After a rather hectic week, the weekend should be a relaxing affair with good friends, good food & a few good rays of sunshine! Last week was no exception & seeing as my Husband was working over the weekend, it was nice to cook a simple Sunday dinner of rush-free, rustic fayre instead of a roast. Sundays are perfect for making slow-cooked, sumptuous food & one of the best ways to get the whole family involved is a recipe that you can all make together.
Meatballs are perfect for this kind of lazy day & my Meatballs Casalinga (Polpette alla Casalinga) recipe is one I’ve been making for a long time, sharing various versions over the years with friends & family. I’ve also made them in some unusual places (at the side of a riverbank while fishing & cooking them on a barbeque, next to foil-wrapped trout). This recipe first began over thirty seven years ago when I was at school & evolved into the one I make today. It is something I suspect would be considered as “cucina povera”, as it is quite a hearty dish made from a few simple ingredients, doesn’t cost much to make & will feed quite a few people easily! They freeze well too & are great on baguettes for lunches (that’s if there are any leftovers – good luck with that!).
What I love most about making meatballs is they are really easy, you can’t mess up the recipe (there are three ingredients) & everyone can get involved. When my guys are all home, we enjoy cooking together & it’s a nice chance to catch up on each other’s news while we’re standing around the mixing bowl, making meatballs & usually a mess (it also means they are done in less time than it would take me to make them on my own). Because they are baked, it means you only have the pasta & sauce pans to watch too.
Sometimes I’ll use dried spaghetti as a swirly, silky cushion of plump pasta for the meatballs to sit on & sometimes I’ll make my own fresh (making your own pasta can be addictive, so be warned!). Fresh pasta takes five minutes to knead & then needs half an hour to rest in the fridge, before rolling & cutting into shapes. Before you start to panic about making your own pasta, it’s really easy & I’ve written a whole blog on this – here’s the link: https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/pasta-parcels/ . Pasta machines have their own spaghetti cutters that slot into place at the front of the roller, so all the cutting is done for you at the turn of a handle! Any extra pasta can be dried & stored for future use. Even if you don’t have a pasta machine, you can roll it out thinly & cut into strips – make your own tagliatelle or papparadelle ribbons! Get creative with your pasta & make whatever shapes you prefer.
Now while the pasta is being prepped & before the balling begins, I like to start making a rich, jammy tomato sauce & I’ve usually got a huge pan of this blipping away in the background. Forget shop-bought jars of sauce with unpronounceable ingredients, unless you are using a jar of Passata (sieved tomatoes), then this one will sort you out & it won’t take long to make. It is probably one of the most versatile sauces you will ever make & goes with pretty much everything! Although this isn’t our family recipe, it’s a close one & tastes just as jammy. Here we go!
What you need for the Sauce:
4 tins of Italian Plum Tomatoes
Half a bulb of fresh Garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of Tomato Puree
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Basil (fresh or dried)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Pinch of Sea Salt
2 teaspoons of Sugar
What to do:
Into a large saucepan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil & add the garlic. Gently fry for a few seconds, then slowly add the tomatoes & their juice, giving them a good stir around & breaking up any large pieces (or you can just squish them in your hands before you put them in the pan).
Add the tomato puree, the sugar & seasoning to taste (you won’t need much salt, so just a pinch will do). Add a couple of teaspoons of dried Basil (or rip up about half a dozen leaves of fresh & chuck them in, don’t worry about chopping). Give everything a good stir & reduce to a very gentle simmer for about 20-25 minutes with a lid half on, stirring occasionally.
Once cooked, the sauce should have thickened & reduced slightly, so give it a stir & a quick taste. Adjust the seasoning if you need to, taste again & when you’re happy turn off the heat & set aside, lid half on the pan (you don’t want the steam to add any more moisture to your sauce). It should stay warm, but you can reheat it gently if you feel it needs it.
Time to get rolling the meatballs, so hands washed & aprons on!
What you need for the Meatballs:
500g Minced Beef (don’t go too lean, as a little fat will add flavour)
(traditionally you would use half Beef, half Pork, so use what meat you prefer)
1 large Onion (Red or Brown is fine), chopped finely or minced
6 slices Bread, whizzed into fine breadcrumbs
3oz Plain Flour
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
What to do:
Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.
In a shallow bowl (or casserole dish lid), tip the flour & spread it around the dish.
Grab a large plate & dust with flour – this is where your prepared meatballs will rest until you’re ready to cook them.
In a separate large mixing bowl, add the mince, breadcrumbs & onion. If you’re wondering why I’m not adding any seasoning to them, it’s because there’s plenty in the sauce.
Get your hands in & squish everything together. This is not a time to be squeamish & it will be cold, but you want to mix everything evenly into a huge ball of meat dough. You may want to wash your hands again now, before the next stage.
Dust your hands in a little flour & scoop some of the meatball mixture up, about the size of a walnut. Give it a roll in your hands, gently pressing the mixture together as you do so – don’t compact it though, otherwise you’ll end up with a tough meatball that won’t cook & will resemble a large marble!
Once you’re happy with your meatball shape, roll it in the flour dish then pick it up, give it a shake to remove excess flour & place on the plate you prepared earlier. Repeat until all the mixture has been turned into meatballs & your plate is full.
In a large skillet or frying pan, heat a tablespoon of the olive oil. Add a few meatballs at a time to the hot pan & roll around to coat them in the oil. Brown for a few moments, about 30 seconds or so, moving them around so they don’t sit for too long (you want an even colouring). Transfer to a ovenproof dish (a lasagne dish will do) & repeat until you have browned all the meatballs.
Place the dish in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, gently turning halfway (give them a little shake, but watch out for oil splashing). Don’t worry too much about the fat, as it will render out during cooking into the bottom of the dish & leave your meatballs lovely & tender.
While your meatballs are baking nicely, towards the end of cooking them you should get your pasta going. If it’s dried pasta, check the cooking times on the packet.
If you’re cooking fresh pasta, it takes about 2-3 minutes tops. Get a large pan, boil the kettle & fill halfway up with boiling water. Add a teaspoon of Sea Salt & bring to the boil. Carefully add your pasta to the water & bring back to a rolling boil (that’s when the water rolls over from the edge of the pan to the centre).
Once cooked, drain your spaghetti & serve immediately (pasta waits for no-one!), swirling into silky spoonfuls on pasta plates or bowls.
Add several meatballs – they are filling, so I would say about 8-10 is a good amount (you can always go back for seconds).
Spoon over a generous drenching of the tomato sauce, coating the meatballs & serve immediately! If you like, dust with a little freshly grated Parmesan – leave a little dish on the table with a spoon for people to help themselves. Or you could use a speed peeler to add a few strips of Parmesan on top instead, it’s your choice.
Leftover meatballs & sauce will keep too – freeze the meatballs in a little sauce, either in bags or plastic tubs. Pour any leftover sauce into sterilised jars when cooled & store it in the fridge. You can use it for pizza, lasagne, pasta or just for dipping veg in (I like it on my chips). It’s great on burgers too!
One thing I would recommend is don’t wear a white shirt while swirling sauce-laden spaghetti! If you do get tomato sauce on your clothes, try this little tip I learned: add a spot of neat washing up liquid (any brand works, although Lemon seems to be best) & chuck the shirt in the wash. If you do it straightaway, it should come out fine. This works on red wine too (you’re welcome!).
So next time you fancy a lazy lunch with the family, try something different & have a ball! Stay hungry 😉 A x