
Further areas of disagreement when it comes to meatballs revolve around cooking method and binding agent. For me the meatballs should always be fried on their own prior to being added to the sauce to cook through. The reason for this is that the frying gives that lovely crisp outside that you will not get in the oven or by just poaching. When it comes to how to bind the ingredients together I may be a little more contentious. I use neither breadcrumbs or egg when forming my meatballs. I do not feel that it is necessary and would rather not have bread in my meat if I can avoid it. You may have to be a little careful when cooking to avoid splitting; but provided you have combined the ingredients well you will be fine.
Next up it is time to discuss herbs and spices. For this recipe I went for shallot, garlic, basil, sage and chilli. I will always add a little heat to my meatballs as it works fantastically. You do not want a lot of heat but a little hint is perfect. This could either come from dried chilli flakes or fresh chillies; I normally plump for the dried but not on this occasion. The herb choices can vary depending on what you have available or fancy adding. The combination of basil and sage is, for me, pretty spot on; but rosemary and oregano are also great options. Finally lets discuss accompaniment; keep it classic and you can’t go wrong. A basic tomato sauce is all you need to go with the meatballs as they are the focal point of the dish. The only deviation that I went for was to include some mushrooms in my sauce. To go with the sauce some fresh spaghetti which should be added to the sauce and the meatballs before serving.
To start place the herbs, shallots, garlic and chilli into a food processor and finely chop. I used two shallots, four cloves of garlic and one birds eye chilli. Combine this with your meat along with some salt and pepper and combine with your hands. One further addition you can make here would be some grated parmesan or pecorino cheese; I haven’t on this occasion but often do.
Once the ingredients are combined fully, start to roll your meatballs using your hands. I would suggest making them slightly larger than a golf ball. Ensure that there are no splits or gaps in your meatballs at this stage as these will only get worse during the cooking. Once formed you can leave the meatballs in the fridge until ready to cook. To cook start by heating some olive oil in a pan before adding the meatballs. I would suggest three or four meatballs per person. Fry them off in the oil moving occasionally until you have a lovely brown crust on a few sides, probably about 10-15 minutes. You want to avoid over cooking them at this stage as they will be added to the sauce later to continue cooking.
For the tomato sauce you will need shallot, garlic, mushrooms, passata, red wine and fresh basil. When you are ready to cook the meatballs you can start to make the sauce. Chop the shallots, garlic and mushrooms and heat some olive oil in a pan. Add the shallot and the mushroom first before adding the garlic. Once this has all softened, and before it starts to burn, add about a glass of red wine to the pan. Allow this to bubble away and reduce by half before adding the passata. I use passata as I like the smoothness it provides – chopped tomatoes are also acceptable. Once you have added the tomato turn down to a simmer and throw in the roughly chopped basil leaves. Add your meatballs to the sauce once you have fried them off and cook for a further 10 minutes or so. If you want to be sure split open a meatball and check there is little/no pinkness – I do not mind a little bit of pink but I know others are more cautious.
Once the meatballs are in the sauce cook your spaghetti according to the instructions on the packet. Once cooked you will be adding the pasta into the sauce with everything else. If you think that your sauce is a little too thick you can use some of the pasta water to loosen it up. I normally use a strainer spoon rather than a colander so that this happens anyway. Now that you have combined everything check your seasoning and ensure that the sauce has coated the pasta before serving with some grated parmesan cheese and a few more torn basil leaves.
I hope that you like the recipe and give it a try. As I mentioned at the start this is a really simple dish that would he fantastic as a cheap family meal that everyone can get stuck into. There is something really satisfying about meatballs that I cannot quite put my finger on. The full meaty flavour combined with the rich tomato sauce is a combination that is hard to beat especially when you take into account how little effort it takes to make them.
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