FreshTartSteph Recipe: Ricotta Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Mamma Mia! Pillowy and lightly cheesy meatballs!

If you’re a meatball purist, this recipe is for you. I first read about these on the excellent food blog Sassy Radish. She raved about them so eloquently, I couldn’t wait to try them!

And I was not disappointed. These meatballs hold no bread, no annoying chunks of under-cooked garlic, no flecks of parsley to stick in your teeth. No. These meatballs are finely ground pillows of beef, mixed lightly with ricotta, a bit of egg, and salty Parmesan, creating an unbelievably tender, subtly cheesy meatball. I served them to my son atop a tangle of spaghetti, but for me, these meatballs stand alone. I ate them with nothing more than a glass of wine, and suggest you do the same.

The meatballs originally hail from New York chef Marco Canora, via Italy, via The New York Times, which means they’ve traveled a long and delicious path to Minnesota. They owe their tenderness to fluffy, finely-ground meat. You can ask your butcher to triple grind it for you, or you can grind it in a food processor at home (which is what I did; took two minutes).

Don’t be put off by the very soft texture of the pre-cooked meatballs. While they’re a bit sticky to form, they brown very quickly, thanks to that gorgeous cheese. And speaking of cheese… I used Whole Foods‘ hand-dipped ricotta cheese, available in their cheese section. It’s already quite dense (in fact, it’s the most delicious ricotta cheese I’ve ever had—smooth and rich) and didn’t need to be drained overnight.

Photo by Stephanie Meyer

Ricotta Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Based on a recipe by Marco Canora via The New York Times
Serves 4

Note: The recipe as printed calls for ground veal. I used ground beef with excellent results. Even though forming the meatballs is sticky work, I opted not to coat them in flour; I instead wetted my hands with cold water a few times as I went along, which worked well.

1 lb. ricotta cheese (I used Whole Foods’ hand-dipped ricotta, available in the cheese section, which is already quite dense/condensed, so I didn’t drain it)
1 lb. ground veal (triple ground by butcher or at home), chilled
2 large eggs
1 c. freshly grated Parmigian-Reggiano, plus more for serving
1 Tbsp. salt, or as needed
freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated nutmeg, as needed
vegetable oil for frying
1 c. flour, or as needed

1 Tbsp. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
1 24-oz. can imported Italian whole tomatoes
1 tsp. salt, perhaps more to taste
freshly ground black pepper

Wrap ricotta in cheesecloth a day before serving and place in a sieve set over a bowl. Weight cheese, cover, and refrigerate overnight. (Note: I would place cheese in a colander lined with cheesecloth, set the colander in a shallow bowl, place something heavy on the cheese, and proceed as directed.) Cheese should then have the consistency of tofu.

The next day, combine all meatball ingredients except oil and flour in a bowl and mix with hands until completely smooth, pale, and homogenized, about four minutes. Cover and chill before shaping into meatballs.

While the mixture chills, make the sauce. Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the olive oil, and then the garlic and oregano. Saute for a few minutes, then add the tomatoes, crushing one tomato at a time over the pan with your fingers and adding every bit of tomato sauce from the can. Simmer partially covered, on lowest heat (very gently), while you prepare the meatballs.

Dust a baking sheet and your hands with flour (Note: Or, use cold water). Keep remaining flour nearby in bowl. Gently form meat into 1-inch balls.

Place about 1 1/2 inches oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, fry meatballs, 4-5 at a time, moving them as little as possible. (Note: They brown quickly!). When bottoms are golden brown, after about 2 minutes, gently turn them. Fry until uniformly brown on all sides. Drain meatballs briefly on paper towels, then add to gently simmering tomato sauce.

When all the meatballs are browned, simmer, partially covered, over low heat for at least 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Can be refrigerated overnight; reheat gently. Serve meatballs in sauce alone, or over pasta, with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano passed separately.