Friday, December 31, 2010

Play Ball

Meatball pure and simple
Italian food, South Philadelphia style is my kind of soul food, as I grew up in and around Philly and its Western suburbs.  When I was a kid, dinners in a "down town" Italian restaurant meant only one thing and everyone knew it;  South Philadelphia.  Waitresses with big hair who called you "hon",  who had very little patience but a big sense of humor were the norm and you could always count on the bread and the meatballs.  The bread was always impeccably fresh, crusty, studded with sesame seeds and most likely from the bakery next door. The meatballs were over sized, tender, garlicky, and swimming in gravy (the South Philly term for red sauce).
Sundays in our house usually involved a huge pot of sauce with my mom's amazing South Philly style meatballs, sausage, and often falling off the bone pork which had been simmered for hours in the pot.  Part of what makes this pot of meat and sauce so delicious is that the meatballs are cooked entirely in the sauce which allows all of the flavors to blend together and become one.  None of the the meat jus is lost by pre browning the balls.
I managed to inherit my mother's technique for making these meatballs (thanks for the meatball nirvana, mom).

South Philly Style Meatballs

  • 1 1/2 lbs ground sirloin or combination of beef, pork and veal
  • 4 cloves of garlic, peeled, trimmed and chopped
  • 3 slices good quality Italian bread
  • 1 TBS dried parsley
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup fresh Parmesan cheese
  • salt & black pepper to taste
  • 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped
  • crushed red pepper to taste
  • 1 (28oz) can San Marzano Tomatoes and their juice
  • 1 (28oz) can San Marzano tomato puree
  • 3 Tbs good quality tomato paste
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 fresh bay leaf
simple ingredients
In a large mixing bowl, place the sliced bread, sprinkled with 2 Tbs of garlic, the parsley, and the milk.  Allow this mixture to sit for about 10 - 15 minutes, until the milk is absorbed while you prepare the sauce.

bread, garlic, parsley, milk
Now begin the sauce.  Heat a large pot on medium heat and add olive oil.  Sauté the onions, seasoned with salt, black pepper and crushed red pepper to taste until the onions start to look translucent.

sauté the onions
 Add the tomatoes and their juice, crushing them with your fingers as you add them to the pot.

break up the tomatoes, excuse the hand
 Add the tomato puree, the water and the paste, stirring well to incorporate.
Add salt and pepper to taste, the bay leaf and bring mixture to a lively simmer, stirring often.

Now back to the meatball mixture...

Break up the wet looking milk/bread/garlic mixture with a fork.  Add the eggs and mix together well until everything is combined.

add eggs to the wet bread mixture

 Now add the meat and cheese to the bread/eggs and combine together well, but gently

meatball mixture ready
Form the meat into balls.  I like larger than golf ball sized meatballs, but there are no rules here.  If you prefer small balls, feel free.  I prefer over sized here.  As you roll the meatballs by hand, drop them slowly into the simmering pot of sauce.  I drop them in so that they are still half in and half out of the sauce, so that I can see where there is still space for another ball.  I start on the outside of the pot, making a circular pattern around the exterior of the pot to insure that I can fit the maximum amount of meatballs into the pot.  If you just were to drop the balls into the pot anywhere, you wouldn't remember where the spaces were.  I don't require this type of order in every area of my life, but when it comes to cooking the meatballs, there is order in my court!

12 over sized meatballs dropped in an orderly fashion
meatballs simmering

Cook the meatballs in the simmering sauce, partially covered for about 2 hours, stirring carefully so as not to break up the meatballs, about every 15 minutes.  I have been known to toss some browned spicy Italian sausage and/or some country style pork spare ribs (on the bone) into the pot at this point (totally optional).  As the sauce cooks, use a ladle to skim any extra fat from the surface of the pot.  When the meatballs are firm and cooked through (and the pork is falling apart tender, if used) and the entire house smells delicious, it is time to eat!  One of the best parts of this dish is that it only improves in flavor when eaten the next day making it ideal for larger gatherings.

simmered sauce and meatballs ready
out of total focus, but tasty
Buona Mangiare!

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