Smoked meatballs and tomato gravy are tasty twists on Italian classics

That's a smoky meat-a-ball!

click to enlarge A smoked meatball sub with crushed tomato sauce. - Andy Huse
Andy Huse
A smoked meatball sub with crushed tomato sauce.

Some of the best recipes don't feature written ingredients, but come to us in a fit of culinary creativity. Two of my recent kitchen experiments with tomatoes have yielded excellent results: smoked meatballs with crushed tomato sauce and tomato "gravy." While the recipes are not revolutionary, they offer tweaks to more traditional preparations with intriguing results.

There are endless iterations of meatballs and tomato sauce. Years ago, when I threw almost anything into my smoker, I experimented with smoked meatballs simmered in tomato sauce and knew I had a winner. The smoky flavor does nothing to diminish the flavors of tomato sauce. Instead, it enhances them.

Most meatball lovers have their own special recipes. My meatballs call for two-thirds ground beef to one-third Italian sausage. I bind them with milk-soaked bread, eggs, breadcrumbs and a little garlic. I tend to let my meatballs play the straight guy, and see no reason to gild the lily with lots of herbs, spices or vegetables. But recently, inspired by Frankies Spuntino in Brooklyn, I added pine nuts and golden raisins for a flourish.

As for sauce, I prefer a straight-ahead version with whole canned tomatoes crushed by hand, onions, green peppers, red wine and garlic, spiced with fresh basil, dry oregano and red pepper. I'm keen on giving my sauce a spin with an immersion blender, as it gives the sauce more body and consistency.

To prepare the meatballs, start by quickly browning them on the grill (or on a grill pan). This helps prevent them from falling apart while lazing in the lower temperatures of the smoker. Then smoke them over low temperature for an hour or two at the most. You definitely do not want to over-smoke them, which may produce a bitter flavor that will throw off your sauce. Dump the meatballs into the sauce and simmer a minimum of 20 minutes over low heat to be sure they are cooked through. An hour of simmering would be better, but you may find yourself growing impatient once you taste the sauce. I prefer to serve the smoked balls as a meatball sub, slathered with plenty of sauce and garnished with fresh basil, parm, Romano, and/or Asiago.

Below, I've put together a more exact recipe for my take on tomato "gravy." The first time I tasted tomato gravy was at a restaurant called Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, Mississippi. Blown away by the way the creaminess of the gravy offset the sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes, I was instantly hooked.

After some research, I experimented with recipes and eventually arrived at my own. Using whole tomatoes crushed by hand makes for the best gravy, allowing a little bit of separation between the roux-based gravy and chunky tomatoes. I found that, when served with other flavorful dishes, the gravy seemed a little thin on flavor and needed more body. That's where the jalapeños and hot sauce come in, enough to give the gravy a boost. Some recipes call for milk to be stirred into the roux, which often results in curdled gravy. Instead, I use broth and finish the gravy with milk. However you make it, I suggest you try some tomato gravy with biscuits, grits, eggs, or any savory breakfast. It's also great on steaks and chops.

Tomato Gravy

Makes 2-4 servings

Ingredients:

2-4 slices of bacon

3 tablespoons of reserved bacon grease

Half a medium onion, diced

1 jalapeño, seeds removed, diced

3 tablespoons flour

1 14.5 oz. can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped

1 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon hot sauce

Pinch of sugar

Salt and pepper to taste0x000A

Directions:

Cook bacon in skillet and reserve grease. Drain and reserve one or two slices of bacon.

Cook onion and jalapeno in reserved grease over medium heat until slightly caramelized. Add flour and stir until flour browns slightly. Add tomatoes and stir one minute. Add broth and stir until smooth.

Turn heat to low and add milk, hot sauce, and sugar. Crumble one or two slices of cooked bacon into gravy and stir until incorporated. Liberally add ground black pepper and salt to taste. Serve over smoked meatballs.

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