Let's talk about meatballs for a moment, shall we?
I am a MAJOR meatball fanatic! So much so, that when we make up our huge batches of Sunday Gravy, I could easily skip the pasta altogether and just have a ginormous bowl of meatballs with sauce and some fresh, crusty Italian bread.
Well, until recently, if I was making any kind of meatballs, they were generally going into a big pot of red sauce, (Sunday Gravy) or I was making them as an appetizer... usually something like Swedish Meatballs, or what's referred to around here as "Jelly Meatballs". If you're over 30, I'm sure you've likely made these, or at least eaten them, at some point. It's a recipe that was popular waaay back in the late 80's, (I think) that uses a simple, yet addictively delicious sauce comprised of equal parts bottled chili sauce (my favorite is Heinz Chili Sauce) and grape jelly. I've heard them called many names. Some people refer to them as "sweet and sour meatballs", while others call them "barbecue meatballs" and I've also heard many people refer to them simply as "cocktail meatballs".
(Hmmm.... I don't think I've ever typed the word "meatballs" that many times in a row in my life! lol)
I've made ricotta meatballs in the past, but I'd never made them before this, with the sole intention of using them as a stand-alone dish. But, man oh man, am I ever happy that I did! Just seeing these photos again, is making my mouth water and has me seriously wishing that I wasn't still recuperating from a recent trip South to spend time with our new grandson.
Honestly... if I wasn't feeling so completely wiped out right now, I'd probably be in the kitchen, making a huge batch - and it's not even noon. Ha!
But, that's not why you're here right now, is it? You're reading this post to find out how to prepare ricotta meatballs. And right now, because I love you all so very much, I'm going to oblige.
Baked Ricotta Meatballs are basically regular meatballs, but with a little extra "sumpthin' sumpthin' "in the mix plus they're baked in separate individual portions. Or, if you wanted to, you could certainly make them in a large family sized casserole as a main dish. You can also add these to your Sunday Gravy for a traditional Spaghetti & Meatballs dinner. Either way, (obviously, this goes without saying) they both start with the recipe for the Ricotta Meatballs!
This might look a bit complex to those of you who are beginning cooks, but it's really not. Even though the ingredient list is a bit on the long side, I promise that once you have everything you need laid out, you can easily throw the ingredients together in about 15 minutes and have your meatballs ready to cook.
Baked Ricotta Meatballs
(makes about 2 dozen large meatballs)
- 2 Lbs Meatloaf Mix (**see note)
- 1 Lg Yellow Onion, very finely minced
- 1/4 Cup Seasoned Dry Breadcrumbs
- 3 Lg Eggs
- 1 Cup Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese
- 1/4 Cup Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese (**see note)
- 1/4 Cup Fresh Parsley, chopped
- 1 Tsp Garlic and Herb or Italian Seasoning
- 1 Tsp Dried Oregano
- 1 Tsp Dried Basil
- 1 Tsp Onion Powder
- 1 Tsp Garlic Powder
- 2 Tsps Salt
- 1 Tsp Black Pepper
- Extra Light Olive Oil (for frying)
- 4 Cups Marinara Sauce
- 1/2 Lb Mozzarella Cheese, sliced into 1/2 inch pieces
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the 2 lbs of meat in a large mixing bowl.
Peel and quarter the onion and then mince it very finely. ( I would highly recommend using a food processor or a blender to do this) Add this to the mixing bowl. You want the onion to be as fine as you can get it, because it's raw going into the mix and big chunks of onion 1) make it more difficult to roll into a firm ball shape and 2) may not soften completely during the cooking process. I don't know about you, but I prefer not to bite into big chunks of semi-cooked onion in my meatballs.
Add the bread crumbs, eggs, onion and garlic powders, salt and the ricotta cheese to the bowl.
Mix these ingredients together loosely with a large heavy spoon or spatula. (Or you can always use your very clean hands)
If you don't have a garlic and herb seasoning blend like the one shown above, you can use any Italian seasoning blend combined 50/50 with a bit of extra garlic powder.
Add in your dried basil and oregano and your freshly chopped parsley.
Finely grate your Pecorino Romano and add it to the bowl.
**You can use Parmesan cheese if you don't have Romano on hand, but because a good Pecorino RRomano is made with sheep's milk, there's a subtle warm nuttiness that it brings to the overall flavor of the finished meatball. So, if you can get your hands on some good pecorino romano, I really do recommend it over the parm.
Mix all of the ingredients together well, making sure that you don't have any big "pockets" of one ingredient or another. Because meatloaf mix contains both veal and pork and also because the ricotta cheese is creamy and white, the overall mixture might look a bit more light in color than what you're used to seeing when using 100% ground beef. This is perfectly normal when using a soft (or fresh) cheese like ricotta. You can mix meat a little too much but you can also not mix it enough. You want a nice cohesive mix that holds together whe you roll them.
Cover the meat with a bit of cling film and put it in the refrigerator for about 15 to 20 minutes to firm up. (make sure to push the plastic wrap right down on top of the meat mixture, to prevent air getting to it - which can dry it out - while it's in the fridge chilling.)
