To make the best meatballs keep two things in mind: (1) choose the best meat you can find—for example, prepare beef meatballs with grass-fed beef that is naturally lean and full and rich in flavor, and (2) use a light hand; shape meatballs that are light and airy not kneaded or compacted.
To make 4 to 6 servings of meatballs—that is 25 to 30 walnut-size meatballs, you will need about 3 pounds of meat—try a combination of two or three meats such as 1 or 1½ pounds each of beef or veal or pork or lamb or sweet Italian sausage (with the casings removed) or substitute ground turkey or chicken for the meat.
To the meat add about a cup of country bread or cold cooked rice or potatoes. Use fresh or dried herbs and seasonal vegetables–such as green peppers or mushrooms–with the season. From there, add a creamy sauce in the chilly time of the year; choose a tomato sauce in the warm time of the year.
Basic Meatballs with Seasonal Flavor
Yield 4 servings
- 1 pound ground grass-fed beef
- 1 pound ground veal
- 1 pound ground pork
- Alternatives: 8 pork sausages, about ½ pound sweet Italian sausages, casings removed ; snip the sausages apart squeeze out the meat into meatballs; a second alternative: replace the meat with ground chicken or turkey.
- 1 cup torn pieces of day-old country style bread, crusts removed or whole-wheat bread crumbs, or 1 cup cold cooked rice or potatoes
- ½ cup milk or cream
- 1 small onion, peeled, and minced, about ¼ cup (in season add chopped green pepper; if you like substitute spring onions or shallots or the white part of leeks chopped for the onion)
- 5 tablespoons olive oil (or butter if you like), divided
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and pounded to a paste with a pinch of salt (optional)
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried, crumbled) and/or a few sprigs of fresh marjoram, thyme, rosemary, or mint. If you use lamb, season the meat with ground cumin and coriander.
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- Pinch of cayenne pepper (or substitute allspice or cinnamon)
- 1 large egg lightly beaten
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan or feta cheese (optional)
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 cup chicken, beef, or vegetable stock, or water
- 1 cup cream or half-and-half (optional)
- Soak the bread crumbs in milk until all of the milk is absorbed, about 5 minutes. (You can substitute cold cooked rice or potatoes for the bread—but you will not have to soak the rice or potatoes in milk.) Squeeze most of the milk out of the bread and set the bread aside in a large glass or stainless steel mixing bowl.
- Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil or butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium to medium-high heat and cook onion stirring until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
- In the large mixing bowl, mix well the cooked onion, 3 pounds meat, the milk-soaked bread crumbs (or cold cooked rice or potatoes), egg, garlic, cheese, parsley, salt, pepper, and herbs or spices; use a wooden spoon or your fingers. Loosely shape—don’t knead–the mixture into 1-inch-round balls.
- In the same skillet, over medium-high heat add 3 more tablespoons olive oil then cook the meatballs a few at a time turning them with a spoon until well browned on all sides.( To make sure the heat and your mix and seasonings are just as you like, cook up just one meatball in advance and adjust the seasoning as needed. If the meatball seems dry add a little milk.)
- As the meatballs brown, remove them to a large bowl with a slotted spoon. Adjust the heat so that the fat does not burn. When all meatballs are browned, pour off all but 2 tablespoons drippings from skillet. (To check if the meatballs are indeed cooked through, insert an instant-read thermometer in to the center of a meatball; it should read 160°F.)
- Baking alternative: If you prefer, you can bake the meatballs—cooking them all at once–in a 450°F oven; place meatballs on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until just cooked through, about 6 minutes. (You can stretch out the baking time by setting the oven at 375°F, and bake 20 to 30 minutes.)
- Remove the meatballs to a platter and cover to keep warm until the sauce is ready.
- Creamy Sauce: Prepare the sauce in the skillet or better yet a separate pan. To prepare the sauce, use about two tablespoons of fat from the skillet or baking pan and add 1 tablespoon of flour; stir the flour and fat over medium-high heat for about 1 minute, stirring as it cooks. Add 1 cup of chicken, beef, or vegetable stock or water and cook on, stirring, until the liquid is reduced by half, about 10 minutes or a tad longer. Stir in the cream and reduce the heat to medium-low; cook, stirring until the sauce thickens and is smooth and golden brown.
- Cooked mushrooms can be added to the sauce: Before beginning the sauce, cook sliced mushrooms in the meatballs drippings over medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Then mix them in the finished sauce.
- Tomato Sauce: In the summer try a garden-fresh tomato sauce, in place of the creamy sauce: Prepare the tomato sauce in a separate pan. Pour in a dash or two of olive oil, add 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced, add a small bunch of basil (or other oregano or thyme) finely chopped, add 1½ pounds of plum tomatoes (about 10 plum tomatoes)—skin removed and cored, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper; bring to simmer; break up tomatoes with a spoon and add a swish of balsamic vinegar for sweetness. Let simmer until it tastes great, not long.
Pour the sauce over the meatballs, garnish, and serve.
To serve meatballs as a hors d’oeuvre, make the meatballs smaller and when they come out of the skillet hot roll them in grated Parmesan cheese.