In my very first blog post, rigatoni with meat sauce, I gave a teaser for my Sunday sauce recipe, with a promise for an upcoming post. Well, I’m ready to share…and I’m soooo excited for you to try this for yourself! To me, it’s more than the taste and how absolutely perfect it is, there’s an emotional connection as well. This is the sauce my grandmother made (with a couple of small adjustments) and one of the first foods I remember falling in love with. Waking up to meatballs browning in olive oil, with the scents of garlic, onions, celery, and parsley permeating the house…it’s going to be a good day!
My grandmother shallow fried her meatballs in olive oil. I consider this a must if you want the very best meatballs and sauce. I know others who swear by baking the meatballs in the oven prior to sinking them into the sauce or simply dropping raw meatballs right into the sauce and allowing them to cook with the sauce. I say no and no to both of those methods! I’ve actually never tried dropping raw meatballs into sauce, because…browning = flavor, enough said. However, I did try baking the meatballs on a sheet pan once and the results were…not good enough to repeat again. Sunday sauce is going to require some time to prepare, understand that going in, accept it, and know that all your effort will not go unnoticed. Lightly frying in olive oil creates a beautiful texture to the meatballs, firm on the outside, but ultra tender on the inside. And, as I already mentioned, browned meat is more flavorful than un-browned meat, but meat browned in olive oil… has even more flavor.
Aside from having great flavor, these meatballs are fork tender. Meatballs that are firm throughout, that you could use a knife and fork to eat, that have a very tight/dense composition, make me sad. If you’re taking the time to make Sunday sauce, you want the end product to be exceptional. There are a few steps to follow in order to ensure tender meatballs. First, using a combination of beef, pork, and veal, produce a lighter meatball than using beef alone. Second, Using fresh Italian bread soaked in milk, as opposed to dry breadcrumbs, also aids in lightening. And, lastly, try not to overmix the meatball mixture.
I’m focusing on the meatballs because they are such a key element to Sunday sauce. I do add both sweet and hot Italian sausage to my sauce, but I do not make them myself. My grandfather made the best Italian sausage and someday I’ll have to master this. For now, I use my favorite local sausage. Some choose to add browned, pieces of pork or beef to the sauce. Feel free to do this as well. When allowed to slow cook with the sauce, the pork/beef becomes extremely tender.
Some call this gravy, some call it sauce. There is no wrong answer as long as you cook the meatballs properly and allow the sauce to slowly cook down, developing a deep, rich flavor. If you don’t want to get up early on Sunday to begin preparation, I recommend starting the day before. Make everything, allow to cook for 6-8 hours, cool and refrigerate. This Sauce will only taste better the next day!
Yields: 24 (1/4 c. scoop) meatballs with plenty of sauce and sausage for a large family gathering or put half in the freezer for another night
The ingredients listed below are for both the meatballs and sauce. Do your chopping once and divide for meatballs and sauce.
- 1 Lb. ground beef (80 %)
- 1 Lb. ground pork
- 1 Lb. ground veal
- 3 large onions, finely diced, divided
- 3 celery ribs, finely diced, divided
- 12 garlic cloves, finely chopped divided (8 – sauce, 4 -meatball mixture)
- 1 cup fresh, flat leaf, Italian parsley, chopped, divided
- 2 cups Italian bread, roughly torn and soaked in 1/3 cup whole milk
- 1 cup Romano cheese, grated
- 3 large eggs (lightly beaten)
- 1 tablespoon sea salt (meatball mixture)
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper (meatball mixture)
- 4 large (28 oz.) cans whole, peeled, plum tomatoes (pureed in processor or blender)
- 1 (18 oz.) can tomato paste (reserve can)
- 1 (6 0z.) can tomato paste (reserve can)
- sweet and hot Italian sausage (1-2 pounds)
- Extra virgin olive oil for frying meatballs and for sauteeing vegetables
- Sea salt and black pepper for sauce
First get your sauce going. In a very large stock pot ( I use a 10 qt), add 1/4 cup of olive oil and saute 2/3 of the onions you diced (2 diced onions), 2/3 celery (2 diced celery), 8, finely chopped, garlic cloves, and 1/2 cup parsley over medium heat, until softened, but not brown. Add the 2 cans of tomato paste and saute with the vegetables for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Fill your empty 18 oz. tomato paste can with water and add to pot. repeat two more times. Now, repeat the same process with the 6 oz. can. My grandmother would be very upset if you didn’t get every bit of paste out of those cans! Add the 4 cans of tomatoes you pureed either in the processor or blender. Stir well to combine and continue to cook over medium heat until it starts to bubble, then lower heat so that the sauce is just simmering.
For the meatballs, begin by sauteeing the remainder of the diced onions, celery, and finely chopped garlic in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Use the same large skillet you intend to fry your meatballs in (no need to dirty another pan). Saute the onion, celery, and garlic, just until softened. Set aside to cool for about 15 minutes. Now, in the largest mixing bowl you have, add ground beef, pork, and veal. Next, add the rest of the freshly chopped parsley, the soaked Italian bread, Romano cheese, eggs, 1 tablespoon salt and 2 teaspoons ground black pepper. Pour in the cooled sauteed vegetables. Thoroughly combine all ingredients in the bowl, while being somewhat gentle. I used a 1/4 cup ice cream scoop to portion my meatballs onto a sheet pan. Coat your large skillet with enough olive oil to reach 1/4 inch up the sides of the pan. Brown meatballs, turning as needed, over medium-high heat until they have formed a nice crust on all areas. When browning is complete, place meatballs directly into the pot of sauce. You will have to work in batches while browning the meatballs and change out olive oil as needed. When finished with browning meatballs, brown your sausage and add to the pot as well. For your final step, remove most of the oil from your pan where the meatballs were browned, take a ladle of sauce, pour it into the saute pan, and pick up the browned bits. Now, return it all to the large stock pot. The hard work is now complete!!! Simmer, on low, for 6-8 hours, checking that nothing is sticking to the bottom from time to time. To finish, test for salt and pepper. I ended up adding 4 teaspoons of sea salt and 2 teaspoons of pepper, but start slow, tasting as you add so you can find the perfect salt level for yourself.