Meatballs are a hearty dish for a late-winter dinner

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After the Mona Lisa, Italy's most beloved and enduring gift to world culture might be the meatball. But talk to any two Italian cooks about which ingredients actually comprise a meatball and you're going to get an argument. Fine. I took this contentiousness as a license to concoct a meatball recipe of my own using the best tips from Italian friends and colleagues.

Let's start with the meat in this meatball. Ideally, it should be an equal mix of beef, pork and veal, allowing each one to contribute its own unique flavor and texture. If you can't find ground veal at your supermarket, opt for the meatloaf mix, which contains all three meats. If there's no ground veal and no meatloaf mix, you'll be fine with half pork and half beef.

To amp up the flavor to an even higher level, I've prescribed several umami bombs: prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano and tomato paste. And of course, minced garlic.

Tradition requires meatballs to be cooked well done, which can make them dry. Accordingly, I've combined the meat mixture with a panade. Panade, a paste made of breadcrumbs soaked in milk, keeps the meat juicy as the meatballs cook.

Of course, when you make meatballs, you want them to retain their shape. A raw egg helps to bind the ingredients, but you also want to be sure to mix them rigorously, either in a stand mixer or with your hands. Refrigerating the meatballs for 30 minutes before sauteing them also helps.

The finishing touch is to simmer the meatballs in the tomato sauce. This process allows for an exchange of flavors. Indeed, I think of it as a marriage. Both the meatballs and the sauce benefit greatly.

This hearty dish is tailor-made for a blustery late-winter dinner. There won't be much argument at the table about its deliciousness.

Better meatballs

Start to finish: 2 hours, 15 minutes (1 hour, 15 minutes active)

Servings: 6

INGREDIENTS:

3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

1/2 cup whole milk

1/2 pound ground beef (85 percent lean)

1/2 pound ground pork

1/2 pound ground veal

2 ounces prosciutto, finely chopped

2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus extra for garnish

1 large egg

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 teaspoons minced garlic

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

3 tablespoons vegetable oil plus extra for cooking the little patty

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup red wine

Marinara Sauce (recipe below) or 5 cups store-bought marinara

1 pound spaghetti

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

DIRECTIONS:

In the bowl of a stand mixer, soak the bread crumbs in the milk for 20 minutes. Add the ground beef, pork, veal, prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano, egg, tomato paste, garlic, salt and pepper, and using a paddle attachment, beat the mixture for 1 minute or until it is very well mixed. (Note: If you don't have a stand mixer, just mix all the ingredients well with your hands for about 3 minutes.)

Pinch off a little bit of the meat mixture, form it into a patty and in a small skillet saute it until it is cooked through. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if desired. Scoop out the mixture, preferably using a 1-ounce ice cream scoop and roll into balls. (If you don't have an ice cream scoop, roll the meat into walnut-size balls.) Chill for 30 minutes.

In a large skillet heat half the oil over medium-high heat. Toss half the meatballs in the flour, shaking off the excess and add them to the hot oil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the meatballs, shaking the pan and turning them gently until they are browned on several sides. Transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat the procedure with the remaining flour, oil and meatballs.

Add the wine to the skillet and simmer it, scraping up the brown bits, until it is reduced by half. In a large saucepan combine the meatballs with the marinara and the reduced wine. Bring the liquid just up to a boil, turn it down to a simmer and simmer it gently, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.

Speedy marinara sauce

Makes: About 5 cups

INGREDIENTS:

4 large garlic cloves, smashed

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 (28-ounce) cans plum tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted), chopped

Kosher salt

DIRECTIONS:

In an unheated medium saucepan combine the garlic and the oil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, turning over the garlic several times, until it is just golden, 4 to 6 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and a hefty pinch of salt, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and cook at a brisk simmer until the sauce is reduced to about 5 cups, 20 to 25 minutes. Discard the garlic. Season with salt to taste.

Nutrition information per serving of the meatballs: 739 calories; 223 calories from fat; 25 g fat (8 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 128 mg cholesterol; 874 mg sodium; 78 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 43 g protein.

Nutrition information per serving of the sauce: 628 calories; 346 calories from fat; 38 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 493 mg sodium; 48 g carbohydrate; 18 g fiber; 27 g sugar; 10 g protein.

Sara Moulton is host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "Home Cooking 101."



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