Life Eat & Drink Recipe road test: is any meatball worth two hours of your life?
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Recipe road test: is any meatball worth two hours of your life?

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Our Recipe Road Tester is a food lover who estimates she’s cooked over 10,000 meals in her lifetime and continues to cook for a family of four. Stig-like, she prefers to remain anonymous.

I can cook a lot of things, but I struggle with meatballs. They fall apart. They end up shaped like dice.

So while a cookbook devoted to them might have some cooks palming their foreheads and exclaiming ‘doh’, I get it.

These are not your average whip-up-after-work meatballs, but the kind that bring 10,000 people through the doors of author Matteo Bruno’s three Melbourne Meatball and Wine Bars each week.

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Bruno, who describes himself as a film and TV producer as much as a restaurateur, manages to make the meatball a thing of beauty …and, er, complexity.

For starters, one of this recipe’s ingredients is tomato sauce that needs an hour’s cooking.

To follow these recipes you’ll need a digital scale, a meat thermometer, and, ideally, your own meat grinder. Just picking through the herbs took a good ten minutes.

So, was it worth it?

THE RECIPE

Classic beef meatballs with chunky Italian red sauce

When using high-quality minced (ground) beef, the main flavour you’re trying to achieve is beautiful, rich caramelised beef. This recipe uses 100% grass-fed beef and is enhanced by the use of simple accompanying herbs.

Makes 24

Meatballs coverFor the meatballs

1 kg (2 lb 4 oz) minced (ground) 100% grass-fed beef

10 rosemary sprigs, leaves picked and finely chopped

2 tablespoons dried oregano

6 garlic cloves, finely diced

1 onion, finely diced

2 eggs

40 g (11/2 oz/1/3 cup) dry breadcrumbs

175 g (6 oz) Chunky Italian red sauce (p 157)

1 teaspoon chilli flakes

30 g (1 oz/1 small bunch) flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, leaves picked and chopped

35 g (1 oz/1/3 cup) finely grated parmesan cheese

olive oil, for frying

To serve: Fresh herbs and grated cheese

Method

Add all of the ingredients into a mixing bowl and combine gently with your fingers. Gently roll the mixture into 60 g (21/₄ oz) portions and set them aside.

Preheat the oven to 140°C (275°F).

Heat up a good drizzle of olive oil in an ovenproof frying pan over medium–high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the meatballs, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. You can do this in stages. Constantly move the pan in a circling motion. This will help the balls roll around and brown evenly. Do this for several minutes until the balls form a nice brown crust.

Once all meatballs are browned, add all the meatballs back into the frying pan and place in the dry oven for 12 minutes. This will complete the cooking process.

Serve while still hot.

Chunky Italian red sauce

You can use any variety of fresh tomato – feel free to leave the skins on as this all adds to the texture of the sauce. This warming sauce can be made in bulk and used across a variety of dishes.

Makes 1.4 kilograms

Olive oil

1 kg (2 lb 4 oz) fresh tomatoes, diced

½ brown onion, sliced

2 garlic cloves, diced

1 tablespoon tomato paste (concentrated purée)

800 g (1 lb 12 oz) tinned chopped tomatoes

50 g (1¾ oz/1 large bunch) basil, leaves picked and torn

Method

Start by heating up a drizzle of olive oil in a frying pan over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the fresh tomato and stir around the pan until they take on some colour and begin to break down. You need to get the pan very hot so that the natural sugars in the tomato come out the moment they make contact with the hot oil.

Add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook while stirring for 3 minutes, then add the garlic and tomato paste. Once the onion has been partially cooked, add the tinned tomato, reduce the heat to low and cook for at least 1 hour or until reduced by around half.

Season with salt and lots of pepper, and add the torn basil leaves at the end. Finish with another good drizzle of olive oil. 

THE ROAD TEST

Ingredients

The ingredients you'll need to make the hearty meal.
The ingredients you’ll need to make the hearty meal.

The butcher gave me one of those ‘bloody Masterchef’ death stares when I asked for mince with a bit more fat and texture than what he had on display. Then he got into the spirit of it and ground me up some brisket.

“Ten rosemary sprigs” felt a little imprecise in a recipe that lists other herbs by the gram.

Difficulty

Easy to follow, simple techniques, but you’re making three components for a meal…the balls, the sauce, and something to go under them (aka ‘sotto palle’ apparently).

A little fiddly, lots of chopping, quite time consuming, two hours in total.

Appearance

The food stylist and photographer deserve medals for making a book of meatballs look delicious. There are few less photogenic dishes (yes risotto, we’re looking at you).

Ours were pleasantly pan-burnished and garnishes made them appealing.

Warning

If the idea of plunging your hands into raw meat, working it with your fingers and rolling it into balls between your palms grosses you out, walk away – the book insists this is the only way.

The meatballs sizzle in their pan.
The meatballs sizzle in their pan.

Tips

Bruno suggests cook one meatball before finishing the whole batch to allow you to check seasoning and flavor. The family is starving, so that’s not going to happen.

The downside

Apart from the fact that it’s hard to review a cookbook about meatballs without sounding smuttier than Benny Hill? Having to fry them in three batches, then finish in the oven.

It’s hefty work shimmying a heavy iron pan in circles to roll them around. They need the tomato sauce and some polenta, pasta or potato underneath, adding to the recipe workload.

Time

Meatballs: 45 active minutes plus 17 minutes oven time.

The finished product
The finished product

Sauce: 20 minutes active plus 1 hour cooking time, must be finished before meatballs can be assembled.

Total: Two hours from start to finish.

Ingredient cost 

Approximately $40 or $10 per serve.

The verdict

Using mid-winter tomatoes meant the sauce lacked sweetness, I was tempted to add sugar. The meatballs were just-cooked after the recipe’s 12 minutes in the oven, but better after another five.

Tasty, meaty, with a good texture and nice charry exterior, the dinner-table jury declared them a success and asked for more.

Occasion

Weekend dinner with the family in front of the footy.

Would I make it again

No. Given the work involved, I’d be tempted to try one of the book’s more exotic combos, like bacon and bourbon.

Recipe and image from Meatballs: The Ultimate Guide by Matteo Bruno (Murdoch Books) $35 available now in all good bookstores and online.

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