Nigella Lawson’s Meatballs

“Meatballs.” Just the word conjures up feelings of culinary comfort for me; and when these tasty morsels are paired with pasta, I’m transported back to my childhood where they often showed up as part of a Sunday dinner. I do know that some Italian-food traditionalists may scoff at these meaty orbs coated with tomato sauce, dismissing them as Italian-American fare. Indeed, I recall having dinner with a friend from Italy who looked at me in disbelief when I ordered one as an appetizer in a well know Chicago restaurant. “Stai scherzando,” (You must be joking) he said. I trust the satisfied expression on my face after I consumed the last tasty morsel proved him wrong.

This post will be the first in a series devoted to meatballs that I plan to publish periodically over the next few months. The recipe, “Pasta with Meatballs” comes from Nigella Lawson’s cookbook Nigella Bites and can also be found online. (I used the latter.) I chose it for a number of reasons: I found some ground pork in the back of the freezer; there was no frying or roasting involved; and it yielded 30 meatballs slightly larger than a cherry tomato. Another motivation came from finding her online version of the recipe, which substituted semolina for breadcrumbs as well as jarred passata for canned tomatoes.

Except for using fresh parsley instead of dried oregano in the meatballs and foregoing sugar in the sauce, I pretty much followed the recipe as written. That it requires a minimum of prep and only 30 minutes of cooking time makes it a perfect dish for week night meals. Moreover, its elimination of either shallow frying, broiling, or oven roasting the meatballs before cooking them in the sauce, renders it even more attractive for entertaining.

Yet despite its simplicity, this recipe yields an utterly delicious plate of tender, juicy meatballs and perfectly sauced pasta. Far different from the proverbial “spicy meatballs” of advertising fame, these are mildly seasoned and full of succulent meaty flavors complemented by the savory notes from the Parmigiano and the sweet wheat hints from the semolina. The sauce is not overly thick and the aromatics and oregano subtly complement its rich tomato flavors.

My only caution, if you choose to prepare this recipe, is to taste for seasoning.

Pasta with Meatballs (adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Bites)


For the Meatballs

Meatball Ingredients

8 ounces ground pork
8 ounces ground beef
1 large egg
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan (I used about 3 tablespoons.)
1 clove garlic (minced)
1 teaspoon dried oregano (I substituted 1 tablespoon of minced fresh parsley.)
3 tablespoons semolina or breadcrumbs
good grinding black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt (I think 1 ½ to2 teaspoons might be better.)

For the Tomato Sauce

Sauce Ingredients

1 onion
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil (not extra-virgin) (I used extra-virgin.)
3 cups tomato passata or chopped tomatoes whizzed to a puree
1 pinch of sugar (I omitted the sugar.)
kosher salt
½ cup whole milk


For the meatballs:

1. Just put everything in a large bowl and then, using your hands, mix to combine before shaping into small balls. (The balls should be slightly larger than a cherry tomato. At that size, you should have approximately 30 meatballs.)

Everything in the bowl
Combining by hand
Combined mixture
Rolling by hand

2. Place the meatballs on baking sheets or plates that you have lined with plastic wrap, and put each in the fridge as you finish them. (I suggest letting them remain the fridge for 15 minutes or so.)

The rolled meatballs

For the tomato sauce:

1. Put the onion, garlic and oregano into the processor and blitz to a pulp.

Ingredients in the processor
Blitzed to a pulp

2. Heat the butter and oil in a deep, wide pan, then scrape the onion-garlic mix into it and cook over low to medium heat for about 10 minutes. Don’t let the mixture stick to the pot, just let it become soft.

Heating butter and oil
Adding onions
Cooked onions

3. Add the tomato passata and then half-fill the empty bottle with cold water (approx. 1¼ cups water).

Adding the passata

4. Add the water to the pan with the pinch of sugar and some salt and pepper, and cook for about 10 minutes. The tomato sauce will appear thin at this stage, but don’t worry as it will thicken a little later. (I omitted the sugar.)

Adding the water
Sauce after 10 minutes

5. Stir in the milk, and then drop the meatballs in one by one. Don’t stir the pan until the meatballs have turned from pink to brown as you don’t want to break them up.

Adding the milk
Stirring in the milk
Dropping in the meatballs

6. Cook everything for about 20 minutes, with the lid only partially covering it. At the end of cooking time, check the seasoning, as you may want more salt and a grind or two more of pepper. (I cooked mine for 30 minutes to reach an internal temperature of 160°F.)

The cooked meatballs
Plated with pasta

Wine Pairing: Chianti, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

8 thoughts on “Meatballs: Installment #1

  1. “I always learn something from Roland’s posts” was Tricia’s comment upon reading this post first thing this morning. The semolina replacement for panko is fascinating (and timely as we had a panko-panic just this week when we realized we were out of panko while in the middle of making another food that foodies scoff at but that is also fantastic if done correctly – meatloaf). My reaction to reading this was the far less sophisticated “there will be more meatball installments huzzah!” We will definitely try this. Thanks Roland. Great post!

    1. Thanks once again, Eric. Although the book version of the recipe had the breadcrumbs, I thought the video’s use of semolina was a great idea. I’m also amazed at how panko has become so trendy as of late. Miss you guys.

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