I grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood and every Sunday, we all ate as a family and had meatballs and pasta. It was a given, it was never questioned, and it was delicious. My grandmother made the best meatballs, and although I am sure all of us show favoritism towards our family members when we say “this is the best,” my bias stands–hers were the best and always will be.
My mother, my aunt, and I have tried to keep our memory of her alive through her recipes, and her meatballs are no exception. But as of two weeks ago, I started the diet that is the antithesis of all that is Italian–the Keto diet.
For those of you who are not familiar, the Keto diet is one of the strictest forms of a low-carb diet. For my body type, I am only allowed 18 net carbohydrates. The FDA suggests (assuming a non-specialized diet) a significant amount more: “The FDA recommends that 50 percent to 60 percent of your total food intake comes from carbohydrates. The percent daily value for carbohydrates, as shown on food labels, is calculated for the average adult consuming about 2,000 calories per day. Percentage daily values for carbohydrates assume you consume about 300 grams of carbohydrates per day.”
So you may think, if the FDA is suggesting 300 total carbohydrates, how can you possibly survive on 18? Well, the Ketogenic diet (a.k.a Keto diet) changes your body’s fuel source so that your food intake percentages are largely dependent on fat. In fact, the Ketogenic diet has people eating 70% of their daily calories from it! It’s a totally new way of eating.
The foods on the Keto diet are delicious–steak with butter, eggs and bacon, cheese (need I say more?); however, the limitations are challenging, especially when you are traveling, you’ll have to do some hardcore research beforehand. In fact, I just came back from a trip to Tennesee, and every time we went to a restaurant, I had to make modifications, Google the ingredients and nutritional facts. Sugar and carbohydrates are in so many things we eat that it’s tough to navigate at times. Honestly, if you are on the Keto diet or considering it, make sure you mainly cook at home, meal prep if you have to.
I thought the second I went on a low carb diet (especially the restrictive Keto diet) that Italian food would be out of the question. It took me a bit of time, but I recreated my grandma’s meatballs and used her techniques. All I had to do was substitute the bread crumbs and bread. Every other ingredient is Keto approved–ground meats have no carbs, eggs are welcome, herbs, pecorino romano cheese, etc.
When you go on a diet like Keto, there are recipes you’ll find abound, especially on Pinterest. However, as someone who loves to cook and develop recipes, I made it my mission to combine what my grandmother would do with what I would have to do in order to these meatballs okay for me to consume. I did not want to sacrifice flavor nor texture.
I made my own Italian seasoned “bread crumbs” by freshly grinding pork rinds, Pecorino Romano, and Italian seasonings. I used 647 Italian bread (lowest carb, but most certainly resembles regular bread), soaked it in heavy cream instead of milk (believe it or not, milk has carbohydrates and sugar!). I made my mixture as grandma would, with a soft touch to make the texture airy and light. I also had to make a lower-carb tomato sauce as many tomato sauces are not allowed (jarred already made sauces are the worst–but even crushed tomatoes have natural sugars).
I aimed to be able to replicate, not merely substitute my grandmother’s meatballs, and I believe I was successful. This is evident as even my carb fiend of a husband highly approved. (He had spaghetti with the meatballs and sauce, the lucky devil). It honestly tastes just the same! After carefully calculating, my math works out that my meatballs are a welcome addition to a low-carb diet. I calculated 2 carbs for three meatballs, 4 for 6 meatballs. Pasta sauce is 5 carbs for 1/2 cup serving, and I only needed a 1/4 cup (maybe even less!)
Note: Before you make your meatballs, you must make your own Italian “bread’ crumb mixture. All your spices you should have already in your pantry, especially if you’re a lover of Italian food. Nothing crazy fancy here. Pork rinds are your friend…tasty and 0 carbs! The “bread” crumb mixture will make a bit more than you need, so feel free to make a lower-carb Chicken or Eggplant Parmigiana with it! 🙂
Ingredients for Italian Seasoned “Bread” Crumbs
- 1 cup of Pork Rinds, ground **Please see note!
- 1 1/4 cup of Pecorino Romano, grated (feel free to substitute grated Parmesan as well, but I like Pecorino Romano the best!)
- 1 teaspoon of Garlic Powder
- 1 teaspoon of Onion Powder
- 1/4 teaspoon of Salt
- 1/8 teaspoons of Black Pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of Dried Parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon of Dried Basil
- 1/2 Dried Oregano
**Note: I used my dry container on my Vitamix to grind the pork rinds, but any food processor or blender will do. You’ll need about half a bag of Pork Rinds. You can get these at the dollar store. Seriously. The brand I used is Brim’s Snack Foods. The bag is .3 oz (85.g), and I only needed half the bag to get the 1 cup of ground pork rinds).
Directions for Italian Seasoned “Bread” Crumbs
- Gather all your spice ingredients, grated cheese, and a bag of pork rinds.
- Grind up about half a bag of pork rinds to the texture of traditional bread crumbs. You will need exactly one cup, so measure it out!
