These Italian-style ‘smothered’ meatballs are hearty comfort food

No matter how you roll and cook them, meatballs are dependable dinner-winners. They are unfailingly forgiving, pleasing to all ages and adaptive to taste, diet and cuisine.

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Marinara sauce and a sprinkle of fresh parsley are the perfect complements to these Italian-style “smothered” meatballs.

Marinara sauce and a sprinkle of fresh parsley are the perfect complements to these Italian-style “smothered” meatballs.

Lynda Balslev/TasteFood

If I had to choose a favorite comfort food, I would nominate the meatball.

Every cuisine seems to have a version of a meatball, whether it’s a truly meaty meatball packed with ground beef, pork or poultry; a pescatarian-friendly fish ball or patty; or a vegetarian version jumbled together with beans or legumes.

No matter how you roll and cook them, meatballs are dependable dinner-winners. They are unfailingly forgiving, pleasing to all ages and adaptive to taste, diet and cuisine.

Meatballs are also fun to eat in their myriad forms: skewered on sticks, smothered in sauce, swiped through a dip, or piled in a double-fisted sandwich.

This meatball recipe is a traditional favorite and perfect for a winter day. The key ingredient is a shower of grated Pecorino Romano cheese, which melts into the meatball, adding salty umami flavor while helping to bind the meat. A kick of crushed red pepper flakes provides a nice bite, which is easily adapted to your taste.

This recipe makes a large batch of meatballs, which is hardly a problem. I often combine any leftover meatballs and marinara to make a chunky sauce, then freeze it to have on hand for a future pasta dish or lasagna. It’s a comfort food gift that keeps on giving.

Smothered Italian Meatballs Marinara

Yield: Makes about 20 meatballs

INGREDIENTS:

Meatballs:

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3/4 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
  • 1 cup (packed) finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus extra for garnish
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley, plus extra for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • Olive oil for pan-frying

Marinara sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed Italian plum tomatoes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

DIRECTIONS:

Prepare the meatballs:

1. Combine the meatball ingredients in a large bowl.

2. Using your hands, gently mix until the ingredients are evenly distributed.

3. Shape the meat into 1 1/2-inch balls without overworking the meat. (Wet your hands with cold water from time to time to prevent sticking.)

4. Place the meatballs on a platter and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Prepare the sauce:

1, Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until softened, 2 to 3 minutes.

2. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute more. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil.

3. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.

Cook the meatballs:

1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.

2. Add the meatballs in batches, without overcrowding, and brown on all sides, about 5 minutes, turning as needed. (The meatballs will not be cooked through at this point. They will continue to cook in the sauce.)

3. Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining meatballs.

4. Add the sauce to the skillet and cook briefly over medium heat, stirring up any brown bits in the pan. Add the meatballs to the sauce and turn to coat.

5. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until the meatballs are thoroughly cooked through, about 30 minutes.

6. Serve garnished with chopped parsley and grated cheese.

Lynda Balslev is an award-winning food and wine writer, cookbook author and recipe developer. She authors the blog TasteFood, a compilation of more than 600 original recipes, photos and stories. More recipes can be found at chicago.suntimes.com/taste.

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