There are two kinds of potlucks. The first is the potluck where you know pretty much everyone. There’s the group of friends who will devour the spiciest tika masala you can muster, while another bunch would be happier with bacon mac and cheese. It’s easy to decide what to make because you have a handle on what everyone likes.
Then there is the potluck where you aren’t familiar with the general party palate. This is when the classics come in handy. For this kind of party I stick to the tried-and-true favorites. Dishes like sausage and peppers or pasta fagioli are easy to make, flavorful, and the less adventurous will feel safe having a taste.
I know not everyone is as enthusiastic as I am about being in the kitchen. Maybe you don’t mind cooking for yourself, but the idea of cooking for a crowd is more daunting. Don’t worry, darlings. If you show up to your next potluck armed with a bottle of red wine and these meatballs, you’ll be a hit.
Meatballs in Fresh Tomato Sauce
For potlucks I like to roll small, 1”-diameter meatballs. It means everyone will be guaranteed a taste and they will be easy to eat in any party situation. This recipe makes about 50 mini meatballs.
With tomato season in full swing, be on the lookout for tomato seconds at your local farmers’ market. Seconds are super ripe tomatoes and sometimes you can get larger quantities at a discount. And they are literally perfect for sauce.
While this recipe is easy, it’s not fast. It takes time for the sauce to thicken and the flavors to blend. But a meaty tomato sauce is, like George Clooney, better with age. You can make this recipe a day or two before your party; just reheat it in the oven before heading out. Be sure to read the recipe all the way through—there are a few steps that can be done simultaneously that will be a time saver. You can make your meatballs ahead of time and relax while your sauce simmers.
4 lbs soft, very ripe tomatoes, cored
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 bay leaves
12 basil leaves, thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb ground beef
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1/2 cup lightly packed parmesan or pecorino romano, finely grated
1 Tbs dried oregano
- Fill a medium saucepan about 3/4 of the way full of water and bring to a boil. Drop to a hard simmer and add the tomatoes in batches of three or four—they should have some room to bob around in the water. Leave each batch in the water for 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and allow to cool until you’re able to comfortably handle them.
- While the tomatoes are cooling, in a large wide-mouthed pot, heat the oil over medium heat. When it’s just begun to shimmer, but not smoke, add the onions, red pepper flakes, and a bit of salt. Lower heat to medium low and cook for twenty minutes.
- While the onions have about 5 minutes left, peel your tomatoes. The skin will slip right off them.
- Add the garlic to the onions and simmer for another 2-3 minutes.
- Add the white wine and the liquid from the peeled tomatoes. Raise heat and bring to a boil. Reduce liquid by about half; 6-7 minutes.
- Add peeled tomatoes. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook about 10 minutes.
- Mash the tomatoes well with a potato masher, add the bay leaves and some black pepper. Put 30 minutes on your oven timer. Let the sauce continue to simmer over medium-low heat while you make the meatballs. Every so often, crush and stir the sauce with the potato masher.
- Combine all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl and mix well with your hands to combine. Shape meatballs into 1” spheres.
- At the end of the 30 minutes on your timer, add the meatballs to the sauce and cover. Simmer gently for twenty minutes, stir occassionally.
- Raise heat and simmer uncovered for another 10 minutes or so, stirring more frequently as sauce thickens. If it’s bubbling too hard, lower your heat. Remove from heat when you like the thickness of the sauce—all tomatoes are different so you may need more or less time for your sauce to thicken.
- Garnish the serving bowl with your heap of fresh basil and let guests stir it in as they help themselves.
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