Q: Making meatballs for dinner. Should I fry, roast, or braise?
A: I prefer not to roast, fry or bake. Often, I don't brown my meatballs at all. Instead, I cook them directly in a bubbling sauce for about half an hour until they're soft and succulent.
The plague of the American meatball is a lack of understanding of the proper proportions of meat and non-meat. A really good meatball is about 50 percent meat and 50 percent breadcrumbs.
The true secret is day-old bread, soaked in milk or water, to bring lightness to the mixture. When you cook beef, pork or veal for too long, it starts to get tougher. But the bread in meatballs never gets tough. Use a lot of bread and your meatballs will be perfectly tender.
I like to combine the ingredients in a stand mixer and let the technology do the work. The meatball dough will seem wetter than you'd imagine. Allow it to sit for a few minutes and it will be just dry enough to work into spheres.
One of my favorite ways to use meatballs is in a submarine sandwich. Place a few meatballs between pieces of lightly browned bread and pile them with mozzarella, basil and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Place it under the broiler for two minutes until the cheese is melted and just bubbling.
Meatballs are just as good the second day. Reheat them exactly as you cook them: in simmering tomato sauce.
Polpettine alla Napoletana (Meatballs)
Makes 12-15 meatballs.
4 cups basic tomato sauce
3 cups of 1/4-inch cubes of day old bread
2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
3 garlic cloves
1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese, plus more for serving
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted (baked for 8 minutes in a 400 F oven)
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Parsley leaves, for garnish
2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, bring tomato sauce to a fast simmer.
Put the bread cubes in a medium bowl and pour the milk over. Set aside.
In the bowl of a countertop mixer fitted with a paddle or dough hook, combine the beef and the eggs. Grate the garlic over the bowl with a microplane. Add in grated pecorino, toasted pine nuts, parsley and salt. Mix briefly just to combine.
Add the milk-soaked bread cubes to the meat mixture and mix for about one minute until it comes together, but still has some texture and moisture.
Form the mixture into 12 to 15 meatballs, each smaller than a tennis ball but larger than a golf ball. Gently add the meatballs to the sauce and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook for 25 to 30 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through.
Top the meatballs with parsley leaves, freshly grated pecorino and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
Basic Tomato Sauce
Makes 4 cups.
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut in 1/4 inch dice
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
Kosher salt to taste
In a 3-quart saucepans, heat the olive oil over medium heat, add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and light golden brown, 8-10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot, and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes with their juice, and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt. This sauce holds one week in the refrigerator or up to six months in the freezer.
(Mario Batali is the award-winning chef behind 24 restaurants, including Eataly, Del Posto and his flagship Greenwich Village enoteca, Babbo. In this column, Mario answers questions submitted via social media and by people he encounters daily in Downtown Manhattan. Follow Mario on Twitter @mariobatali. Keep asking!)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun