Lately, my pasta dishes have kind of obviously been focused on comfort-food, and this is no different. Today, we have another classic dish, with a little twist to make it something special: spaghetti and fontina-stuffed veal meatballs.
I decided to make my own tomato sauce, but I struggled with it. When I say struggled, I don’t mean that making the sauce was hard–far from it! The real difficulty was resisting my temptation to over-complicate things and throw in all sorts of herbs and spices. I decided for once to give the classic Italian cooking mantras a chance and to let the tomatoes speak for themselves, hoping they wouldn’t let me down. As it turns out, the tomatoes heard my prayers and they came through! I didn’t have any great fresh tomatoes, but I did try a recommendation for a better brand of canned San Marzano tomatoes, which was certainly a bit pricier than other canned tomatoes I was used to, but wow, when it comes to Italian cooking, this is well worth the money! The sauce was sweeter, less acidic, tasted so much more authentic, and was so delightfully simple to make–definitely the kind of thing that will elevate any tomato-based pasta dish. I’ve learned my lesson and wanted to shout it from the proverbial rooftop, so there you go.
As for the meatballs, those were also a delight. My regular readers are probably familiar with my ongoing veal love affair, so given the opportunity to make a meatball, I thought ground veal rather than beef or pork would be a delightful twist. Furthermore, why not stuff each one with a beautiful, melty, cheesy center? These meatballs were tender, flavorful, spiced just right, and creamy once broken in two. They were the perfect thing to have atop the noodles with the perfect sauce–they really took spaghetti and meatballs to a new place for me. If veal isn’t your thing, you could certainly use a mix of ground beef and pork, but I am a big fan of the flavor and texture of veal.
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 shallots
- 4 garlic cloves
- leaves from 2 sprigs of thyme
- handful of parsley leaves
- ~1.5 lb ground veal
- 1 egg
- ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- ( oz) 1/2 inch cubes Fontina cheese (as many as there are meatballs)
- 2 slices of white sandwich bread, crusts removed and bread torn into 1-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1 lb spaghetti/fettucine/linguine/whatever noodles, or you could make your own
- Tomato sauce
- ~42 oz San Marzano tomatoes (I used canned–Cento brand)
- handful of fresh basil
- 1 carrot
- 1 stalk celery
- 1 shallot
- 4 cloves garlic
Firstly, if you’re making your own tomato sauce, you should start that first as it requires time to simmer, so you might as well let it do that while you do everything else (if you’re going the jarred route, feel free to skip ahead). Luckily, this is pretty simple. Begin by finely dicing the carrot, celery, shallot, and garlic, and in a saucepan with some hot olive oil, sauté the sofrito (celery, carrot, and shallot). After about 8 minutes of letting them soften up, add in the garlic, continuing to sauté for another minute or two.
With the sofrito sautéed, now you can simply add the tomatoes, squishing each one as you add it to the mix. Heat this up to a rapid simmer, letting it actively bubble for about 10-15 minutes, after which, drop the heat down to low/low-medium and let it simmer uncovered, giving it a stir once in a while. Set aside the basil leaves for later so you don’t forget them–they go in the sauce, but just not now.
So with the sauce taking care of itself, on to other things, namely, the meat balls. Begin by prepping all of the fresh items, finely mincing the shallots and garlic as well as chopping up the parsley and thyme. Also, take this time to grate the Parmigiano-Reggiano and to cut 20 ~1/2 inch cubes of fontina cheese for later.
Now, sauté the diced shallot in some hot olive oil for about 8 minutes and then add in the garlic for another minute or two. Get this off of the heat and set aside in a large bowl. While you wait for that to cool off a bit, focus on the bread. Many recipes call for using white bread, but I never purchase white bread and don’t intend to buy a whole loaf for two slices. I instead took slices from a stale baguette, so I’d recommend you improvise with whatever “plain” bread you have handy, using enough to be very roughly equivalent to 2 slices of white bread. Then, in a bowl, soak this in milk, pressing the bread into to ensure all it is sopping it up. Let this soak for about five minutes.
Once the shallot/garlic mixture has cooled down a bit, add the Parmigiano-Reggiano, herbs, and dry spices to the bowl. Also, squeeze the bread to wring out the excess milk, crumble it up (maybe take a trip through the food processor if you’re so inclined), and add it to the bowl as well, discarding the leftover milk.
Finally, add in the egg and ground veal and get your hands dirty, mixing everything well until completely integrated into a well seasoned meat mixture.
Now, you can begin to form the meatballs. Grab very roughly a tablespoon or two’s worth of the mixture and roll it into a ball, setting aside. I wound up with about twenty, but your mileage may vary. Once you have all of the meatballs rolled out, grab your fontina chunks and press it into each meatball, rolling it up again to patch up the hole and hide the cheese inside.
At this point, gauge how far along you are with the tomato sauce. If it’s nowhere near done yet, a good step is to let the meatballs rest in the fridge so they can firm up a bit and hold their shape better, but its not required that you do so.
Heat up some olive oil on medium-high heat and brown all of the meatballs on all sides, working in batches and taking care not to crowd. This will help the meatballs hold their shape and put some nice color and flavor on them. Roll them around, doing your best to brown them on all sides, but not with the intent of cooking them all the way through. Figure each side will take somewhere around 2-3 minutes. Set these aside.
Check in on the tomato sauce–it looks nice and thickened up to a sauce-like consistency (for me, that took somewhere between 1 hour 30 minutes and 2 hours), so add in the chopped basil from earlier. Wow, its almost as if my timing is perfect and flows just with the written schedule I’ve posted here. What a coincidence…
So with the tomato sauce pretty much done, gently place each browned meatball into the sauce, which is still simmering on low-medium heat. Let this continue to simmer uncovered for about 10-15 minutes more so that the meatballs can cook all the way through.
You know what else takes about 10 minutes to cook? The pasta. You didn’t forget it, right? Boiling water, cook per directions, drain–you know the drill. This way, everything will come out hot at the same time.
Putting this all together is easy. Plate a nest of noodles, cover with a good scoop of sauce, top it off with 2 or 3 meatballs, and sprinkle on some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and parsley. Enjoy!