In times of crisis, I find great comfort in retreating to the kitchen, busying myself with time consuming yet simple tasks. There is something to be said about focusing all of your attention to the task at hand, and sinking your concentrated efforts on something as simple as making meatballs. A most uncomplicated task, but a time consuming one nonetheless. Where there is chaos is when we most seek calm, and the kitchen really is the perfect place for that. Unless you live in a house full of chefs. Then it might just be chaos. But, luckily (or not), most of us can escape with relative ease to the one room in the house that always demands our attention, with its ever present to-do list of cooking, cleaning, dish washing and rearranging of cupboard space (be it in the fridge or the cabinets).
On some days the idea of doing anything in the kitchen positively annoys me, but when life gets crazy, I need a spot to unwind and “pull the plug” so to speak. The kitchen is that spot for me, at least until I can get myself a private jet, and enough funds to run off to the islands whenever I feel like crawling under the bed covers and drinking a bottle of wine.
All craziness aside, it was just another ordinary Sunday, with lesser than ordinary weather. A gloomy sky and brisk wind kept me indoors, and the pressures of life begged for me to do something to make the time pass without making it feel like I wasted a precious weekend day. In moments like that, I turn to age old recipes, and ones that yield comfort food at its finest. Most anything with ground beef will do…I had at my disposal a package of what my butcher calls meatloaf mix, which is an even split of ground veal, beef and pork. Could I make a classic Bolognese? Of course. A meatloaf? Well, obviously. Shepherd’s Pie? Hmmm… I needed to keep my mind de-stressed, so I resorted to meatballs.
There is something wonderfully relaxing about cooking without a recipe, and meatballs really fit the bill. Much like meatloaf, these adapt nicely to whatever add-ins you have on hand. You can get creative with spices and seasonings, use bread crumbs (or not), maybe some panko crumbs, add a little cheese, or some freshly grated veggies.
While I didn’t need a recipe, I felt the need to consult one anyways. Since I was already neurotic and stressed out, it seemed appropriately type A to make sure I knew what I was doing by first consulting an authoritative source on meatball making. So, I turned to Anna Del Conte’s books. Nearly all of them, actually. And I looked up “polpette”, which Anna says is Italian for meatballs.
Anna’s advice is simple – mix your meat with few ingredients, and have a really good home made tomato sauce to serve them with, and you won’t go wrong. While I already knew this, at that moment in time I needed Anna’s authoritative voice to remind me that I was doing the right thing.
And so I got started. First, a glass of wine. Then, some soft music. Plenty of lighting, no recipe books, the sound of rain hitting the roof in the background, and an urgent need to calm myself down by rolling small balls of meat, over and over again, until I was completely zen in my kitchen. And it worked.
I didn’t use a recipe, and everything turned out wonderfully, which tells me that meatballs are the sort of cooking that is very forgiving on the cook. I chose to bake my meatballs in the oven instead of pan frying them to save on cleaning up a big messy stove top splatter. Definitely a good move on my part. While I can cook for hours when I’m stressed out, cleaning for hours doesn’t seem to have the same effect on me. Had I made the meatballs from ground turkey or chicken, I would have skipped the pre-cooking of the meatballs altogether and would have simply dropped them in the simmering sauce to cook gently. But, since I was using a mixture with a bit of fat in it, I wanted to cook the meatballs first to allow for most of the fat to drain off before saucing them up.
In this instance, simple is best. Though if you get into the habit of making meatballs regularly (hey, I don’t know how crazy your life is), then by all means, switch it up and get bold with your ingredient additions. Either way, serving a plate of these says I love you to the ones you love, and most importantly, to yourself too.
Think of this recipe as a blueprint only. The ingredients can be modified to suit your tastes. Dried herbs are completely optional, and feel free to add different ones if you like. I also enjoy this sauce with rosemary. You can also improvise with the meatballs - you could add some bread crumbs or seasonings such as dried herbs and spices. You could omit the garlic if need be. The cook time is flexible too. This is the sort of sauce that could simmer very gently on the stove top for a few hours. Or, you could even place the pot of sauce in the oven at 300F for a few hours, for some hands free cooking. This won rave reviews from my family.
- For the Meatballs:
- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds ground meat of your choice (I like ground beef, or a mixture of beef, veal and pork)
- 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- For the Marinara Sauce:
- 2 tbsp olive oil or vegetable oil
- 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 2 28 oz cans of diced tomatoes
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground meat, garlic and cheese. Mix well, and start to roll the mixture into small balls, each about an inch in diameter. You can make these smaller or larger if you wish.
- Place each meatball on the baking sheet, ensuring the meatballs are evenly spaced and not touching each other.
- Bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.
- Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat.
- Add the celery and onion, and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the vegetables have softened but not browned.
- Add the garlic and cook 2 to 3 minutes longer, until the garlic becomes fragrant.
- Add the canned tomatoes, and stir gently.
- Add the basil, oregano, sugar, salt and pepper.
- Bring the sauce to a bubble, then lower the heat and let simmer for at least 25 minutes, and up to 1 hour or so.
- Add the cooled meatballs to the sauce, and continue to simmer for another 20 minutes.
- Serve with your favourite cooked pasta.