Melting meatballs in a ratatouille tomato sauce

I made this concoction up on a hot, sticky, Sunday afternoon when faced with a defrosted block of minced beef and too many courgettes threatening to go squashy. It was too hot to even contemplate spag bol or cottage pie but for some reason meatballs felt just right. I know it's normal to crave salad in a heatwave but sometimes only red meat will do.

These meatballs are so soft I admit to surreptitiously checking they're actually cooked in between mouthfuls. There are three stages to making them and if I'm honest I couldn't be bothered to conjure these up on a Monday night. They're more for a Sunday afternoon when you have a little bit more time on yours hands and the patience that only comes from a weekend (that's if you don't work them...) If I weren't pregnant I'd enjoy a glass of red wine or three whilst making them that would most likely end up smeared with raw meat in a slightly Elizabethan fashion. But I am, so the cranberry juice glass looked similarly murderous.

I wasn't really sure what to call this recipe. I know the purists will scoff at the ratatouille reference but I simply couldn't think of a better name. "Melting meatballs in a chargrilled veggie tomato sauce" seemed that little bit too long. Anyway, I hope it doesn't offend.

Though a bit of a faff to make, these reheat really well so make it worth your while and get a production line going. Shove some in the freezer and some into work lunchboxes if there's a microwave for reheating - they need about 4 minutes if fresh. My batch fed myself and my husband for 2 evenings but we eat a hell of a lot so really it probably serves 8 still quite respectfully.

Sauce ingredients:

- Tomatoes, courgettes and peppers cut into pieces about the size of a thumbnail (If you like aubergine pop some of that in too but it's not my thing)
- Medium onion, chopped quite finely
- Olive oil
- 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes (cheap ones are fine)
- Tomato puree
- Sugar
- Table salt (regular slug killing stuff not rock salt)
- Balsamic vinegar (the reduced sticky stuff if you have it, if not normal will do)
- Black pepper

Meatball ingredients:

- 500g minced beef - doesn't need to be hugely lean or the steak variety, whatever you have
- 2 handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs - white, brown or otherwise
- Milk
- Black pepper
- Mace or nutmeg ground/grated
- Dried oregano

Pop the oven onto Gas 7 or whatever is really high for your oven, then take a metal roasting tin or some other metal tray and slosh with olive oil. Scatter the tomatoes, peppers and courgettes onto it and mix together with your hands so evenly coated. Pop in the oven on a high shelf and shut the door. Check on them every 10 minutes. You need to take them out when they're started to blacken a bit and stick to the tin - a little chargrilled I guess.

You need to get the tomato sauce on as soon as the ratatouille mix is in the oven as it tastes better the longer it
cooks, in fact I'm sure it tastes better the next day after a night in the fridge magically improving. Fry the onion on a medium heat in a slug of olive oil, a teaspoon of salt and two tablespoons of sugar until starting to colour. Then add a squeeze of the balsamic vinegar reduction and turn up the heat (or regular balsamic if you can't get it though they do sell it in Morrisons now. I prefer it as it's so much sweeter for a tomato sauce than the regular vinegar.) Next add the two tins of toms plus a tin full of cold water from the tap, plus some black pepper and a generous squeeze of tomato puree. Turn up the heat so that the sauce is bubbling. Give it a stir every so often to stop it sticking. When the ratatouille veggies are ready add them too.

Right, now make the meatballs! You need two handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs in a large bowl. A word on breadcrumbs first - please don't buy them. They are so expensive considering they're simply oldish bread whizzed into bits. What I do is freeze all the ends of loaves of bread as for some reason they don't get eaten in our house. Then when I need some I take a few slices out the night before and leave to defrost in a plastic bag. Whizz up in a food processor the next day and there you have it. Sounds long and drawn out but really isn't and stops waste. I hate waste.

Anyway, cover the breadcrumbs in milk (any will do though full fat is nice so I stole it from my toddler's stash) until they look a bit like sludge/gruel. Then add black pepper, a good pinch of mace or nutmeg and about a tablespoon of oregano. Mix with a spoon then add in the minced beef. Now knead as if you were making bread for about a minute until the mixture looks a pinky flesh colour and doesn't have any 'waves' of mince left. Get a non stick frying pan on the hob on a medium to lowish heat and pop some more olive oil in to warm. It mustn't smoke - just be warm.

Before you start cooking, the meatballs should be the consistency whereby you know if you dropped one on the floor from a height it'd smash into a flattish splodge. A bit like mashed potato. Make the balls using your hands, size wise I'd stick to a little wider than a 50p piece otherwise they just don't cook through quickly enough. Only put a few into the hot pan at a time, maybe 7 for a large pan; they shouldn't be too close or they'll stew rather than fry. Let them brown on one side, then gently turn with a slotted spoon or spatula until they're browned on all sides. Lift out and sit them on a plate. Carry on until all the meatball mixture is gone. I think I made about 30 altogether and felt a mixture of accomplishment and relief when they were all done.

Nearly there! Gently add the meatballs to the ratatouille tomato sauce and move about VERY GENTLY to cover them in the now slightly reduced sauce. Keep on a low heat for 5 - 10 mins until hot. Don't be tempted to turn the heat up as it could mean your meatballs breaking into bits. If they do, don't worry, just stir into the sauce and eat anyway. You just don't get the melting sensation when you bite into them if they all break up but nevermind as still tastes good.

Serve with spaghetti or rice or whatever takes your fancy. You can add fresh/dried chilli to the sauce if you fancy something a bit arrabiatta like. We didn't bother with cheese but thinking about it there are very few dishes that don't benefit from a sprinkling of cheese (in my opinion.)
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