October 1, 2010

Rainy Day Meatballs

Okay, so I haven't posted for almost two months. I didn't think I was going to take the summer off, but it just kind of happened. My family was here from Thailand. We went on a bike trip. The Soccer Monster started middle school in Manhattan (and joined his third—count 'em, three—soccer team), which meant adjusting to 6:30 am mornings. (Those of you who know me well will know how hard this was for me.)

But now I'm back. And playing around with my photos. This is the polaroid look. Do you like it?

And cooking. Trying to do lots of cooking, though as the kids get older and their days get busier, it gets harder. But I'm tryin'.

It's rainy and gray here today—has been all week. One of my favorite things to make on a drizzly, wet, stay-at-home-all-day day is meatballs in tomato sauce. This dish is a real example of how my neighborhood has changed me. Before I moved to this Italian-American neighborhood, it would never have occurred to me to make meatballs. It wasn't something I ate when I lived in Italy. I didn't even like them that much.

But then one day I tasted my friend Emma's meatballs. She's an old-school Italian-American gal and a mean cook. Her meatballs hooked me. And besides, the soccer monster likes them and will eat a lot of them. And whatever that scrawny bag of bones will eat a lot of gets made often in this house.

When I first set out to make meatballs, I went for the complex everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. Tons of stuff went into them. Parsley. Ricotta Cheese. Fresh Garlic. Diced pancetta or bacon. But I soon gave up that approach because
a) It was too complicated and usually required two trips to the store. (The second trip was to pick up what I forgot the first trip.)
b) The kids didn't like the fancy meatballs so much. (This was back when the Vegetarian wasn't a vegetarian yet.) They didn't like the parsley, or the bite of the fresh garlic, etc, etc.

And while I hate to cater to annoying kids with unsophisticated tastes, this is, of course, exactly what I do most nights. And besides, I am a lazy busy cook, and those complex meatballs were killing me. After mixing up all those ingredients, I fried the meatballs on the stove and then carefully placed them in a pot of made-from-scratch tomato sauce. I'm not saying those meatballs weren't good, but were they worth it, in the time vs. outcome sense? Not to me, anyway.

So behold, my rainy day meatballs. Simple ingredients, simple process. Though they do require several hours in a hot oven, there's very little hands-on time. It will take you longer to read this recipe than it will to make it.

Honestly, they couldn't be easier.

Rainy Day Meatballs

2 pounds ground meat (I like a beef, pork, veal combo best, but you can use anything you like. I've never tried it with turkey or chicken, but they should work, though they might be a little dry. This def works best with meat that has some fat in it, like ground chuck.)
2 slices bread (white or whole wheat, supermarket sliced or artisan—doesn't really matter)
1 cup milk
1 egg
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder (optional)
1 tsp fish sauce (optional)
1/2 tsp dried oregano (optional)
1/2 tsp dried basil (optional)
salt and pepper
olive oil 
crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
one 28-oz can crushed tomatoes or one box pomi strained or chopped tomatoes or similar amount of tomato sauce or other tomato product

Preheat oven to 400.
Crumble the bread into a bowl and pour milk over it. Let it sit until bread is completely soaked and can be crumbled into a paste with the milk.
Add the ground meat, egg, cheese, garlic powder, onion powder (if using), fish sauce (if using—I add fish sauce to a lot of tomato-based things; it adds some extra umami punch.), oregano, basil,  and salt and pepper. Season very liberally. Taste mixture and adjust seasonings as necessary. (If you're wimpy about tasting a raw ground meat mixture you can fry a mini meatball up in a pan, but I am too lazy busy to bother with such things. I've been tasting raw ground beef mixtures for years now and I'm still here, but hey, we all make our own choices.)
Liberally oil a shallow saute pan or a casserole pan with a lid. Make golf-ball sized meatballs with the meat mixture (or any size meatballs you want, really) and place in the oiled pan.
Place pan, uncovered, into hot oven and cook until meatballs are fairly brown, about 45 minutes.
Take pan out and carefully pour tomatoes over and around meatballs. Season tomatoes liberally with salt and/or crushed red pepper and/or some fish sauce. Carefully try to mix the seasonings in, but don't worry too much if you don't do a good job of it.
Cover the pan and put back into the oven. Reduce oven temperature to 375 and cook for about an hour. If you want, you can baste meatballs with sauce occasionally during this time, but it's not really necessary.
Take pan out of oven. Mix sauce around and then taste it and adjust seasonings. Uncover pan, put back in the oven, and cook for about a half hour longer, or until sauce is thickened and meatball tops are browned.

Garnish with fresh basil leaves and serve with seeded Italian bread. Or over pasta.

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