denise’s holiday meatballs and sauce


while not a particularly intense recipe so far as difficulty goes, these meatballs are absolutely a labor of love (and time). if you’re making these for holiday dinner, or, just for a good old-fashioned early sunday supper, shop the day or two before and be ready to start touching raw meat at approximately 6am. this is a straight-from-italy grandma recipe given to me by my friend denise in 2009; sadly, she’s passed away since. it was one of those “I can tell you, but if you tell anybody I might have to kill you” kinds of moments when she saw that I was taking notes, so please, pass this one on with discretion!

one important note on the shopping front: lots of recipes have enough give to substitute generic ingredients, store brands, etc. — but not this one. splurge on quality ingredients, brand names, and/or go all out at your local specialty store.

shopping list:

1 lb. ground italian sausage, ground pork if you must
3 lb. ground beef
italian breadcrumbs (the canister kind is fine)
fresh parmesan cheese (same consistency as, but not, the canister kind — you’ll need to pick this up at a deli)
parsley (one bunch, fresh)
garlic (several heads, fresh)
basil (fresh)
2 cans (35 0z.) plum peeled tomatoes
4 cans (littles) tomato paste
a few boxes of rigatoni
salt and pepper

measurements / details / process:

meatballs first. combine the sausage / pork with the beef, breadcrumbs, 3/4 cup of parm, 3 eggs, a handful of fine-chopped (not torn) parsley, 8 cloves of finely minced garlic, a healthy dash of salt and pepper, and 1/2 cup of hot water in a big-ass bowl. with your hands. (it’s super gross and makes terrible sounds.) remember that eggs can toughen up a recipe when they’re overmixed, so combine these well, but don’t overdo it.

the only shortcut I’ve been able to get away with at this stage is to run the parsley and garlic through a food processor, which saves some time, but if you want to do it The Right Way, do it by hand.

roll this concoction into a small mountain of meatballs — not too big, not too small; I’d say about ping-pong ball size — and get a deep, awesome pot (with a lid) going on the stove. brown (don’t burn) 4-5 smashed (not chopped, not minced) cloves of garlic in the bottom of the pot in some olive oil, and proceed to brown (not cook) the meatballs by rolling them around in this wonderful sludge. as the meatballs get browned, pile them up on a plate and keep them covered with tin foil.

once the meatballs are done, drain out the grease out, but leave the garlic in and the ‘fond’ (all the stuff that’s cooked to the bottom of the pot) unscraped. return to a low heat, and add all of your canned tomato products. combine these, and using a wooden utensil, scrape the bottom of the pan so everything gets into the tomato mixture. at this point, you’ll also want to smash the plum tomatoes against the side of the pot, you’ll still have a chunky-ish sauce but you don’t want any whole tomatoes left when you’ve finished. let this hang out for a bit, maybe while you clean up the kitchen, so the flavors can start to ‘marry’.

add four small paste cans worth of water, and a big handful of parsley and some basil — torn, not chopped. apparently this makes a difference! cover and cook on low for two hours. then, add the meatballs. they will have cooled off by now, so you’ll have to bump the temperature up on the sauce a bit to warm it all back up. once it’s going good, turn it back down to low and cook, covered, for another two hours. (I wasn’t kidding about getting up early!)


zero. serve with al dente rigatoni and a nice loaf of italian bread, if you have some. note that if you store pasta, store it with some sauce mixed in — also, everything tends to taste better the second day, so be ready for another round of carb loading the next night!