Sneaky Meatball Subs

December  6, 2021
1 Ratings
Photo by MJ Kroeger. Prop Stylist: Alya Hameedi. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.
  • Prep time 40 minutes
  • Cook time 45 minutes
  • Serves 4
Author Notes

Whether your favorite meatball sub is from the Italian deli down the street or any Subway in the country (mine is the former; I live with someone who prefers the latter), meatball subs are a surefire way to fill up. They also happen to be quite the budget-friendly meal. These meatball subs in particular have a few tricks up their sleeve. Both the meatballs and sauce are sneakily packed with shredded zucchini ($1.50). Not only does this mean you need just 6 ounces of ground meat (beef, pork, turkey, or chicken—about $1.85) for 20 meatballs, but the shredded vegetable is so sticky that you won’t need eggs for binding. You will need bread crumbs—though those are sneaky, too: Pull out and tear up the interior of a semolina baguette or ciabatta rolls ($2) and toast the crumbs until crisp. Presto, free bread crumbs with your sub rolls! Finally, let’s talk sauce. A full can of tomato paste is just 99 cents; most canned tomato products are more than double that. (And fresh? Even more—and they’re not even good this time of year.) Tomato paste is highly concentrated flavor, which you’ll bulk up with onions ($0.50, and they go in both the meatballs and the salad) along with the rest of that shredded zucchini. Thin it out with water and let it simmer away before finishing with a splash of vinegar for sweetness and zing. Your nonna would never suspect this sauce hasn’t been cooking for hours. Because a sandwich is never enough for my dinner, I like to toss together a salad of crunchy iceberg ($1) and vinegar-pickled onions, for a bit of freshness in between all the meatballs and, of course, gobs of gooey mozzarella ($2).
Rebecca Firkser

Test Kitchen Notes

Nickel & Dine is a budget column by Rebecca Firkser, assigning editor at Food52 and hider of vegetables. Each month, Rebecca will share an easy, flavor-packed recipe that feeds four (or just you, four times)—all for $10 or less.
—The Editors

What You'll Need
  • 1 (1-pound) semolina baguette (at least 22 inches long) or 4 (4-ounce) ciabatta rolls
  • 1 large red onion
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
  • 1 pound zucchini (from about 2 medium), coarsely shredded
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, divided (optional)
  • 6 ounces ground beef (80% lean), pork, turkey, or chicken
  • 3/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons balsamic or red wine vinegar
  • 1 head iceberg lettuce, cut into wedges and leaves separated
  • 4 ounces low-moisture mozzarella, sliced into planks
  1. Heat the oven to 350°F. Slice the baguette into quarters (or use the ciabatta rolls), then halve each lengthwise. Pull out most of the interior of the bread. Tear up or use a knife to cut the bread interior into small pieces until you have about 2½ cups or 4 ounces. Place the bread pieces on a sheet pan and toast in the oven, tossing halfway through, until very dry and lightly golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl, breaking up the bread crumbs into smaller pieces with your hands. Switch the oven to broil on high with a rack in the upper third.
  2. Halve the onion, peel it, and thinly slice half through the root end (set the remaining half aside). Thinly slice 2 garlic cloves.
  3. In a medium saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Transfer the sliced onion and garlic to the saucepan along with 1 packed cup (6 ounces) of the grated zucchini. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and the zucchini is just starting to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and ½ teaspoon of the red pepper flakes (if using) and let cook, stirring occasionally, until the paste turns brick red and sticky, about 2 minutes. Stir in 2½ cups of water. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened a bit, about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Just before assembling the subs, stir in ½ tablespoon vinegar and season with more salt and pepper to taste.
  4. While the sauce cooks, make the meatballs. Finely chop half of the remaining onion half (set that last quarter aside). Finely grate the remaining 2 garlic cloves. Place into the bowl with the bread crumbs along with the remaining grated zucchini (about 1¾ packed cups/10 ounces—if you have any extra, stir it into the sauce or save for another use). Add the ground meat, 1 teaspoon of salt, lots of ground pepper, the fennel seeds, and the remaining ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (if using). Use your hands to combine the mixture. Roll the meatballs into ample 1-inch balls and place on a sheet pan or large plate—you should have about 20.
  5. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook half the meatballs (so as not to crowd the pan) until seared on all sides, 6 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and keep cooking, turning every now and then, until all the meatballs are cooked through, an additional 5 to 7 minutes. When you’ve finished the batch, transfer to a clean plate, heat an additional tablespoon of oil in the skillet, and repeat with the remaining meatballs.
  6. Thinly slice the remaining onion quarter and place in a medium bowl with the remaining 2 tablespoons of vinegar and a big pinch of salt. Let sit for 5 minutes, then toss in the iceberg, drizzle with oil, and season with more salt and pepper to taste. Divide among 4 plates.
  7. Place the bread, scooped sides up, on a sheet pan. Broil until it starts to turn golden, 1 to 3 minutes, then remove from the oven. Fill each roll with 4 or 5 meatballs and a big scoop of sauce, then evenly divide the cheese between each. Return to the oven and broil until the cheese is melted, about 3 minutes. Serve immediately with a bowl of the extra sauce and any remaining meatballs on the side.

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