Another one for the Not Simple, But Well Worth the Extra Trouble file. It takes a couple hours to make, it’s kind of a pain in the ass, it is messy, and you can’t even eat it right away when you’re done. But on the plus side, the recipe yields 15-16 meatballs in a pot full of delicious spicy tomato sauce which, depending on headcounts and appetites, can provide several easy meals once it’s prepared. (You can also freeze it.) As to whether this entire exercise is, in fact, worth all the trouble, you could ask anyone who has tasted the results, but since that’s not exactly practical, perhaps one or two of my tens of loyal readers who are also meatball tasters might comment here.
- 1½ lbs. loose Italian turkey sausage from your local greenmarket.*
- 2 jars of minimally flavored, organic tomato sauce (I like Bertoli’s Tomato & Basil)
- 1 large organic green pepper (or 2 small)
- 1 large organic red pepper (or 2 small)
- 1 large organic onion (or 2 small)
- 1 healthy splash of olive or canola oil (approx. 2 tbsps.)
- 1½ bulbs organic garlic
- ½ of a standard (1 lb.) loaf of organic whole wheat bread (for breadcrumbs)
- 1 large egg
- crushed red pepper, to taste
- fresh ground black pepper, to taste
*If you use plain ground turkey instead of loose sausage, you should add to it salt, fennel, anise, paprika and red and/or black pepper. I ingeniously deduced this critical information by… reading the ingredients on the label of the loose Italian turkey sausage from my local greenmarket. Alas, the label gives no amounts or proportions whatsoever, but it does say “NO ARTIFICIAL INGREDIENTS, MINIMALLY PROCESSED.” Make of this what you will.
Here we go.
- Empty both jars of tomato sauce into a stockpot, cover it, and turn the heat on low/medium low.
- Put the olive oil (or canola) in a large skillet.
- Somehow remove all the guts & seeds from the green and red peppers without cutting yourself, then slice the peppers into strips roughly a quarter-inch wide and an inch long. Give or take. More or less. It’s not critical that the pepper pieces all be perfect replicas of each other. Put them all in the skillet on medium low heat, and stir with a wooden spoon.
- Slice up about two-thirds of the onion into pieces roughly the same size/shape as your pepper pieces. Add them to the skillet; set the remainder of the onion aside. Stir the skillet frequently, until the onions are clear and sweet and the peppers are soft enough to break easily in the skillet with a wooden spoon, about 20 mins. Toward the end, stir in some fresh minced garlic if you have it handy (see below).
- When the peppers & onions are finished cooking, empty the skillet into the sauce pot, stir, and cover. Set the oiled skillet aside.
The key to this recipe is getting the temperature of the sauce right: it should simmer and bubble gently, not at a roiling boil which will make the sauce turn acidic or burn.
Your stove should now look something like this:*
*Well, except your pot of sauce will have a lid on it.
- Mince 1½ bulbs of garlic. Oh, hell – mince 2 bulbs while you’re at it, and put your extra mincings (a quarter of what you end up with) in some olive oil, and refrigerate it. (You can make great garlic bread with it later.)
- Mince the rest of your onion, and set it aside for a moment.
- Divvy up the 1½ bulbs of minced garlic approximately as follows: put a little less than one-third of it into the pot of tomato sauce; stir the remainder of that third into the still-cooking peppers & onions mixture; add the remaining two-thirds of it to the minced onion.
- Shake some crushed red pepper onto the minced onions and garlic. I use about 10 shakes from the spice jar; YMMV.
- Grind some fresh black pepper onto the minced onions and garlic. I give it about 5 or 6 good turns with my pepper grinder.
- Mix the spices into the minced onion and garlic; set aside.
- Sprinkle crushed red pepper into the pot of tomato sauce. Again, I use about 10 shakes; again, YMMV.
- Grind some fresh black pepper into the pot of tomato sauce. (5 or 6 good turns, same caveats.)
- Stir the spices and minced garlic into the sauce, and cover.
Turn the innards of half a loaf of organic whole wheat bread into a big pile of breadcrumbs. I usually accomplish this by cutting it in half and rubbing the insides of the two halves together, breaking up larger clumps with my fingers. It’s much easier to do this if the bread is a day or two old.
If you’ve been playing along at home, this is what you’ve got so far:
Your kitchen is now thoroughly trashed (although it smells wonderful). But you are just getting started with the real mess.
- Open the package of loose Italian turkey sausage and spread it out on top of the minced onion & garlic mixture and the breadcrumbs.
- Press 15 or 20 deep holes into the turkey with your fingers.
- Crack open the egg on top of the turkey. Scramble it vigorously with your fingers, getting it into those holes you made.
- Squish, fold, smash, twist, mush, pound and mash everything together with your hands until well mixed.
- Form the mixture into meatballs. An easy way to get 16 is to divide the mixture in half, then quarters, then eighths, then break each of those in half and form each half into a ball. If they end up too unevenly sized, sacrifice one ball: break it up and add bits of it to your smaller balls.
- Remember that oiled skillet you set aside? Put it on low heat, and carefully place the meatballs in it. Using a large tablespoon, continually turn the meatballs until the outside layer of each one is just holding together solidly, about 10 mins. (The spoon also helps to shape them.) Note that you are not browning the meatballs (although they may end up browned in spots). You are not cooking them thoroughly. You are lightly cooking the outer layer for one purpose: so that they will hold together while they simmer in the tomato sauce.
- When the meatballs are all lightly cooked on the outside, spoon them into the pot of tomato sauce, stir gently, and cover. By this point the pot of sauce should be simmering gently, i.e., not at a roiling boil. (Maybe my stove is just tricky, or maybe the window of effective temperatures is narrow, but this is harder than it might seem. Or rather, it seems harder than it should be. Or, something.)
- Simmer the meatballs in the sauce for 90 minutes, checking and gently stirring the pot occasionally to make sure the sauce is simmering gently. Did I mention that the key to this is getting the temperature of the sauce right? No? Well, it is.
- After 90 minutes of simmering take the pot off the heat, give it a good stir and allow it to cool off. (This often means overnight). Keep it covered at all times.
- Refrigerate the pot when cooled. Do not skip this step. One of the secrets to great tomato sauce is to not eat it right after it’s made; it must be chilled and then re-heated.
- To serve, reheat at…you guessed it, a low simmer. (The more you have in the pot, the longer this will take.) I usually serve it over organic rigatoni, sprinkled with grated pecorino romano cheese and accompanied by garlic bread, with a first course of soup or salad.
I probably don’t need to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: clean your kitchen, yourself, and your cookware and utensils thoroughly and carefully. Uncooked turkey meat may contain dangerous pathogens – even if you bought it at your local greenmarket. And especially if you did not.
As for wine pairing, this dish packs some heat so it holds up well to many medium-bodied reds, like Barolo, Barbaresco, and some of the bolder Chiantis. But I also really love serving it with crisp, dry Italian whites, such as Vermentino, Vernacchia, or the drier Pinot Grigios.