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News / Life / Food

Shake up meatball subs with pork

Sandwiches ideal comfort food to chase away the chill

By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: February 21, 2024, 6:05am
2 Photos
These pork meatballs get their spice from pickled cherry hot peppers.
These pork meatballs get their spice from pickled cherry hot peppers. (Photos by Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) Photo Gallery

Being a huge fan of handheld meals (less cleanup!), one of my favorite February sandwiches is a hot meatball sub. Both filling and wonderfully saucy, it’s the perfect comfort food to combat the last cold and dreary days of winter.

Usually, I make my meatballs the same way my mother did when I was growing up, with ground beef seasoned with dried or fresh Italian spices. They’re always doused in lots of marina sauce, either homemade (if I have time) or jarred (if I don’t).

Every once in a while, though, it’s fun to shake things up. These spicy oven-baked balls get their bold flavor from “the other white meat” — ground pork — mixed with bits of hot cherry peppers and pickling liquid.

The chunky pork sauce that goes on top also packs a bit of heat, thanks to a liberal sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes.

I make them golf-ball sized, but you could also scale them down for a less messy bite. Hollowing out the rolls before to make more room for the meatballs also makes for an easier bite. I like to top them with shreds of fresh mozzarella, but a melty cheese like provolone is also a great option.

Rather have a full sit-down meal? Serve the meatballs over polenta with plenty of sauce and a side salad.

Spicy Pork Meatballs

Makes 8 sandwiches. “The Meatball Shop Cookbook” by Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow

For sauce:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely diced

2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes, roughly chopped, with their liquid

For meatballs:

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 pounds ground pork

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt

4 jarred hot cherry peppers, minced

¼ cup hot cherry pepper pickling liquid

4 slices fresh white bread, minced

3 larges eggs

8 hoagie rolls, split, hollowed slightly, and toasted

Fresh mozzarella cheese, torn into bite-sized pieces, for garnish

Preheat oven to 450 degrees and drizzle olive oil into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, using your fingers to evenly coat the entire surface. Set aside while you prepare sauce.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions, ground pork, red pepper flakes and salt and cook, stirring constantly, until the meat is thoroughly cooked and onions are soft and beginning to brown, about 15 minutes.

Add tomato paste and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and stir constantly until sauce begins to boil. Continue cooking for 35 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so to prevent the sauce on the bottom of the pan from burning. Taste and season with additional salt, if desired.

While sauce is cooking, prepare meatballs.

Combine the ground pork, salt, cherry peppers, pickling liquid, bread and eggs in a large mixing bowl, and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated.

Roll the mixture into round, golf ball-sized meatballs (about 1½ inches), making sure to pack the meat firmly. You should end up with 24 meatballs.

Place the balls in the prepared baking dish, being careful to line them up snugly and in even rows vertically and horizontally to form a grid. The meatballs should be touching one another.

Roast for 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through. (A meat thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball should read 165 degrees.)

Allow meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in the baking dish while you hollow out and toast the hoagie rolls.

Add 3 meatballs to each of the bottom halves of the rolls. Spoon about ¼ cup of sauce on top of each sandwich then sprinkle torn mozzarella on top. Top with the remaining hoagie roll halves. Serve immediately.

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