Note: I received a mix of dried wild mushrooms from the lovely people at Marx Foods to test for this recipe! Thank you!
I realize that a post about delicious meatballs probably doesn’t need to start this way, but I’ve been falling apart at the seams this week. Over the weekend I had an allergic reaction to something. This happens to me every few years. I eat something new, I wear a new article of clothing, the moons aren’t properly aligned in my house or whatever, and I break out in hives. Then, on Monday, I received the dubious honor of being anointed the only person in my family to get pinkeye. I was a big, red, itchy mess all week, and as a result, we’ve been surviving and thriving on takeout and pizza. Even food writers need takeout sometimes.
Before my rash-splosion, in the throes of just another regular ole’ work week I threw together some pork meatballs in the slow cooker. My new friends at Marx Foods, a fine food purveyor in Seattle (and the folks who sponsored the amazing lamb contest I had the opportunity to compete in) sent me a variety of dried mushrooms and chilies, which I’ll be using in recipes for the next few weeks. The slow cooker is a good friend of ours here at home, although I’ve taken a long break from using it after I started realizing that a lot of the meals I was preparing ended up being bland and/or too one-note. As it turns out, that’s a common problem for slow cooker meals.
A few months ago, I ran across this great article over at Fine Cooking about ways to improve the flavor of slow cooker meals. A lot of the tips seemed counter intuitive to cooks who spend lots of time in the kitchen. Use dried herbs. Less liquid is better. Use more chilies. Even fish can even be flavorful in the slow cooker, when timed properly. I was especially intrigued by this recipe for pork meatballs, particularly because I’d specifically stopped making bolognese and other pasta sauces in the slow cooker because I wasn’t satisfied with how one-dimensional the flavors typically turned out. But, being as it was a weekday, I needed shortcuts. Enter my favorite secret ingredient: Trader Joe’s salt-free organic marinara sauce.
Normally I use canned Marzano plum tomatoes to make marinara sauce. However, a few months ago I bought this jarred sauce on a lark, looking for easy shortcuts to help me get dinner on the table faster. When it comes to my hungry eaters, every precious minute counts. I tried jar after jar of premade sauces, only to find them loaded with sodium, so much so that all I usually tasted was salt and not much else. I like this Trader Joe’s marinara because it’s like a blank slate. With no added salt, I can season it to my own palate, yet I still have a shortcut that saves me time in cooking down my own tomatoes.
Saving time on making the marinara turned out to be a lifesaver on this Fine Cooking recipe, because there were all sorts of problems in this recipe that I had to troubleshoot on the fly. For one, the recipe calls for two pounds of meat and instructs you to make 12 meatballs out of them. I’m no math magician, but after I broke apart my meat mixture, I ended up with some extremely hefty, baseball-sized meatballs weighing about 3-4 ounces each. See my pics up there? Yeah, that’s a lot of meat. So I did what any non-scientific, inaccurate recipe tester like myself would do: I broke the meatballs in half and re-rolled them into much more manageable, golf-ball sized ones. Ahh…sweet, sweet meatballs.
Then, I grabbed my Marx Foods dried wild mushroom mix, comprised of dried morels, lobster mushrooms, chanterelles, porcinis and black trumpets. A few solid chops of my kitchen knife later, my mushrooms were crumbled up and ready to drop into the marinara sauce. Since the Fine Cooking recipe called only for a 14 1/2 ounce can of crushed tomatoes and most of the reviews for the recipe seemed to bemoan a lack of sauce, I figured pouring all 26 ounces of my Trader Joe’s marinara would probably give the meatballs extra sauce to swim around. Second recipe problem solved — or so I thought.
Nestling the 24 meatballs into the slow cooker turned out to be a little bit of a challenge, and in hindsight I wished I’d opened a second jar of sauce and poured at least half of that jar into the slow cooker to give my meatballs even more room to breathe. The beauty of these slow cooker meatballs is that you don’t have to spend time pan-frying the meatballs — they just poach in the sauce with the slow cooker set to low for eight hours. When it was time for dinner, though — well, I really wished for that second jar of sauce. The meatballs had absorbed all of this wonderful mushroom-y flavor, full of earthiness and depth. But they’d also absorbed a good amount of that marinara, and every one of us wished for more of it.
The recipe I’ve posted below takes these modifications I made into account, but I haven’t had the opportunity to test it again with the changes I’ve made (see: Rash-Mania 2015, above). But the flavor of the meatballs in this mushroom-infused marinara was unparalleled. The meatballs were tender, bursting with pork-y goodness and layers upon layers of earthy flavor that I couldn’t get enough of. During the eight hours that the meatballs simmered in the sauce, the mushrooms softened and eventually were nearly completely married into the sauce, resulting in this shimmery, silky texture. My kids also lapped up meatball after meatball. I made so many trips back to the slow cooker to get them refills that I wondered if next time I’d do better just to make those 12 giant meatballs after all. That way, I could just shove one ginormous one under each kid’s face and watch them gnaw at it, like an apple. Then I decided against it, since I wasn’t sure if having such enormous meatballs would result in a slower cook time with potentially under-cooked meat.
Plus, I shudder at the thought of how I’d clean marinara and pork meatball remnants off of every surface if my kids had to paw at a gigantic meatball for dinner. There are not enough Clorox wipes in the world.
slow cooker meatballs in mushroom marinara
- 1-1/2 cups breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup dry vermouth
- 1-1/4 lb. ground pork
- 1 lb. sweet Italian sausage casings removed
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme divided
- 2 tsps. dried oregano divided
- 2 tsp. kosher salt divided
- 1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 26- ounce jars of marinara preferably Trader Joe's organic, no salt added
- 2 ounces dried mushrooms preferably Marx Foods wild mushroom blend or porcini mushrooms
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- salt and pepper to taste
- Mix together the breadcrumbs and vermouth in a small bowl and set aside. Let breadcrumbs absorb for about 20 minutes.
- Mix together ground pork, egg, sausage, egg, Parmesan, 1 tsp. thyme, 1 tsp oregano, 1 tsp kosher salt and nutmeg (this is easiest done with your hands). Add bread crumb mixture and mix together thoroughly.
- Form meat mixture into 24 medium-sized meatballs.
- Pour one jar of marinara sauce into slow cooker. Add remaining salt, oregano and thyme. Chop dried mushrooms and sprinkle over sauce, then stir gently to incorporate.
- Nestle meatballs, one at a time, into the sauce, leaving space between the meatballs as your slow cooker permits.
- Pour enough marinara over the meatballs so that meatballs are just covered with sauce. Cook on low for 8 hours our high for 5-6 hours.
- Serve with fresh-cooked al dente spaghetti topped with fresh grated Parmesan and chopped fresh thyme.