meatballs and red sauce

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as a little girl, i spent most of my time in the kitchen watching my italian nana cook. she made a delicious red sauce that i’m still chasing to this day. culinary school taught me all the nuances of sauce making and flavor coaxing and when i applied those techniques to my memories of my nana’s sauce, a new “sunday gravy” of my own was born. one of the biggest mistakes that cooks make with red sauce is rushing the early steps and not cooking it long enough. sautéing the dried basil is paramount to releasing the aromatic oils trapped inside. and, to that point, sautéing the tomato paste until a beautiful deep red emerges and creates a savory base for your sauce to grow from cannot be rushed. i like to use red wine vinegar, instead of red wine, to cut right to the acid bang. a wonderful thing happens when acid rich tomatoes pair with vinegar. the two acids both intensify each other and mellow each other out. i can’t explain it any better than that. science! cooking the sauce low and slow in a dutch oven is my preferred method. you can simmer it on the stovetop, but putting it in the oven keeps the temperature nice and even and you can just forget about it.

as for the meatballs, i know that a meat mixture of pork, beef, and veal is the classic combo, but i implore you to try ground turkey thighs instead. it has the perfect fat to muscle fiber ratio and ends up tasting just like the classic mix. it has to be turkey thighs. chicken thighs are not fatty enough. also, don’t try to mix in white meat to make things “healthier”. your meatballs will end up dry and disappointing. nobody needs to be disappointed by a meatball, we have the daily news for that!

meatballs in red sauce (serves 4 to 6)

  • 1 pound ground turkey thighs (do not use white meat turkey)
  • 1/3 cup plain panko bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 4 large garlic cloves, grated
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar 
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste 
  • 1 carton strained tomatoes (I prefer Pomi)


Preheat oven to 375.

for meatballs, place panko crumbs in a large bowl and stir in the milk.

when the crumbs have absorbed all the milk and it looks like a paste, blend together with the eggs, grated garlic, basil, oregano, salt, pepper and parmesan.

add meat to bread crumb mixture and combine well with a fork. 

form into 12 even balls and place on a parchment covered rimmed baking sheet.

bake for 25 minutes, until slightly browned and firm to the touch.

while the meatballs are baking, make the sauce.

in a heavy bottomed saucepan, sauté the onion until soft.

add the chopped garlic, basil and salt and pepper and sauté for another 3 minutes.

add the red wine vinegar and cook until most of the liquid is cooked off, about 4 minutes.

add the tomato paste and sauté until deep red and aromatic, about 4 minutes more. 

add the strained tomatoes and bring up to a bubble. 

turn the heat to low and add the cooked meatballs to the sauce. 

cover the pot and let the meatballs simmer in the sauce tucked in a 250 degree oven for around 3 hours.

serve with spaghetti, cooked until al dente and tossed lovingly in the sauce with the meatballs served on the side or on top.

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