"One bite of these meatballs at my friends Anne and Ian's one night, and I could not believe my tongue," recalls Calder. "I'd gone through life thinking meatballs were crass: dense, rubbery, nubbly boulders clumsily strewn across spaghetti fields. What I was eating bore no resemblance. Here were slowly simmered, mollified meaty morsels, as light and soft as feather pillows. I felt positively dainty lifting them to my lips, an experience not remotely like that I'd had in the past with the on-top-of-spaghetti variety.
This recipe comes from Ian's father, who was kind enough to share it even though he'd promised the original source he never would. (That was 40 years ago, mind you, and I did beg.) The story goes that the dad, Bruce, and his friends long ago used to have regular bowling nights after which the loser would have to pay for the whole team's food and drinks. Or sometimes, I suspect rather more often than not, feeding the team would fall on the loser's unsuspecting wife. Everyone rejoiced when a guy called Edo lost because that meant they'd be going to his place and getting these meatballs. Sort of ironic to think that the recipe for the lightest and most feminine meatballs I've ever tasted has a past-life association with a men's bowling team.
Feel free to experiment with flavourings in both the meatballs and the sauce. The meatballs can take extra herbs, possibly herbes de Provence or oregano, and perhaps a dash of Worcestershire sauce if you like. The sauce is quite plain-tasting and on the thin side, which you may find desirable. If you prefer a chunkier version, sauté equal quantities of finely diced carrot, onion and celery and add to the sauce. For punchier taste, add garlic and chili flakes. For more depth of taste, you could add some finely diced smoky bacon to the sauce. Play around. Finally, I instinctively reject the idea of meatballs on spaghetti. I'd choose wider, flat noodles myself, such as pappardelle, or generic egg noodles."
Yields 70 meatballs
1/4 cup (60 mL) olive oil
1/4 pound (110 g) lean ground beef
3 28-oz. (796-mL) tins crushed tomatoes or tomato juice
3 5.5-oz. (156-mL) tins tomato paste
1 tbsp (15 mL) honey
2 bay leaves
1 lb. (450 g) ground beef
1 lb. (450 g) ground veal
1 lb. (450 g) ground pork
1 loaf fresh French bread (oval type), crust removed
2 tbsp (30 mL) finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp (30 mL) herbes de Provence
Salt and pepper
1. Heat the oil in a large pot and fry the lean ground beef until cooked through, 5 minutes. Pour over the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste. Stir in the honey and bay leaves, then add 2 1/2 cups (625 mL) water. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer.
2. Meanwhile, combine the ground beef, veal and pork in a large bowl. Put the crustless French bread in a strainer and run hot water over it. Squeeze the water out of the bread, break it into crumbs and add to the meat along with the eggs, cheese and herbs. Season with salt and pepper. Combine thoroughly. Rub your hands with a bit of oil, then roll pieces of the meat mixture into 1 1/2-inch (4 cm) meatballs.
3. Put them on a baking sheet and freeze for 30 minutes to firm slightly. Add the meatballs to the simmering tomato sauce and cook gently, partly covered, until soft and light, about 3 hours. Serve with pasta.