Let's get a few things straight before I start this recipe.
I am in the camp of people who find Jamie Oliver a rather annoying personality (the pseudo-geezer thing), but who appreciate what he has done for food in Britain (example). I like his early books (I only got as far as the first two), but I sit firmly with the Italians when it comes to 'Jamie's Italy'. Basically, if Italy is, as he says, his biggest inspiration ("I should have been Italian"), then why can’t he respect the time-honoured recipes developed over generations instead of coming in and throwing all manner of herbs and spices into dishes that traditionally would have been made up of a few ingredients, cooked simply and allowed to shine. In the words of Angela Hartnett,
Nonna taught me to understand what great Italian cooking is all about: start with the very best raw ingredients and do very little to them; just let them speak for themselves, and make the best of their natural flavours and textures.
I have heard many an irate Italian complain about Jamie’s habit of taking a perfectly good Italian recipe and chucking in a bit of this and a bit of that, making it an entirely new dish in their view, but still calling it by the same name.
I was also until quite recently in the camp of people who think meatballs are boring, would never dream of making them at home, and who would certainly never order them in a restaurant. That was, until my friend Rachel stayed with me in London last year and made me this recipe. It was only this week, when I asked her where it was from, that I found out that it was one of Jamie’s elaborate takes on the traditional, and in my opinion rather dull, Italian meatball. Hmm.
So it is that I must bashfully acknowledge that Jamie Oliver, in this instance, gets one point over the Italians; sometimes, but only sometimes, messing about with their traditional recipes can lead to good results.
In her version of the recipe, Ray has added and substituted a few ingredients: you will note that coriander seeds were not in the original recipe and that she uses balsamic rather than red wine vinegar in the tomato sauce. I would also lean towards balsamic vinegar, because it is sweeter. Nonetheless, I find that any vinegar leaves the sauce tasting a little acidic and find that adding a spoon of muscovado sugar takes the edge off. This is the only ingredient I've added, I hope Ray won't mind.
If you have looked at Jamie’s recipe, you will also notice that Ray does not bother with the optional ingredients. I assume that she, like me, thinks onion and garlic to be unnecessary additions when the sauce is packed full of them; I do love garlic and onion though, so I am not opposed to the idea. Dijon, on the other hand, is to me a perfect example of Jamie overcomplicating things.
I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I did. Perhaps I will inspire a few more meatball converts in sharing it.
For the tomato sauce
For the meatballs
Serves 3-4 as a main course
For the tomato sauce
Add the olive oil to a large saucepan and put over a low heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions, garlic and oregano, stir and cover with a lid.
When they are soft and pale yellow in colour, add the tomatoes and brown sugar. Leave this to simmer while you prepare the meatballs. Ray says, “I usually cook the sauce for a while and then add the balsamic at the end with the basil. This seems to work better than adding it earlier”. I certainly agree on the basil front, the fresher the better.
For the meatballs
Preheat the oven to 200C.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the minced meat, breadcrumbs, oregano, chilli flakes, rosemary, ground cumin and coriander seeds, egg, salt and pepper. I use my hands for this, as it is the best way to ensure the mix is well combined. You should then test the seasoning by either frying a little piece of the mixture or tasting a tiny bit raw.
Using your hands, form the mix into balls (the size is up to you) and put to one side on a plate or other flat surface.
Add the olive oil to a thick-based casserole pan and put over a high heat. When the oil is hot, add the meatballs and fry them until they are lightly browned on all sides.
Turn the temperature down to a low heat and add the tomato sauce; depending on the type of mince you are using, you may wish to drain the meatballs of any excess fat before doing this.
Break up the mozzarella over the top and sprinkle with parmesan. Cover and cook in the oven for about 15-20mins. Ray says, "I usually save a whole lot of basil for when it comes out as well" and, indeed, I would take that one step further and say keep it all for the end. When it comes out, throw the basil over the top and serve with crusty bread.
I tried Angela Hartnett's trick out tonight and it worked wonders. I didn't have any stale bread, so I just put enough milk on the breadcrumbs to wet them (approximately 2 tablespoons). Normally, my meatballs are a greyish colour inside, these were a rich brown and almost an entirely different consistency; a little lighter, but mostly softer. Admittedly, I didn't overcook them when browning like I sometimes do, but the difference was noticable right to the core.