As promised, here is my recipe for Italian Jewish meatballs in tomato sauce. This dish can either be part of the Cuscussu’alla Livornese (Italian Jewish version of couscous) or cooked on its own. The main difference with normal Italian meatballs is the lack of Parmesan cheese and/or milk which is usually used to soften and give more taste to the meat. I like to wet the breadcrumbs in a little vegetable broth to give extra taste and I also use cinnamon and nutmeg. The latter is something that my mother and my grandmother used. My guess is that this is a Sephardic influence in the dish, as the use of sweet spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg do not appear in general Italian cuisine.
The traditional Roman Jewish way to make meatballs in tomato sauce is to use minced chicken and to add celery sticks to the tomato sauce. I prefer to use beef, or to mix beef and lamb together, but do try the chicken/turkey version as it is also very tasty.
I also do not mix onions with the raw meat. I like to pre-cook them on a slow flame and add the meat once the onion are soft. This gives give a more delicate flavour and makes the meatballs more digestible.
Preparation time: 45 minutes. Serves 4-6 as main course.
● 500g finely minced beef/lamb/chicken/turkey
● 400g tin plum tomato in tomato juice
● 2 finely sliced onions
● 2 medium free range eggs
● 2-3 tbsp breadcrumbs
● 5-6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
● 1 teaspoon vegetable bouillon
● ½ tsp nutmeg
● ½ tsp of cinnamon
● 4-5 leaves of fresh basil
● Splash of white wine
● Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
● Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and add the onions together with some salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, adding a little warm water to help soften the onion.
● Meanwhile, prepare the meatball mixture. Gently beat the eggs and add the cinnamon, the nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mix and add the minced meat. Work it well with your hands or a fork and finally add the breadcrumbs. Mix again until you have a homogeneous consistency.
● Tip: For extra flavour, wet the breadcrumbs in a little stock/broth before adding it to the mixture. Do this by diluting the vegetable bouillon in 2-3 tablespoons of warm water.
● Roll the mince into compact round meatballs (5cm/2in diameter). Gently place the meatballs into the saucepan with the onions, trying not to place one on top of another.
● Cook over a medium heat until the meatballs turn golden on all sides. Add a splash of wine and stir well and cook for a few minutes until the wine has evaporated.
● Once the wine has evaporated, crush the plum tomatoes in tomato juice, add them to the meatballs and stir well.
● Add a few tablespoons of water and leave to cook, covered and in a low flame, for about ½ hour, gently stirring occasionally. Once cooked, add the basil and serve hot. It keeps well for a few days and is suitable for freezing.