Wine With . . . Meatballs
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
Meatballs of one kind or another make the world go ‘round, at least from a culinary point of view. From Afghanistan’s kofta (usually made with finely ground lamb) to the United States’ favored spaghetti partner, just about every culture you can think of has a version of ground meat rolled into balls and then baked, steamed, fried, grilled, poached, or even microwaved.
Swedish meatballs (köttbullar, served with lingoberry jam) have become internationally renowned thanks to the proliferation of IKEA stores around the world. Devotees of Chinese cuisine are familiar with the steamed pork meatballs that are a dim sum staple. Greek keftedes are spiked with mint; German klopse may be served with caper sauce; and in Finland, meatballs are often made with reindeer meat. But it is Italy that surely claims the prize for the most diverse range of meatballs, ranging from the giant polpettone, to the wonderfully flavorful marble-sized polpettine, a regional specialty that we enjoyed in Abruzzo a couple of years ago.
Italy is the inspiration for one of our favorite meatball recipes, a mixture of ground beef and pork, oven-braised in tomato sauce. A model of simplicity, this is a comforting, delicious, make-ahead-of-time dish that is extraordinarily wine friendly.
The recipe works well with a mixture of ground pork, veal and/or beef. For best results, do not use meat that is too lean. We served our meatballs with diced potatoes tossed with olive oil and sea salt, and roasted in the oven while the meatballs were cooking.
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground beef
4 to 5 slices pancetta (about 3 ounces) placed in freezer for about 15 minutes for easier chopping
1/3 cup Panko or other good quality dried bread crumbs
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dried chili pepper flakes (or more, as desired)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons dried oregano
½ cup minced parsley
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup ricotta cheese
¼ cup milk (2 % or whole)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/3 cup minced fresh basil leaves (optional)
Grated Pecorino cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine the pork and beef. Dice the pancetta and add it to the ground meat. Fold in the bread crumbs and all the herbs and seasonings. In a separate bowl whisk together the eggs, the ricotta, and the milk. Stir the liquid mixture into the meat, mixing it together gently with your fingers until thoroughly blended. (Do not overmix or the meatballs will be tough.)
Coat two rimmed baking sheets with olive oil. Roll the meat mixture into balls about 1 ½ inches in diameter. Arrange them in a single layer on the baking sheets and place in the preheated oven. Bake for about 10 minutes; then rotate the balls so that they retain their shape and brown evenly. Bake for another 10 or 15 minutes, or until the meatballs have lightly browned. Remove from the oven and lower the temperature to 350.
Transfer the meatballs to a large baking dish (or two smaller ones). Pour the tomatoes over them, cover the dish tightly with foil, place it in the oven, and braise for one to 1 ½ hours, or until the meatballs are tender and have absorbed some of the sauce. The dish may be made ahead of time to this point, then reheated for 30 minutes or until heated through. Before serving, scatter the basil leaves over the meatballs, plate them, and sprinkle each serving with a little Parmesan. Pass extra cheese at the table.
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We tried only red wines, thirteen in all, with this dish, as that color seemed the obvious choice. We made sure, though, to try different styles—light to full-bodied in terms of weight, and those marked by overt fruit as well as others with different flavors. Our favorites, detailed below, all fit a pattern. They were medium-bodied, not too tannic, and invariably augmented their fruit with earthy—sometimes rustic and sometimes spicy—secondary flavors. The meatballs in this recipe have fairly subtle spice and herbal flavors, and the wines with comparable qualities made them taste more complete and so better.