Prepare a cookie sheet of large plastic cutting board by placing a big sheet of parchment or waxed paper on top. This will be the "landing pad" for your rough scoops of meat mixture before rolling the meatballs. It then becomes a good place to keep them "holding" as you're frying up each batch of meatballs.
Start by scooping them all roughly onto the parchment or waxed paper lined baking sheet. Once the sheet is full, roll each one into a classic meatball size and shape. I prefer to use an ice cream scoop to make more uniform sized meatballs. They cook more evenly in the same amount of time and are more aesthetically pleasing to the eye in the final dish. I use a #20 scoop, which holds a little over 2 ounces and I scrape it off flat on the edge of the bowl each time to keep them as uniform in size as possible. This ensures even cooking.
If you're making a double batch, you might need two cookie sheets, or you can fill the one sheet up, fry them all and then start the next wave of scooping and rolling once you've finished the first batch. If you are using the latter method, cover the mixture just as described above and put it in the fridge between uses.
If I'm making these specifically to add to my Sunday Gravy, I bake them in a 375 degree oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on their size. I do try to check and turn them once, right around the halfway mark. I then drop them into the sauce and even though they're cooked through at that point, they do cook a bit more in the sauce and become more tender in the process. But, when I'm making the individual meatball casseroles, I usually don't have as many to deal with, so I fry them in a pan with a little bit of light olive oil.
Since we are making these today as individual casseroles (or maybe putting them in a large baking dish for a buffet) and serving them as a hearty first course or as a main meal, we'll be frying them.
Pour about 2 tablespoons of a light or extra light olive oil (you can also use a vegetable, peanut or coconut oil) into a large heavy skillet, over a medium to medium high heat.
Fry the meatballs, turning every few minutes with a pair of tongs or a large spoon for a total of about 12 to 15 minutes. Make sure not to crowd the pan or they won't brown properly and will basically "stew" in their own natural juices. That would make them a bit tougher.
If you notice them getting brown too quickly, turn your heat down just a tiny bit and keep turning them to an uncooked, or less cooked side. You can usually tell how done they are, by the "feel" when you put light pressure on the top with your finger or with the utensil you're using to turn them. If there's no resistance at all, they're likely still raw in the center. If there is a firm, yet very slightly bouncy feel to them, they're pretty much cooked through.
Since they're going in the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes before serving, it's OK if they're a tiny bit uncooked in the center.
As they come out of the pan, place them on a large platter or clean cookie sheet, lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil or grease.
When all of the meatballs are finished, begin placing your desired amount in either individual serving dishes (like the one above) or into a large baking dish -I'm pretty sure that most people have a basic 13"x9"x2" Pyrex type of baking dish in their kitchen coffers, but if you don't, you can also use two pans. As long as they're oven proof, you're good to go. The important thing is to keep them in a single layer, since you're going to top each dish with yummy marinara sauce and slices of ooey-gooey mozzarella cheese.
For this specific dish, I prefer to buy the large balls of fresh mozzarella and slice it up myself, but if you're making a large casserole dish as a family serving, you can certainly buy the shredded style that's commonly used for pizza. A blend of shredded Italian cheeses would also work fine. It's really a personal taste thing.
You want to keep your mozzarella slices about 1/4 inch thick. If you slice it much more than that, they won't melt as nicely.
You can use your favorite store bought marinara sauce, or of course, if you have homemade sauce on hand, that's all the better! I had some in the freezer, so I just thawed it out by putting it in the fridge the night before.
Spoon enough marinara sauce over the top of the meatballs to cover them and also cover the bottom of the baking dish(es) that you're using.
I like to cut the slices into smaller pieces when I'm using the individual casserole dishes. It could just be my imagination, but I really feel like it melts more evenly and it doesn't hurt that each tender, juicy meatball gets it's own little "blanket" of gooey, melted cheese. What the heck... whether it's my imagination, or it actually makes sense scientifically, it works for me!
Cover each of the meatballs with the mozzarella slices and...
place the casserole dishes (or single pan, if that's what you're using) on a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil, a silicone mat or parchment paper. You can use the pre-shredded mozzarella for this, but you won't get the creaminess that you do with this style. Think about your standard pizza, for instance. Shredded cheese gives you that great stringy, gooey effect that we all ooh and ahh over when we pull a slice from the pie... but for this kind of preparation, it's so much better to have a more creamy, gooey texture when you dig in with your fork.
Bake the casseroles in your preheated 350 degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, depending on whether your oven runs hotter or colder. If you've prepared these earlier in the day and refrigerated them, remove them from the fridge about half an hour before you plan to cook them. This will give them time to come up to room temperature.
Allow the meatballs to rest for about five minutes before serving. They can be served as an appetizer, a side dish with pasta, or as a main course. I like to serve them with a nice tossed green salad for a light, yet filling lunch or dinner. And they also make a great side dish alongside spaghetti (or any other kind of pasta) with marinara sauce!
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