Mama's Meatballs in Marinara Sauce
A good old-fashioned meatball in red sauce combo! The red marinara sauce is all veggie based, and quick to whip up. The oversized meatballs are then prepared, and slow cooked in the red sauce for a few hours; simmering tender morsels, and richening your sauce to be served over pasta or polenta to finish out your meal.
We hosted a full on wop feed, and this dish was the table favorite. The meatball recipe comes from my mama, which she adapted from my Nona's. Sorry Nona, but hands down, my Mom has always made the best, most tender meatballs in the whole family. I prepare them to be about the size of a tennis ball, and feature them as more of a main, and less of a side. In my word, it's meatballs and spaghetti, not spaghetti and meatballs. This may seem like a lengthy process listed below, but the steps are really simple, and once you've prepped your sauce and meat, you set it and forget it for the day. TRY IT. You'll like (love) it.
Traditional Marinara Sauce
The sauce I make is an adaptation from a Rachel Ray short rib sauce. Pretty similar, but we spice it up heavily, and add a lot more carrots to make it sweeter. Also note, the carrots should be organic so they actually, well, taste like something other than wood. Experiment with the flavors in your sauce to make it unique, alter the spices as you see fit.
- 6 organic carrots
- 6 shoots of celery
- 1-2 yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1, 6 oz can tomato paste
- 2, 16 oz cans diced tomatoes
- 2, 16 oz cans tomato sauce
- 2-3 cups heavy red cooking wine
- 2 tbsp salt
- 4 tbsp Italian seasoning
- 1 tbsp oregano
- 1 tbsp dried basil
In a large skillet, heat oil and add in crushed garlic cloves. Roughly chop your onions, carrots and celery, and place in food processor (likely in 2-3 batches). Process until a consistent paste is formed, but ensure the vegetables still have structure. You don't want liquid, but you don't want to be able to "see" pieces of celery! Add processed vegetables to skillet. Add tomato paste and turn up heat. Allow the vegetables to curd slightly on the bottom of the pan. Scrape pan every few minutes. Repeat 4-5 times, add in wine to loosen the curd, let the mixture return to temperature; this will take about 5 minutes.
At this stage, you can transfer to either a (very) large soup pot, or into a crockpot, whichever you prefer (I always use a crockpot so it's out of my way). Add in remaining ingredients and spices. Stir well. Allow the sauce to reach a temperature where it's slightly bubbling. At this point, turn the sauce down to a simmer, or low setting on crockpot. The sauce needs to simmer for about 4-5 hours, it can then be served immediately, or frozen in batches, or canned.
If you're going to prepare meatballs, keep reading...!
These meatballs are super juicy. Making a tender meatball is all about the feel. I've tried to illustrate this below. Don't over think it, just go for it. And make 'em BIG. Even at the size of tennis balls, this recipe will yield about 24 little nuggets of joy.
- 5 lbs ground beef (full fat, lean ground will not work)
- 3-4 eggs
- 3 cups seasoned bread crumbs
- 3/4 cup parmesan cheese
- Approximately 1/2 cup water
- 1-2 tbsp garlic powder
- 1/4 cup roughly chopped Italian parsley, loosely packed
You will need a large bowl to mix, I tried a large salad bowl and it was a no-go, I use my roasting pan! Place all ingredients into the roaster aside from water, and mix well with your hands until fully blended. A lot of making a tender meatball is all about the "feel". Slowly add the water, give or take amount, until you reach the right texture.
The mixture will start to lose the texture of the burger and will feel a little sticky, this is how you know you're on the right track; BUT, it will not be so wet that it won't hold it's shape when you form the balls. You need to give it a good workout, don't be afraid to over mix. I don't think you can.
Once it is fully mixed, you should be able to smell the garlic and the breadcrumbs, if not, add a little more and then a touch more water to get the right texture.
Roll a "test" ball! As mentioned, I build the jumbo variety, about the size of a tennis ball. Pack the meat tight and roll until the surface is smooth. Set the meatball on a lined baking sheet. If the bottoms go flat when you set it down, that should be pretty close to the proper texture. If the bottom doesn't slightly flatten when set down, you need to add some water to your mixture or your meatballs will be too tough in texture.
General rule: If the meat is tough, add more water or egg. If it's falling apart and too sticky, sprinkle more breadcrumbs. Don't over think it, just go by feel.
Once you've rolled up all of your meatballs, place them GENTLY into the pot of sauce, completely raw. Fit as many as you can into the pot, as long as the entire meatball is covered in sauce. Turn the sauce up on the stove or in the crockpot until it's bubbling. Once they are to temperature, turn down to the lowest setting to simmer. DO NOT STIR, you will break the meatballs apart! After about an hour, very very very very VERY gently, move the meatballs around with a large spoon, trying to swap the tops for bottoms. Let simmer for about 4 hours, gently moving the meatballs around every couple hours.
The process of slow cooking the meatballs in the sauce makes for the most tender possible meatball, and truly richens up the flavor of the sauce at the same time. Serve over your favorite pasta, or with creamed polenta. Top the meatballs with some freshly grated parmesan cheese before serving. Enjoy!
TIP: Both the sauce and raw meatballs freeze really well. If you plan to freeze the raw meatballs, ensure that you "flash" freeze them separately on a lined cookie sheet before transferring to a container or ziploc baggie.