COZY HOME-COOKED COMFORT by Olivia Mack McCool
Weeknight meatballs and homemade focaccia
What says home like a pot of simmering meatballs in tomato sauce and homemade bread? If that’s not inviting I don’t know what is! The combination might sound like a labor of love, but I have shortcuts for both that make these possible even on a weeknight.
The biggest time saver is that the meatballs aren’t fried, rather they are nestled into the sauce and simmered until cooked. Not only is this less labor intensive, it avoids the dreaded mess of splattered oil. The meatball mixture itself can also be made, and even formed into balls, a whole day ahead. That just leaves the step of making a quick, simple tomato sauce, and simmering the meatballs. If you’re feeling “extra,” dot the meatballs with small pieces of fresh mozzarella and pop them under the broiler until the cheese is melted and gooey.
Although pasta is the traditional pairing, I would venture to say that nothing is better for soaking up meatballs and sauce than a homemade focaccia. You can absolutely serve this with store bought bread, but this focaccia recipe is designed to be easy, fool proof and weeknight friendly.
First, you make a dough from flour, yeast, salt and water. There’s no kneading or special equipment needed; just stir it together with a rubber spatula, drizzle with some olive oil, cover and refrigerate. The refrigerator is where the magic happens. The dough needs at least 10 hours in the refrigerator to rise properly, but it also can be left for up to three days, making it flexible and ready for you when you’re ready to bake.
The afternoon before you plan to bake, scrape the dough into a well-oiled cake pan, cover and let rest on the counter for a few hours until dinner time. The fun part is when you get to plunge your fingers into the dough to make those signature dimples – it’s particularly fun for children to get involved at this point. Bake it for 30 minutes until the bread is golden brown. You will be shocked at the gorgeous homemade bread you just made. You can totally do this!
Recipe developer, cookbook author, food stylist and local mom Olivia Mack McCool lives in Maplewood. For more of her work and recipes, check out her website
oliviamackmccool.com and follow along on Instagram @oliviamackmccool.
Serves 4 (makes about 20 meatballs)
1 pound ground meat (any combo of beef, veal or pork)
½ cup plain breadcrumbs
⅓ cup milk
¼ cup grated parmesan
¾ teaspoon onion powder
1 large garlic clove, grated or minced
Small bunch of parsley, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
Sauce & Garnish:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of crushed red pepper
1 (28 ounce) can crushed or pureed tomatoes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into small pieces (optional, see last step)
Chopped parsley or basil, for serving
Grated parmesan, for serving
In a large bowl combine ground meat, breadcrumbs, milk, parmesan, onion powder, garlic, parsley, eggs, salt and black pepper. Begin by using a fork to break everything up, and then switch to your hands to blend the mixture. Form mixture into golf ball-sized meatballs and arrange on a plate. Refrigerate while you prep the sauce. These can also be formed, covered and refrigerated up to 1 day in advance.
In a large pot or high-sided skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and saute, stirring often for 1 minute until fragrant but not browned. Carefully add the tomatoes and season with salt.
Gently add the meatballs, one at a time, and cover with a lid. Turn the heat down to lowest setting and let simmer, without touching them, for 20 minutes. Uncover, gently turn the meatballs and continue to simmer for 10 more minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. Serve with grated parmesan and chopped parsley or basil.
Optional step: To take these meatballs to the next level, a layer of melted mozzarella never hurts. Either spoon the meatballs and their sauce into a baking dish or if your pan is wide enough, leave them right there. Lay the sliced mozzarella all over the top and sprinkle a little grated parmesan. Broil the meatballs on high for about 1-2 minutes, watching carefully, until the cheese is melted. Garnish with chopped parsley or basil and grated parmesan.
Makes a 9” x 9” slab
Timing: You need at least 1 night in the fridge plus 3-4 hours of resting time right before you bake it. I like leaving it in the fridge for 2-3 days. The longer it sits the better the flavor.
Yeast: You can use both instant yeast or active dry yeast in this recipe. The difference is that active dry yeast needs to be “activated” before you add it to the recipe. So, you’d need to sprinkle your active dry yeast over the lukewarm water plus a tiny pinch of sugar and let it sit for 5 minutes to get foamy. If it does not foam after 5 minutes, your yeast may be old. The tiny bit of sugar helps activate the yeast.
4 ½ cups (650 grams) all-purpose flour
3 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
2 ¼ teaspoons instant yeast (see note above if using active dry yeast)
2 ¼ - 2 ¾ cups lukewarm water (warm to the touch but not hot)
Olive oil (around ½-¾ cup)
Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling on the dough
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves (optional)
Combine the flour, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Whisk to combine. Pour in the warm water and using a rubber spatula, stir the dough. It will be very thick and sticky. Add more water, starting with ¼ cup, if your dough is too dry. Once a sticky dough ball forms, generously drizzle the top of the dough with olive oil and use your hands to spread the oil all over the top of the dough and a little bit on the sides. It should be well slicked with oil. Cover with a clean dish towel or plastic wrap and immediately place in the refrigerator. The dough will need at least 12 hours to rise, but you can leave it there for up to 3 days. The longer it sits, the better the flavor and texture will be.
Generously coat the bottom of a 9”x 9” cake pan with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil .If your pan is not non-stick and you’ve found things stick to it, consider lining the bottom with parchment paper and/or greasing the pan with softened butter in addition to the oil. Rub your hands with olive oil and scrape the now risen dough into the cake pan. Gently pat the dough, spreading it out a bit. It doesn’t need to reach the edges, as it will expand as it rests. Cover and let the dough rest at room temperature for 3-4 hours until it has expanded.
Preheat the oven to 425°. Generously drizzle the top of the dough with olive oil. Rub some oil on the tips of your fingers and then press all your fingers straight down into the dough to create deep dimples all over. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and rosemary leaves, if using. Bake the focaccia for 25-30 minutes until the underside of the bread is golden brown and crisp and the top is lightly golden brown. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool for 20 minutes before slicing.