Mmmeatballs

There are two things that I always regret ordering at a restaurant – meatballs and fresh pasta. Not to brag, but I make a damn good meatball, and my fresh pasta is fantastic (ok, I totally just bragged…). So I can’t justify paying someone else to serve me a dry, flavorless meatball or gummy, wrongly cooked fresh pasta – I’m almost always disappointed. And it makes me want to go home and make my own!

Browning Meatballs

Unlike most meatball recipes, mine does not call for bread crumbs. I know the rational behind adding bread crumbs (or even bread) is to prevent the meatballs from drying out – but dry meatballs are not a problem that I encounter. I think it is because of my preferred cooking method – pan seared then braised in tomato sauce. The browning ensures a good texture, flavor, and stability (ie, your meat stays in a ball) and the slow braise keeps the meat tender and juicy.

Meatball Ingredients

Let’s talk about meat! I like a 50/50 mix of lean ground beef and Italian sausage (I used hot chicken today, but sometimes use pork sausage). The fat ratio is good (not too fatty, but enough to hold your balls together and retain juiciness) and you are giving yourself a head start on the seasonings with the sausage. Ground veal is another popular option for meatballs, but it is not my preference. The price is too high, and the positive impact it makes on the meatball is too low to justify paying the price – or killing a baby cow for that matter. Now bring on a tender veal chop, and I’ll overlook the baby butchering…

Meatball Mix

Take off your rings, trim your fingernails, and get ready to be wrist deep in meat – because the best way to mix your meatballs is by hand. Similar to making hamburgers, you want all of your flavors evenly distributed. You also don’t want to over work the meat. Hands are the perfect tool for ensuring both. I start by mixing my seasoning, cheese, cream and egg (do this with a fork or a whisk). Then add in the meat and get to work. Once you are happy with the meat mixture, start to form the balls.

You may be wondering does size really matter? No, not really (not with meatballs anyways…). I like about 1 inch round balls, but feel free to go big (or small, if that’s how you roll). Just keep in mind that with larger meatballs, they will need a longer time braising in the sauce. If you are planning on letting your sauce simmer all day (which isn’t a requirement, but it is a good idea!) then this isn’t a problem.

Browning Meatballs2

Before you start cooking the meatballs, make your sauce. After they are browned, you’ll want to transfer them into the simmering sauce. If you have a go-to tomato sauce recipe, then use it. If you need a new favorite, use mine (recipe below)! But God forbid, do not dump a jar of Ragu in a pot. These meatballs deserve the best, and the best is homemade.

The ideal pan for browning the meatballs is a cast iron skillet. If you don’t have one, go buy one use a nonstick skillet. Heat the pan over medium heat and add about 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Take your time with the browning and don’t crowd the pan. It will take a few minutes per side to get a nice caramelized crust. If you go to check or turn your meatballs and they stick, wait a minute or two longer – once they are good and browned they will come right off. Move the browned meatballs over to the sauce, and give it a stir to make sure they are completely submerged.

Deglaze

Once all of your meatballs are browned and transferred to the sauce, you may notice some little bits of seasoned meat stuck to your pan. We don’t want to lose those – that is some good flavor right there! Turn the heat off and pour a little chicken stock (or water. Or red wine….no judgment here) in the pan to deglaze. With your wooden spoon, scrape up all the stuck on bits. Now pour it into your sauce with the meatballs. Give it a good stir, and leave it to simmer for the next couple of hours.

Meatballs

I like my meatballs served over a nest of fresh pasta and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. Sorry, I don’t have a tutorial on making fresh pasta yet. I’ll need to grow a third arm or entrust The Man with the photography duties before I can feature a post about it. I’ll work on both…. But in the meantime, use the pasta that you prefer.

Meatballs

  • 1 Lb. lean ground beef
  • 1 Lb. Italian sausage (hot chicken)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 T. Parmesan cheese
  • 2 T. Italian parsley, minced
  • 1 T. garlic, minced
  • 1 T. Italian seasoning (dried herbs)
  • 2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. cream (can use 2% or whole milk instead)
  • 1/2 tsp. Tabasco sauce
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • Tomato Sauce
  • 1/2 c. chicken stock

Whisk together egg, cheese, parsley, garlic, herbs, cream, pepper, salt and Tabasco. Add in meats and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated. Form into balls (about 1″ round) and refrigerate until ready to cook.

In a cast iron skillet, heat oil over medium. Brown meatballs on all sides. Do not over crowd the pan, work in batches if necessary. Once browned, transfer meatballs to simmering tomato sauce. Stir to cover.

After all meatballs are browned and transferred to sauce, pour chicken stock into skillet. With a wooden spoon, scrape up any meat that is crusted onto the pan. Pour chicken stock into tomato sauce and stir through.

Allow meatballs to simmer in sauce, uncovered on low heat for at least 1 hour. For best results, simmer for 3 to 4 hours.

