Perfect Meatballs in Tomato Sugo

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If you think that ‘foodporn’ is just an ironic term for food photography that sends food crazy like people into a frenzied state of salivation, then I challenge you to watch the scene in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ where Julia Roberts practically makes love to her fork while she consumes a plate of spaghetti and meatballs al fresco in a cobble-stoned Roman side street. In fact, watching this on the plane on our way to Europe some years ago now made us desperate to find the perfect spaghetti and meatballs in a similarly idyllic setting as soon as we arrived in Rome.

There’s nothing more typically Italian than spaghetti and meatballs. Interestingly, though, the Italians traditionally cook the meatballs in sugo then remove the meatballs to be served as a separate course before tossing the pasta through the sauce as the ‘primo piatto’. It was the Americans who inspired serving the two together in one bowl.

Regardless of how you choose to enjoy this Italian staple, those meatballs need to hold their shape, not fall apart in the sauce, and stay moist all the way through. The secret to getting the texture just right is some day-old bread soaked in milk and incorporated into the mix. So, if like me, you are making a lot of bread at the moment and there are always a few offcuts laying around, maybe it’s time to get ballin’!

PS: You’ll notice that I give the option of using garlic infused oil and pressed cloves as opposed to onions and garlic. This is not a traditional or regional quirk, but more the fact that I live with someone whose stomach is quite sensitive to onions and garlic. Switching to garlic oil and infusing the sugo with whole cloves seems to have less an impact – those of you who are Low FODMAP will know what I am talking about. I even use spring onions floated in soups and sauces to infuse the liquid then discard before serving. Make it your call.

PERFECT MEATBALLS IN TOMATO SUGO

Ingredients

  • 500g mince (beef mince, or a mixture of pork and veal)
  • 2 slices of day-old bread
  • milk
  • A handful of fresh parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (optional)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
  • 1 Cup red wine
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes and 1 bottle of passata (400ml) or 2 tins of chopped tomatoes
  • A few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, 1 onion and 2 cloves garlic (diced) or a few tablespoons of garlic infused oil and 2 cloves garlic (skin on, bruised) and a couple of thin spring onions
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 300g pasta (eg spaghetti, tagliatelle or casarecce)

Method

  • Tear up the bread and place in a small bowl and cover with enough milk to just cover the bread. Let soak for 15 minutes before draining and squeezing out as much of the milk as you can.
  • Place the mince, cheese, parsley, oregano (if using), egg and soaked bread in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper then use your hands to mix everything through thoroughly.
  • Use wet hands to shape heaped tablespoons of the mixture into balls.
  • Place the meatballs on a large plate or tray spaced apart, then allow to firm up in the fridge (at least 15 minutes).
  • In a large heavy-based pan, heat the oil. If using brown onions and garlic, add these to the pan and fry until translucent. A sprinkle of salt will help to slow burning. If not using onions and garlic, skip this step.
  • Add meatballs to the pan. Brown on one side and then turn them to brown as evenly as you can muster. Make sure you wait until these cook well to avoid sticking – my trick is to use two tablespoons to carefully coax them if they catch to the pan and tumble them over.
  • Deglaze the pan with red wine and allow to cook until the alcohol evaporates (this does not mean letting the liquid evaporate, rather, cook until you can no longer smell the alcohol)
  • Add the tomatoes and passata. Half fill each can and bottle with water, swish it around to collect all the excess tomato, and add to the pan along with the bay leaves.
  • If you are not using onions, add the pressed garlic to the sauce (as well as the whole spring onions, if using) and bring to a simmer.
  • Cover and simmer for 2 hours. Check and stir every half hour or so. The sauce will eventually thicken. It’s around this time that you should get your pasta on!
  • Cook pasta in salted water until just before al dente.
  • Remove the meatballs and bay leaves (and whole garlic cloves and spring onion, if using) from the pan and use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta from the water to the sauce.
  • Grate over some extra cheese and mix well to coat all the pasta evenly, adding a little of the cooking water to the mix if it’s a little dry. Keep the heat on and take the pasta to al dente in the sauce.
  • Serve pasta with meatballs, or serve meatballs as a separate course – your choice!
  • A little extra cheese and chopped parsley and a drizzle with extra virgin olive oil is the perfect garnish.

Oh, and don’t even think about not finishing that bottle of red you opened earlier!

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