Not Your Average Meatballs

I am not a meatball person – my only meatball memories involve burned meatballs mixed with Franco American Spaghetti, and I am not a great fan of Italian sausage, either.  But one of my children requested spaghetti and meatballs and so I decided to see if I could find a good recipe.  This recipe is based on one I found on Epicurious, but I made a lot of changes – the key ingredient in that recipe is lemon zest.  The zest with the fresh bread crumbs provides an echo of veal scallopine that is just wonderful.  I will try them with a home-made sauce eventually, but this version reflects how I actually served them.

Serves 6-8 if you serve in sauce with spaghetti, but they would make a lovely appetizer on their own.  If you have a smaller group, you can reserve and freeze some of the cooked meatballs for later use.

  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 ½  cups fresh, plain bread crumbs
  • 3 Tablespoons whole milk
  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • ½ cup grated Pecorino Romano
  • ¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon dried, crumbled organic oregano
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
  • 3 pounds 90% lean ground beef
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive  oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

If you are going to put them in sauce from a jar, you will ened 2-3 32 ounce jars of pasta sauce (I used Classico Tomato and Basil).

Cook onions in the 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Remove to a large bowl to cool.

Dampen the bread crumbs with the milk, making sure they hold together a little but do not become mushy; the milk should be absorbed completely.

Gently together the cooled onion mixture with the bread crumbs, eggs, cheeses, parsley, oregano, lemon zest, salt and pepper until just combined. Add the ground beef to bread mixture, gently mixing with your hands until just combined – avoid the temptation to squish it all like a meatloaf – there should be pockets of crumbs and meat.

Form mixture into about 45 (1 1/2-inch) balls, arranging meatballs on a half sheet or large baking pan(s) lined them with tin foil (for easier cleanup).

Heat olive or vegetable oil (1 cup) in a 12-inch heavy skillet (preferably Le Creuset or another enameled cast iron skillet) over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking, then brown meatballs in 4 or 5 batches (without crowding), turning often, about 5 minutes per batch. Return to baking sheet(s) that have had the tin foil replaced and been lined with paper towels.

While you are cooking the meatballs, warm the pasta sauce in another pot on the stove.

Once they have drained a bit, add meatballs to sauce and gently simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes.  Prepare the pasta and serve with the meatballs in sauce with grated Pecorino Romano on the side.