Tomato Sauce

  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 T. thyme, minced
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 box Pomi strained tomatoes (or 28 oz. can pureed tomatoes)
  • 1/2 C. water
  • 2 T. brown sugar
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a dutch oven or stock pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add in onion and saute until translucent. Add in garlic, thyme and red pepper flakes. continue to cook until onions are lightly browned. Pour in tomatoes and water. Stir in brown sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer.

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Chicken Ragu

After a quick sear and a long simmer, the chicken in this ragu will melt in your mouth. A little wine adds flavor to the sauce (a glass for the chef doesn’t hurt either!) and the fact that this dish is economical is the icing on the cake (or the cheese on your spaghetti…)

Chicken Ragu

I like to use boneless skinless chicken thighs for this dish. They are butterflied open (making them thin and quicker cooking) and the dark meat is so tender and flavorful. Not to mention that thighs are much cheaper than breasts. Lightly season the meat and pan sear both sides. You aren’t trying to cook the chicken through, you just want a little brown on them. The meat will finish cooking (and fall to shreds) in the sauce.

Browning Chicken

Once you’ve got the meat browned (you may need to cook the pieces in batches) it’s time for the onions. Don’t worry about any chicken or brown bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan – put the onions right on top. Moisture from the onions will help pull some of it up (and a douse of red wine will finish the rest!) Cook the onions for about 10 minutes, or until softened.
Saute OnionsTime to reach for the wine (the bottle, not your glass…) and pour in about 1/4 cup to deglaze the pan. Use your spoon to scrape up all the stuck on bits, and then bring the wine up to a simmer. It’s best to let it cook for a few minutes before adding anything else – this will allow the alcohol to cook out and the wine flavor to concentrate. Now you may be wondering what kind of  “red” wine to use. Personally, I’m not real picky about wine…in fact, we tend to go with cheap or on sale (or my favorite of all cheap and on sale). Avoid a sweet red, or anything labeled “table wine”. But anything you already have on hand (or wouldn’t mind drinking) will work great.

Deglaze with wine

Now everybody in the pot – tomatoes, chicken stock (boxed stock is perfectly fine here), brown sugar, seasonings and chicken. Stir it up (make sure the chicken is covered) and bring it up to a simmer. Put a lid on the sauce and reduce the heat to low. You want the pot to be slowly simmering – not boiling. One to two bubbles surfacing for second is ideal. After the first hour, you’ll want to remove the lid to allow some of the moisture to evaporate.

Chicken back in the pot

For the best results, the chicken needs to simmer for about 3 hours. I know, this is a long time – the long slow cooking helps keep the chicken tender and juicy, while turning it into bite sized shreds. But if you don’t happen to have 3 hours before dinner time, there are a few shortcuts that work great as well. Option 1 – dice up your meat. Obviously smaller pieces cook faster. I would season, sear, them cut into 1 inch pieces. Option 2 – use chicken that’s already cooked. But depending on how the chicken was previously cooked, will yield different results. Leftovers from a Beer Can Chicken, a store bought rotisserie chicken, or meat left from making stock would be best.

Long simmer

Every so often (half hour or so) you will want to give your pot a stir. Your chicken may need a little encouragement – use your spoon to gently break it apart. If you are worried the pieces aren’t shredding in a timely manner, feel free to pull it out and shred with two forks.

Once your chicken has successfully broken down, and your taste buds are drooling, it’s time for the pasta (yay, finally!). I like linguine for this sauce. The flat noodles are more substantial than say an angel hair, and the texture goes well with the sauce. Boil it up, drain it, then add it to the sauce. Let it cook for a few more minutes, to allow the sauce and pasta to become one. To serve, add a little torn basil, parmesan cheese, and fresh black pepper.

Chicken Ragu

Chicken Ragu

  • 1 1/2 Lbs. Boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 T. Cajun seasoning
  • 1 T. Italian seasoning
  • 1 T. Olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 C. Red wine
  • 1 C. Chicken stock
  • 1 box Pomi strained tomatoes (or large can of pureed tomatoes)
  • 1 T. Brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. Salt
  • 1 tsp. Black pepper
  • 1 lb. Linguine

Combine cajun and Italian seasonings and lightly coat both sides of chicken. In a dutch oven, brown chicken in olive oil (do not worry about cooking through). Remove chicken from pan.

In same pot, saute onions until soft. Add in garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Deglaze the pot with the wine. Use a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pot. Allow wine to simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add in stock, tomatoes, brown sugar, salt, pepper and chicken. Bring to a simmer, cover, and reduce to low.

After 1 hour, remove lid. With a wooden spoon, gently break apart chicken. Simmer for 3 hours. Stir and break up chicken every half hour.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and add to sauce. Allow to cook in sauce for 5 minutes before serving.