Let it never be said that meatball sandwiches are not haute cuisine. This recipe is a production and a half, but I truly madly deeply believe it to be well worth it. I suppose that, in a state of desperation, you could cheat and use pre-made pesto and marinara, but this sandwich is just utter perfection when (and only when!) made entirely from scratch. One time I even made the fussbudget Tartine bread recipe that takes up the majority of that cookbook (the same book that these sandwiches are adapted from) and the experience reached a whole new level of transcendence. Don’t worry, you absolutely don’t have to do that part, but you do have to use very lovely bread. The kind of dedication that the aforementioned fusspot bread requires is only a reasonable request for someone who is living in a seemingly endless cycle of winter, trapped indoors by -30 degree weather, and needs a task in order to avoid an overdue bout of cabin fever.
A final word: I will say that if you seek to avoid messy foods, maybe assemble these as individually wrapped bunwiches (or baguette-wiches) and bake for less time. Personally, I think the appeal of meatball subs is the unsightly hedonistic sloppiness, but that’s just me.
Tartine Meatball Sandwiches
Adapted somewhat from Chad Robertson (Tartine Bread)
Serves ~6, depending on level of gluttony
4 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 medium yellow onion, diced
¾ cup whole milk
2 cups coarse homemade bread crumbs (literally just blitz a bunch of stale bread in the blender or food pro – voila!) – please don’t use the type in a can that are close relatives of sawdust
1 lb ground beef (at least 20% fat content if not higher – this means no lean or extra lean beef!)
1 lb ground pork
3 large eggs
1 cup grated pecorino romano cheese (fresh parmesan would also work)
¼ cup dry red wine
1 large bunch flat-lead (Italian) parsley, stems removed and discarded, leaves chopped
1 ½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup finely chopped garlic
¼ cup fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley leaves, chopped
¼ cup basil leaves, chopped
½ cup baby arugula, chopped
¼ cup pine nuts
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes
1 loaf of crusty, hearty, rustic bread (preferably a round loaf); a wide baguette is also acceptable
8 slices provolone cheese
Start with the meatballs as they should hang out in the fridge for a while before rolling. In a large skillet over medium heat, warm 2 tbsp olive oil. Add the diced onion and sauté until translucent and lightly golden, ~10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. In a small bowl, combine the milk and bread crumbs, then let them sit until the crumbs have absorbed all or most of the milk (~5 minutes). Gently crumble the ground beef and pork into a very large mixing bowl, breaking the meat up carefully with your fingers, but by no means mushing or squeezing it. Add in the cooled onion, soaked breadcrumbs (along with any residual milk), eggs, pecorino cheese, red wine, parsley, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Toss the ingredients together to combine, almost like you would a salad. You want everything to be mixed in thoroughly, but try to avoid overworking the meat (read: squeezing) as this tends to toughen the meatballs more than is preferable. Pinch off a piece of the meatball mixture and fry it in a small pan, just until safe to consume. Taste the cooked meat and decide if you need to add more salt to the mixture (it’s easier to do now versus when they’ve all been rolled – do it if it needs it, you can always fry off another little piece to check the saltiness again). Once the salt levels are satisfactory to you, cover and refrigerate the meat for at least 1 hour, or overnight. This allows the mixture to be less wet as the excess liquid gets absorbed and allows for easier rolling. The mixture will likely seem quite wet initially – that’s normal. Keep in mind that while some of the wetness is absorbed, the mixture does tend to be softer and more delicate than other meatball recipes. I have learned to live with this, since the end result is such a tender meatball.
While the meatball mixture chills, make the pesto. Combine all of the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until a smooth paste has formed. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. Make the tomato sauce by heating the olive oil in a large saucepan set over medium heat. Saute the garlic and onion until fragrant, but not coloured, ~5-7 minutes. Use your hands to crush the canned tomatoes into the saucepan (mind the rogue seeds that like to squirt out with impressive speed!), then pour in the remaining juices from the can. Bring the sauce to a semi-vigourous simmer (bubbling, but not flecking everything in sight with red juice) and let reduce for ~20 minutes, until thick but pourable. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove the tomato sauce from the heat, but keep in the saucepan.
Once you’re ready to roll out the meatballs, prepare a large baking sheet by lining it with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Use a 1 tbsp measure to scoop out heaping spoonfuls of meatball mix, then roll into small balls and set on the baking sheet. Repeat until all of the meatballs have been rolled (you should have ~60). Since this recipe makes far more meatballs than a person could ever reasonably eat in sandwich form, I recommend freezing and saving them for the next time you’re lazy and need dinner (speedy spaghetti and meatballs, anyone?). You can now let the meatballs hang out in the fridge (draped in plastic wrap), or cook right away. To cook, heat 1 tbsp olive oil in your largest skillet set over medium heat. Working in 2 batches (assuming you’re not using all the meatballs today), place the meatballs around the pan, ~½ inch apart from each other so as not to overcrowd things. Brown the meatballs on all sides, moving them gently when it’s time to flip, as they’re quite delicate (I like using tongs, as they can help you squish the balls back together should things start to fall apart). Don’t be dissuaded if some of them break up slightly – they’re getting squished up in a sandwich soon anyways. Transfer the cooked meatballs to a plate and cook the remaining batch using the last tbsp of olive oil. If things start burning or getting too hot, just turn down the heat to medium-low and remove any burnt bits from the pan as needed between batches. Once all the meatballs are cooked, transfer them into the saucepan of warm tomato sauce. Set over medium-low heat to keep warm while you get the bread ready.
Prior to assembling the sandwiches, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Split the loaf of bread (or baguette) in half lengthwise, so that you have a top and bottom piece. Set the pieces on a very large sheet of aluminum foil so that they can be wrapped once the sandwich has been assembled. Spoon the meatballs and tomato sauce onto the bottom half of the loaf, ensuring that the entire surface is thickly covered with sauce and meatballs. Top with provolone cheese slices to cover. Spread the top half of the loaf generously with pesto and set on top of the bottom half. Loosely wrap the sandwich in the foil, gently squish down, and bake until the cheese has completely melted and the bread is crispy and toasted, ~20 minutes.
Let the sandwich sit, wrapped, for 10 minutes before removing the foil. Cut into thick wedges and serve while warm and melty. I should add that these do actually reheat shockingly well the next day if re-wrapped and re-heated in the oven. That suggestion is predicated on there being any leftovers, which, if you’ve tasted these already, you realize is laughable.