- In a bowl, combine pork rinds, grated cheese of choice, and spices. Use a form to combine evenly.
- You will use 1 1/2 cup of this mixture for the recipe, leaving with a cup for you to spare. Feel free to store in a jar and stick the “bread” crumb mixture in the refrigerator for later use.
Nutritional Information for Italian-American Meatballs (Keto/Low Carb)
Total Size: 30+ Medium-Sized Meatballs (Serves 4-6)
Nutritional Macros (Three Meatballs): 2 net carbs, 3 total carbs, 1 gram of fiber, 18 grams of fat, 19 grams of protein, 255 net calories
Nutritional Macros (Six Meatballs): 4 net carbs, 7 total carbs, 3 grams of fiber, 36 grams of fat, 37 grams of protein, 509 net calories
Nutritional Macros for Rao’s Sauce with Lei Mangia’s Modifications (1/4 cup): 2 net carbs, 2 total carbs, 0 grams of fiber, 6 grams of fat, 1 gram of protein, 67 net calories
Nutritional Macros for Rao’s Sauce with Lei Mangia’s Modifications (1/2 cup): 5 net carbs, 5 total carbs, 0 grams of fiber, 13 grams of fat, 1 gram protein, 134 net calories
Ingredients for Italian-American Meatballs (Keto/Low Carb)
- 1 1/2 pounds of Ground Beef, Pork, and Veal (it’s usually labeled meatloaf/meatball mixture in a grocery store).
- 3 Medium Eggs
- 1 cup of homemade “Italian Seasoned “Bread” Crumbs”** (Recipe above for the breadcrumbs–please don’t actually use bread crumbs and kick yourself out of Ketosis! I am saying you need to use the Pork Rind version, duh.)
- 1 teaspoon of Italian Seasoning
- 1/2 cup of Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese (or Parmesan Cheese0
- 2 slices of 647 Bread, diced (Please, no substitutions. If you do, you are under your own risk. This is the only bread I can find that is low enough in “net” carbohydrates to make this recipe possible!)
- 1/2 cup of Heavy Whipping Cream
- 3-4 cloves of Garlic, minced fresh
- 1/2 cup of freshly chopped Parsley
- 1 28 ounce jar/can of Tomato Sauce of your choice***
***Note about tomato sauce: Be mindful of carbohydrates and sugars in whatever sauce/crushed tomato mixture you use. I use Rao’s as that only has 4 carbs per serving (1/2 cup). I add garlic and olive oil and fresh herbs to the sauce, and believe it or not, the garlic cloves count as carbohydrates. I used to add sugar to my sauce or grate a carrot, but that is off-limits here. If you simmer the sauce a while, it should taste great! Read your nutritional labels, people! Again, you will have 1/2 the carbs if you only use 1/4 cup of sauce.
Directions for Italian-American Meatballs (Keto/Low Carb)
- Heat up your choice of tomato sauce (I use Rao’s). I sauteed 6 cloves of minced garlic in two tablespoons of olive oil, and once garlic was fragrant, added the jarred sauce. Before serving, I minced up fresh parsley and basil to taste. Be sure to stir the sauce from time to time.
- While your sauce is heating through/cooking, prepare your meatball mixture.
- Mince up at least 1/2 cup of parsley. Grab the bunch, cut off the stems (use only the leaves). Roll up the bunch in a tight bundle and chop parsley relatively finely.
- Next, peel and press/mince garlic.
- After prepping your ingredients, get a liquid measuring cup or bowl and fill with heavy cream.
- Next, take out your two slices of 647 bread. Dice into small cubes. Put cubes in cup or bowl with heavy cream to soak for a few minutes.
- In a large bowl, combine beef, pork, and veal mixture. Crack three eggs. Take your cloves of garlic (or use a garlic press) and put in the same bowl.
- Next, add Italian seasoning, grated cheese, fresh parsley, and liquid bread mixture. Yes, include all the cream as well as the soaked bread.
- With a light hand, combine ingredients, making sure to evenly distribute all ingredients. Do not overmix!
- When everything is evenly mixed, use a medium cookie scoop and press meat mixture into the scoop and squeeze out. Roll the mixture into your hands into a ball. Make sure all meatballs are evenly sized! You should have at least 30 (my recipe made 33).
Methods of Cooking Meatballs
- Use a baking sheet with a rack (if you don’t use a rack, you will have a fatty, congealed mess) and bake for 20-25 minutes at 400 degrees.
- Pan-sear the meatballs in a skillet with olive oil (cast-iron preferred).
- Put the meatballs in your sauce to slowly cook.
**I personally baked the meatballs to get them started, and then I seared them after. There’s nothing like the crispy edge of a meatball. I used my Blackstone Grill to sear all the meatballs at once as it is quite messy and time consuming the fry the meatballs. But man–is it a tasty step. You decide! 🙂
To serve meatballs, dollop your tomato sauce on top (but please measure, if you’re counting carbs) with more fresh parsley. Garnish with basil, if desired. If you would like, add a side of fresh ricotta cheese–it’s a fabulous combination! 🙂