photo by Aran Goyoaga, from my cookbook “Eating in the Middle”
Trust me, I’ve had many a meatball in my day. The thing about these ones, though?
They’re the best.
They are as tender as can be. They’re soft centered and spiced with oregano and…mint. You can’t imagine the lovely headiness the mint brings along- it’s bright and fragrant, but in the gentlest, subtlest way. I’d never been able to pinpoint what that lingering flavor was, until a few years ago, when my stepdad, my PJ, shared his recipe with me.
He’s been making these for me and just about everyone we know and love for decades. They’re by far the most requested meal in my [sometimes unbearably] large family. This famous sauce and meatballs is simmered for hours before big events, small events, and perhaps most importantly, times when I come home to Boston for the first time in six months since moving to Seattle and call him from my just-landed plane, barely unbuckled, to let him know that I’ll be needing a meatball or five.
(PJ, that is bound to happen at least twice per year for the rest of your sweet life. I’m only 26. Sister’s got lots more years of coming home, and she’s always hungry for a meatball. Tell mom I’ll be needing a cake, too. Also, tell DeeDee that pugs are sexy, no matter what their size.)
The flavor is without question the best I’ve ever had.
I’ve been to eleven cities in Italy, traveled and tasted extensively through the mommiest and poppiest of Italian eateries here in the United States, and none (nope, none) hold a blessed candle to PJ’s.
There’s just something about letting the beef gently bubble away in such a sweet and garlicky sauce on the stove for half a day…
Something happens to the meatballs when they soak in the sweetness of tomatoes and caramelized onions. They’re moister.
Something happens to the sauce when it absorbs the richness of the beef. The flavor deepens. The sweetness mellows with savory.
Trust me here.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 28oz can crushed or ground, peeled tomatoes
- 1 6 oz can tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 lb ground beef (85% lean)
- 1 egg
- 1/3 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried mint
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- Heat the olive oil in a large stock pot over medium heat. Swirl to coat the bottom of the pan to coat. Add the onion and garlic and saute, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 7 minutes. Lower the heat if they begin to burn. The more color that develops on the onion and garlic, the more flavor they'll add to the finished sauce.
- Once the onions and garlic are tender and caramel in color, add the crushed tomatoes and the tomato paste and stir until the mixture is smooth and well combined.
- Add the remaining sauce ingredients (oregano through pepper), stir, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover the pot, and let cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally so that the bottom does not burn.
- Make the meatballs: Break apart the beef as best you can in a large mixing bowl. Lightly beat the egg in a small bowl and pour evenly over the top of the beef. Add the bread crumbs, oregano, mint, salt, and pepper and use your hands to mix. You do not want to overwork you beef, or it will yield tough meatballs, but you do want to incorporate all of the ingredients into the ground beef so that each meatball will have a bit of the breadcrumbs and herbs and spices.
- Shape the meat mixture into 12 balls, each about 1 ½ inches in diameter. Drop them into the sauce, stir gently so that they're all covered in sauce, and then let them cook, covered, for about 45 minutes to 1 hour over low heat, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Serve over your favorite pasta.
Nutrition Information & Notes:
Nutrition Information for 2 Meatballs and ¾ cup Marinara Sauce: Calories 320, Total Fat 18.3 g, Total Carbohydrate 24.7 g, Dietary Fiber 4.1 g, Sugars 10.1 g, Protein 16.9 g