Meatballs speckled with herbs, tucked inside crusty bread with a generous smear of thick tomato sauce and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. This is just the kind of thing I reach for when I want to eat my feelings after a hard day.
But who has time to make meatballs and sauce, especially after a long day? This quick little number from the appropriately titled “Leon Happy Fast Food” by Rebecca Seal, Jack Burke and John Vincent (Conran, 2020) allows me to easily scratch that comfort-food itch on a weeknight. The cookbook features 100 recipes from the health-conscious British restaurant chain.
When I mention meatballs to folks, I sometimes get pushback: They’re too much trouble, too messy. If you keep the spicing simple and bake as described here, I actually find them pretty darn easy to throw together. And, maybe it’s just me, but I actually enjoy the process of forming them.
“Realizing you can bake meatballs is life-changing,” a colleague said to me the other day when she saw the photo of this baked meatball sub. I, like her, used to fry the meatballs on the stove and then drop them into homemade tomato sauce.
Here, you bake the meatballs on a wire rack set inside a rimmed sheet pan. This allows some of the fat to drip off, which I appreciate, and that hands-off cooking gives you time to make a quick sauce.
For the sauce, you can just open a jar of your favorite marinara, but I like this recipe because it produces a very thick sauce from canned tomato puree, a splash of olive oil and dried spices. If you cook it down just enough, you can spread it on the bread and dollop more on the meatballs for a less messy and very tomato-y sub.
For the meatballs, Parmesan cheese and fresh herbs, such as basil and scallions, ramp up the flavor without much effort. If you prefer, substitute fresh oregano or parsley. I like to use Italian breadcrumbs, but plain are fine, as well.
A couple of meatball tips: Divide your spiced ground meat into 12 equal amounts before you start shaping the meatballs. This way, you can be sure they will all be the same size and done at the same time. (I made mine with beef, but you could also use ground lamb, turkey or chicken.)
Then, handle the beef only as much as necessary to incorporate the ingredients and form the balls. The less you massage the meat, the more tender the meatballs will be. It’s okay if the balls are a bit misshapen.
Slip the sub rolls into the oven to lightly toast them — or not, if that suits your taste. Also, you can overstuff the subs or just have a few meatballs leftover for snacking. A sprinkling of basil leaves on top of each sub adds a pop of color and freshness, too.
Baked Meatball Sub
Active time: 20 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Note: You may have a few meatballs leftover.
Storage Notes: Leftover meatballs and sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
3/4 cup fresh basil leaves, divided
1 pound lean ground beef (93% lean or higher)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs, plain or Italian
1 scallion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons garlic powder, divided
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
1 cup tomato puree
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Italian
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
4 sub rolls (or any kind of long, sturdy roll or baguette), top-split or side split
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Set a wire rack inside a large, rimmed sheet pan.
Finely chop about 2 tablespoons of the basil. Then, in a large bowl, combine the beef, egg, breadcrumbs, scallion, 1 teaspoon of garlic powder, the Parmesan cheese, the chopped basil, salt and pepper. Gently mix just until everything is evenly combined, but don’t work the mixture too much or the meatballs will be dense and tough.
Divide the mixture into 12 equal portions and shape each one into a ball; transfer the meatballs to the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, or until cooked through with an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
While the meatballs are baking, make the sauce. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the tomato puree, olive oil, the remaining garlic powder, oregano, dried basil and crushed red pepper flakes, if using, and bring to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes or until slightly thickened, taste and season with the salt and pepper as needed. Remove from the heat, cover to keep warm and set aside.
A minute or so before the meatballs are done, slip the rolls onto a baking sheet pan and put them in the oven for about 2 minutes to warm.
When the meatballs are done, remove them and the rolls from the oven. Set the split sub rolls out in front of you. Halve the meatballs (or not, if you prefer, but halving stops them falling out of the sandwich). Spread the cut sides of the bread with a little of the sauce, then stuff with meatballs and spoon over a little more sauce.
Sprinkle the subs with extra Parmesan and the remaining whole basil leaves, and serve.
Note: Cheese lovers can add a slice of provolone or mozzarella to the subs and broil them for 1 minute or until the cheese is melted and bubbly before adding the whole basil leaves.