There is nothing fancy about meatballs. They're hardly haute cuisine. But the fact is, when made properly, there aren't many other foods that make quite so many people quite so happy. I've flirted with more recipes than I should really admit to, but am happy to share what I've learned so that you too can make truly great meatballs.
Gordon and Delia might be happy with 100% beef but the fact is that meatballs need something else to make them melt in the mouth and give them that added flavour dimension. Equal proportions of minced beef, veal - not crated, obviously - and pork is the answer. This will give you the perfect balance of flavour and texture.
To keep your meatballs together during cooking you'll need a binding agent. In the recipes I've tried these range from eggs (used by almost everybody), to semolina (Nigella) and Jacob's cream crackers (thanks Jamie). For me though, the perfect answer is Angela Hartnett's white bread crumbs soaked in milk to create a paste. This does the job - as well as making the meatballs lighter to eat - and the addition of a teaspoon of dijon mustard helps to boost the flavour too.
Most recipes instruct you to make "golf ball sized" meatballs. I've come to the conclusion that this means I either have an abnormally small mouth or that I've been teeing off with over-sized balls. Please try and stick a golf ball in your mouth and tell me how pleasurable it is...
Personally, I prefer smaller morsels giving me a chance to devour my prey in a single mouthful. My advice, as passed on by the brilliant Felicity Cloakes, is to forget golf balls and think chocolate truffles. This also has the advantage of a better caramelised crust to meat ratio.
Many recipes recommend poaching meatballs in their sauce - but why would you?!? All the best meat dishes, from steaks to stews, depend on the famed Maillard reactions to create a dark caramelised crust on the meat. The only way to achieve this is to brown the meatballs first. Russell Norman, of Polpo fame, suggests roasting in the oven, but I like the hands on approach of pan frying so that you can get just the level of caramelisation you're looking for. Then, throw them in to the pot for a few minutes with the tomatoes to finish cooking (a moist centre is good, raw is not...) allowing them to transfer their meaty flavours to the unctuous sauce.
If you've followed my advice on the meatballs, a simple tomato sauce is all that's required to finish the dish. Nothing more than tomatoes, onion, garlic, a few herbs and an hour of slow cooking should do the trick. Top with some freshly grated parmesan and a little torn basil to serve. Delicious.
Try my recipe for the perfect polpette di carne.