Simmered Meatballs

One of my mother’s signature recipes was her spaghetti and meatballs. After I got married and started my own family, I never could seem to replicate their flavor and melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. One day, I happened to stop by for a visit while she was making them, and I learned her method. I’ve never done it any differently since, and it never disappoints.

Many meatball recipes call for roasting or browning the balls before adding them to the sauce. My mother’s method involved, rather, simmering the meatballs in the sauce, which resulted in her kitchen smelling like an Italian restaurant. There is no specific recipe for the balls themselves, and you can use any combination of meats: all ground beef, ground beef and ground pork or ground turkey, or any blend of your choice along with bread or cracker crumbs. I haven’t made them yet with panko crumbs, but I suspect they’d work well. My mother and I loved garlic, so it went both into the sauce AND the meatballs, along with finally chopped onions, salt and pepper. Later, as I expanded my own cooking repertoire, I added oregano and basil to the sauce. But my mother never did, and her version was still superb.

This method of slow-simmering the balls works best if you’re making a big batch of sauce, and it helps if it’s loose and not thick like some jarred sauces. My mother used canned tomato sauce and tomato paste with equal amounts of water, and I have sometimes used pureed tomatoes as well. Get the meatballs ready, and once the sauce has been assembled and is simmering, drop them in gently, making sure they’re completely covered in sauce. Then, just let them cook slowly over low heat, giving them an occasional stir so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan, until the internal temperature of the meat registers at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. My mother never checked the temperature, as her meatballs spent the better part of a day cooking on the back of her oil range, so it was safe to say they were well done and cooked through.

You can make the meatballs any size you like, keeping in mind that the larger they are, the longer they’ll take to cook. My mother always made hers small–about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. But I like to make big meatballs that measure closer to 3 to 4 inches in diameter. No matter how big you decide to make them, they freeze well with some of the sauce and can be reheated in a pan over low heat. Of course, if you like the caramelized flavor of seared meatballs, you CAN brown them in a skillet or in the oven before adding them to the sauce. But this method eliminates that step and produces a meal that you won’t soon forget.

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