I’m just saying that if you’re gonna make Italian meatballs, they need to be saucy. In my humble opinion. Which probably isn’t so humble.
I don’t mind me a naked meatball, but there’s something just so freaking comforting about Italian meatballs swimming and simmering in a big cauldron of saucy goodness.
For all the time that I’ve been developing nightshade free recipes, I’ve actually never posted a “no-mato” sauce before! In general, I’ve shied away from substitute-type recipes because I know that I wasn’t really into or appreciative of them myself when I was originally going through an elimination protocol. I also wasn’t sure that I could trust my palate’s past with the recipes I was recommending to and making for you guys.
A case in point, if I hadn’t had a freaking tomato sauce in well past forever, how could I even trust that I was really coming close to the real thing? So I stayed away from these types of recipes. But now that I’ve got some reintroductions under my belt and am more experienced in what works for me, I’ve been able to try old recipes and that’s given me a base to start over with here.
The key to whipping up a tasty sauce for these Italian meatballs is to balance out the veggies (onion, carrots, butternut squash puree and pre-cooked beets) with two different types of acid (lemon juice & red wine vinegar). For extra umami, I like to reduce the carrots down in both broth and red wine (the alcohol cooks off) and blend some kalamata olives right into the sauce along with the seasoning.
Many “no-mato” sauces go really heavy on beets because they’re necessary to get the tomato-like hue. If you’re one of the people who thinks beets taste sweet, then that probably doesn’t bother you. But I’m in the “beets are earthy AF” camp and find they really overpower things for me, so I go pretty light on them in this Saucy Italian Meatballs recipe.
I like to use the pre-cooked canned beets (you can buy them in just water and salt) because they’re convenient and seem to be a little less strong than starting off with raw beets. If you want to really amp up the color from the beets to get a nice red sauce like in these photos, I don’t add more beets, but instead some of the cooking liquid from the can. That way, you’ll get the color boost with a little less beet-iness.
Add the juice a tablespoon or so at a time until you’ve got the balance between taste and color where you want it. If I’m making this sauce and Italian meatballs for myself, I’ll skip the additional beet juice, but for these photos I added an additional 1/4 cup / 60 ml to boost the color.
Like in the photos, these Italian Meatballs are lovely served with some extra parsley and a good sprinkle of my Nut Free Parmesan!
- 1 tbsp / 15 ml extra virgin olive oil
- ½ a medium red onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- ½ lb / 225 g carrots
- ½ cup / 120 ml red wine
- 2 cups / 480 ml chicken or beef broth, divided
- ¾ tsp fine sea salt
- ½ cup / 120 g butternut squash puree
- 4 oz / 115 g drained canned sliced beets (reserve the juices)
- 5 or 6 pitted kalamata olives
- 2 tbsp / 30 ml red wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp / 30 ml lemon juice
- 2 tsp / 2 g Italian seasoning
- 2 tsp / 2 g dried basil
- 1 bay leaf
- Optional, for color: additional reserved beet juice from the can (see notes)
- ¼ cup / 60 ml chicken or beef broth
- 2 tsp / 5 g powdered gelatin
- ½ a medium red onion
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 oz / 56 g pancetta or bacon, optional (see notes)
- 2 tbsp / 3g fresh parsley, minced
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- ½ lb / 225 g ground beef
- ½ lb / 225 g ground pork sausage (see notes)
- Avocado oil, for frying
- CARAMELIZE: Add the olive oil to a heavy bottomed dutch oven or oven safe skillet on the stove top over low-medium heat. While the oil is heating up, peel and dice the onion finely. Smash the garlic cloves with the back of a heavy knife and discard the skin. Add the sliced onions and garlic cloves to the hot oil. Cook, stirring often, until the onions begin to take on a light golden color, about 10 minutes or so.
- SOFTEN: Coarsely grate the carrots. Add them to the pan, along with the red wine, 1 cup / 240 ml of the broth and the salt. Bring the wine and broth mixture to a simmer, then partly cover the pan with a lid, leaving space for steam to escape. Cook the carrots until they soften, about 15 minutes or so.
- BLEND: Carefully transfer the cooked vegetables and cooking liquid to a blender, along with the last 1 cup / 240 ml of the broth, butternut squash puree, sliced beets, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, Italian seasoning and basil. (Make sure to reserve the beet juice when you're draining the beets). Blend - making sure to leave space for steam to escape the pitcher - until completely smooth.
- SIMMER: Return the blended liquid to the dutch oven or skillet, over low heat. Add the bay leaf. Bring to a gentle simmer, enough to keep warm and bubble gently, but not high enough for the sauce to thicken or evaporate too much, stirring often while the flavors develop, about 15 - 20 minutes. Taste and add additional seasoning if you like. Remove and discard the bay leaf. If you like, you can thin with additional broth or add additional beet juice for color (see notes). You'll need about 3 cups / 720 ml - 3½ cups / 840 mls of sauce in total. Keep warm on the stove top.
- BLOOM: While the sauce is simmering, add the broth to a bowl and sprinkle with the gelatin powder. Set aside for later.
- GRATE: Peel the onion and cut off the root end. Use the Medium / Coarse grater attachment in your food processor to grate the onion. Remove the grater attachment and replace the S blade in the food processor bowl.
- PULSE: Add the pancetta or bacon and garlic to the bowl and pulse until the bacon has a consistency similar to roughly ground meat. Add the parsley, oregano, basil, salt and meat to the bowl, then add the reserved bloomed gelatin on top. Pulse until the meatball mixture is just combined and you can see the seasoning flecked throughout. Don't over process!
- ROLL: Divide the meatball mixture into roughly 12 - 13 meatballs, using a ¼ cup / 60 ml scoop and roll them into smooth balls.
- BROWN: Add enough avocado oil to come almost halfway up the sides of the meatballs to a skillet over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, working in batches if needed, cook the meatballs until evenly browned on all sides.
- SIMMER: Add the browned meatballs to the warm sauce and bring to a simmer, cooking until the meatballs are cooked through and the sauce is hot, about 15 minutes.
Adding the pancetta or bacon helps increase the fat content for a juicier meatball. If you can't find pancetta, you can use bacon but smoked bacon will add a noticeable smoky flavor to the meatball. If you'd rather not have that smokiness, use an unsmoked bacon, if possible.
Standard grocery store ground pork is way too lean for this. You'll want to use a fattier ground pork, like the kind that's used to make sausage. Something like ground pork shoulder like my grocery store uses to make their sausage would work well. If you can't find pork like this, you can make the meatballs with all ground beef, preferably at least 20% fat.
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