Let the record reflect: I’m not Italian. I didn’t grow up with stories from the Old Country in my ears, tugging at the apron strings of a Pugliese-bred granny. I have no genetic memories of tagliatelle or cavatelli or pasta fagioli. But I married into an Italian-American family (Sicilian and Calabrese by way of Brooklyn), and have considered it my marital and filial duty to quit overcooking my pasta and to learn to make a decent meatball. And friends, I am thrilled to report we have success!
You’ll notice, as I did, all the usual suspects appear in this meatball recipe: herbs, breadcrumbs, a bit of egg. The secret weapon turns out to be a half cup of ricotta (how simple! how genius!) which keeps everything incredibly light and tender and juicy. So much so that I was able to swap out lean ground beef for chicken (and ground turkey, in an earlier test-run) with equally succulent results. Baked in the oven (no splattery stovetop mess!) and tossed with pesto or tomato sauce, they’re weeknight-easy to prepare; serve over pasta or as a side dish with a cozy winter soup.
inspired by the Meatball Shop Cookbook by Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow, 2011
makes about 24 cocktail-sized meatballs; recipe multiplies easily
- 1 lb ground chicken, preferably thigh meat
- 1/2 C ricotta
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 C breadcrumbs
- 2 Tbsp grated Parmigiana-Reggiano or other hard Italian cheese
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/8 C flat-leaf parsley, very finely chopped
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp ground fennel
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder
- healthy pinch of crushed red pepper
- 7 oz store-bought pesto
Let the chicken come to cool room temperature. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Drizzle a bit of olive oil in an 8×8 or roughly similar pan (preferably an oven-to-table type) and use your hands to coat the sides and bottom of the pan. In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients and form into small meatballs, slightly smaller than a golf ball (about 1.5″ in diameter). Form a snug grid, with the meatballs touching, to help them keep their shape. (Don’t worry if you don’t fill the pan all the way.)
Bake for 20 minutes, until the meatballs are firm and register 165 degrees when tested with a meat thermometer. Drain the grease from the pan and discard. Use a paring knife to separate the meatballs and toss with half the pesto. Return to the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Serve over pasta dressed with the remaining pesto, on top of toasted slabs of ciabatta, or with toothpicks (and cocktail napkins) as an antipasto.
Note: you can shape the meatballs well ahead of baking; bring to room temperature for the better part of an hour before putting in the oven.
Variations: omit the pesto and toss with 2 C of store-bought or homemade tomato sauce. You can substitute ground turkey (preferably dark meat or a combination of dark and white) or 80% lean ground beef.