Very few foods seamlessly cross cultures, but meatballs are one of them. They can run the gamut from Lebanese kibbe, Syrian kafta, Japanese tsukune and Greek kephtedes to Vietnamese nem nuong. Granted, you may not be familiar with many of them, but I’m pretty sure you’ve tasted an Italian meatball or two in your lifetime. For this recipe Toronto-born and San Francisco-based Chef Christophe Hille raises the bar with his Italian Meatballs with Tomato & White Wine Braise.
They’re familiar and, most importantly, they taste good—which ultimately translates into a food that never goes out of style. What varies are the other ingredients and how the meatballs are cooked—braised, sautéed, roasted, grilled, boiled or fried. In its most basic form, a meatball starts out with ground meat—pork, beef, veal, lamb or a combination thereof. For binding, a starch, usually bread or breadcrumbs (sometimes potato starch or rice) gets mixed in. Eggs or other liquid contribute moisture; while herbs, spices and cheese add flavor. Here, prosciutto scraps impart a deep flavor.
FYI, contrary to popular belief, in Italy you won’t likely find a dish on the menu called spaghetti and meatballs. While it’s largely known as an Italian dish, spaghetti and meatballs actually didn’t originate there. Sure, Italy has their own version of meatballs called polpettes, but they’re different than what you’ve likely had in the past and are primarily eaten sans spaghetti.
Frugal folk have always made use of the little scraps of meat that were left over from butchering, but weren’t big enough to serve on their own—but could be chopped and extended with a bit of day-old bread. The range of variations they’ve concocted could, and probably should, keep us in meatballs for a lifetime. But we’re talking just one meal (with probable leftovers) with this recipe.
Since it takes up most of the afternoon to prep and braise, it’s best to make when you have a block of time, most likely a weekend. For us, it was a recent blustery Sunday. We found the recipe in an old copy of the San Francisco Chronicle insert “In the Kitchen,” gifted to us from our brother-in-law who resides in the Bay Area on the “Left” coast. Simply put, these meatballs were fantastic—a definite two thumbs up!
It’s not likely you’ll be able to purchase packages of ground meat in exactly 10-ounce portions. So do what I did and measure 10 ounces each of the pork and beef, mixing any leftover together and make patties out of them. Then vacuum-seal and put them in the freezer until it’s grilling weather.
Following the original directions, we tried to brown the meatballs in a roasting pan in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes. Even after adding 6 more minutes, they weren’t very browned, as shown below.
The original directions have you roast the meatballs in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes. Next time, we’re skipping that step and will only use one large dutch oven. We’ll brown the meatballs in it first, remove them and make the sauce, scraping up any precious browned bits. Then add the meatballs back into the pot and put in the oven for 2 1/2 hours. We thought it a waste of time to try and brown the meatballs in a separate roasting pan. In fact, I added an extra six minutes in the oven and they still weren’t very browned! Saves you from cleaning an additional pan too. The directions below reflect this time-saver.
Italian Meatballs with Tomato & White-Wine Braise
- 10 oz lean ground pork
- 10 oz lean ground beef
- 1/4 lb prosciutto, finely chopped in food processor
- 3 oz parmesan cheese, freshly grated
- 1 finely chopped small onion
- 1 minced clove garlic
- 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1-1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1/2 lb Italian bread, crusts cut off and discarded, bread processed into crumbs
- 6 oz ricotta cheese (about 2/3 cup)
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- Oil for greasing pan
- 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 chopped onion
- 1chopped carrot
- 1 bay leaf
- 3/4 cup dry Italian white wine
- 4 cups puréed, canned tomatoes
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 2 Tbsp coarsely chopped basil
- 2 Tbsp finely chopped oregano leaves
- 1 tsp granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
- For meatballs, add beef, pork and ground prosciutto to large mixing bowl.
- Add oregano, salt, fennel and red pepper flakes to bowl.
- Stir in onion, garlic, parsley and Parmesan cheese. Use hands to mix.
- Chop bread into fine crumbs in food processor.
- Add bread crumbs, ricotta and milk to bowl. Add the eggs, stirring until barely incorporated. Using hands, mix until ingredients are blended. (Do not overwork.)
- Roll into 1-1/2-inch meatballs. (Makes about 40-45.) Place meatballs in large dutch oven to lightly brown, turning as needed to brown on all sides. Remove to bowl and cover.
- Preheat oven to 300F. Meanwhile, for braising liquid, heat oil in braising pot on medium heat. Add onion, carrot and bay leaf. Cook until carrot is softened, about 6 minutes.
- Stir in wine, scraping bottom of pan. Stir in tomatoes, stock, basil, oregano, sugar, salt and pepper.
- Turn to medium-high and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 5 minutes.
- Pour tomato mixture over meatballs. Cover pot tightly and bake for 2-1/2 hours.
- Let sit 10 minutes before serving. Discard bay leaf.
- Serve over cooked pasta of choice.
This great bag of pasta shapes was part of a gift box from friends Barb and Brad.
We served ours over garlic lumaconi pasta with a side salad and grated Parmesan cheese.