You won’t find this recipe in any of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, but I think it ranks right up there with the Contessa’s meatball recipes (here and here). I adapted it from a recipe given to me by my friend Molly, who is such a good friend that not only did she give me her Italian grandmother’s meatball recipe, but she also introduced me to my husband. What a great friend!
These meatballs cook directly in the sauce, so you will want to choose a lean ground beef or turkey to make them. Also, the sauce has to be hot enough to hold them together for the initial cooking stages, but not so hot that it burns on the bottom of the pot. For that reason, I like to use an enameled pot (like Le Creuset), and stir often and carefully. You can turn the heat down or transfer the whole mess to a slow cooker to finish the cooking, but the initial drop-in has to be hot enough to start the cooking process, even when cold meatballs are dropped in. This recipe makes enough meatballs and sauce for 8-10 large portions, so I often freeze some for friends or for dinner on another night. We serve it with pasta, but you could make a really tasty meatball sub from these, too. The ingredient list is simple and short – it’s so basic, that you might wonder if you’re forgetting something. That is the beauty of this meal – it is so simple, and so delicious. We hadn’t eaten it for a while, and when my husband dug in, he sighed and said it was like meeting an old, beloved friend.
One head garlic, peeled and divided
100 oz. tomato sauce
2 c freshly grated parmesan cheese, divided
2 lbs. ground beef (we use grass fed)
3/4 c bread crumbs
2 extra large eggs
Separate head of garlic into cloves, peel, and mince.
This photo shows an easy way to peel garlic. Put all of the cloves into one metal bowl, and cover it with another metal bowl of similar or slightly smaller size. Shake the dickens out of it. The peels will naturally separate from the individual cloves of garlic.
Gently heat the tomato sauce over medium low heat, stirring often. Add 2-3 minced cloves of garlic, salt, and freshly ground pepper to the sauce, and continue to stir. If you like a little kick, crushed red pepper flakes would be good here.
While the tomato sauce heats, combine the remaining minced garlic, ground beef, eggs, bread crumbs, 1 cup of the parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. It works best to use clean hands for this – and remove any rings before digging in.
As the sauce begins to simmer, form the meat mixture into meatballs about 1″ in diameter. Gently drop them into the simmering sauce, stirring gently. Increase the heat slightly if the sauce stops simmering. Once the meatballs are in the sauce, add the fresh basil (julienned or torn roughly) and cook for about 1.5 hours, or longer, on low. Before serving, add the remaining parmesan cheese to the sauce, and serve with additional parmesan.
I like to transfer everything to a slow cooker once the meatballs are in the sauce, because then I don’t have to worry about keeping the heat on high enough without burning the sauce. Besides, a slow-cooked sauce all afternoon makes the house smell amazing.
Molly used to add a boneless, skinless chicken breast to the mix, too, for flavor. Somehow I ended up omitting that step over the years, but if you like a really tender, tomato-y chicken breast, then by all means, add that, too! It can be added at the same time that the raw meatballs are added to the sauce.