If you’re a busy parent trying to come up with new ideas for quick but healthy dinners, then say hello to the meatball. It’s your new best friend.
When I was growing up in Oklahoma, any mention of the word “meatball” instantly brought to mind a big plate of steaming spaghetti topped with meatballs in a tomato sauce. It was, and still is, a classic loved by parents and kids alike.
However, as my latent foodie began to emerge in my twenties and beyond, I learned that meatballs are a worldwide phenomenon. Every culture has its own version. For example, the Italians have their polpette, the Spanish their albóndigas, and the Greeks their keftédes. Kotleti is a Russian favorite, while kofte and kibbeh are staples in the Middle East. Even the Chinese partake in meatball mania in the form of shize tou, otherwise known as Lion’s head.
Regardless of where they originated, meatball recipes all follow the same basic formula: Combine one or more types of ground meat (beef, lamb, chicken, or pork) with a filler (bread soaked in milk, bread crumbs, rice, cracked wheat), a binder (usually egg), and some flavorings (salt and pepper, onion, tomato paste, herbs, spices). Form the mixture into balls or small patties and then fry, bake, or simmer in a sauce. If simmered, serve with the cooking sauce. If fried or baked, serve with a sauce on the side.
So, what does this mean for a busy parent in the culinary melting point that is the United States? It means that once you master the basic meatball-making technique, you’re free to mix things up as much or as little as you want. For example, if you find the sunny warmth of the Greek Isles more appealing than the bitter cold that may be afflicting you right now, then imagine you’re there by making meatballs with ground lamb and rice seasoned with mint, oregano, and parsley and served with a yogurt-tomato sauce. Alternatively, if you’re interested in surprising your taste buds with more exotic fare, make them as they do in the Middle East with ground beef, bulgur (cracked wheat), onion, parsley, cinnamon, allspice, and cumin.
In today’s post, I’m channeling my childhood memories of that Italian-American classic, spaghetti and meatballs. It’s perfect for kids, and amazingly easy to make to boot. To start, onion is chopped into very small pieces (I use a mini-food processor) and then combined with bread crumbs (homemade if possible) and the Italian seasonings of garlic, herb salt, pepper, and dried basil. Next, ground beef, an egg, and some tomato paste are mixed in, and then the resulting mixture is shaped into 1-inch meatballs. The meatballs are sautéed in some olive oil to give them a nice crust and help them to hold their shape, and then they’re simmered in marinara sauce for about 20 minutes.
As one of my favorite television chefs, Lidia Bastianich, likes to say at the end of her cooking shows, Tutti a tavola a mangiare! (Everyone to the table to eat!)
Spaghetti and Meatballs
1 pound lean ground beef
½ cup breadcrumbs (preferably homemade like those here)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (or put through a garlic press)
½ teaspoon herb salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 – 6 cups marinara sauce (either homemade like the one here or from a jar)
1. Make the meatballs: Combine the breadcrumbs, chopped onion, chopped garlic, herb salt, pepper, and basil in a large bowl. Using your hands, mix in the ground beef, tomato paste, and egg until the ingredients are evenly blended. Form the mixture into 1-inch meatballs (between 16 – 18 in total).
2. Place the marinara in a large saucepan over medium heat. While the marinara is heating, warm the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add half of the meatballs to the skillet, turning occasionally until they are brown on all sides, about 15 minutes. Transfer the browned meatballs to the pan of marinara sauce. Repeat with the remaining meatballs.
3. After all of the meatballs have been browned and transferred to the marinara sauce, bring the sauce to a simmer and then cook for 20 minutes or until the meatballs are cooked through. Serve with the cooked spaghetti.
Make Ahead: The meatballs can be made ahead through step 1 and stored in the refrigerator overnight. Alternatively, you can form the meatballs, place them on a sheet pan covered with nonstick foil, and then bake in a 400°F preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until they are cooked through (cut through one to test that it is done). When you’re ready to serve, simply add them to a saucepan with the marinara sauce and simmer for 15-20 minutes.
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