No longer just a side dish or a sidekick to spaghetti, meatballs are the rising star of the food world. "Everyone loves them, and they are versatile," says Michael Chernow, who runs the New York City hot spot the Meatball Shop with Daniel Holzman. "You can make them out of anything!" For the party on these pages, the duo take the trend to a new level with classic meatballs, buffalo chicken meatballs and, yes, even a veggie option! - complete with different dipping sauces. "The best way to eat meatballs is to mix and match flavors," says Chernow, whose rule of thumb is to make four 2-oz. meatballs per person. "The fun part is to let your guests build their own perfect plate," adds Holzman. "People can have a couple as a snack or a bunch as a big meal." Either way, the crowd is sure to have a ball. "Meatballs are one of the ultimate comfort foods," says Holzman. "They remind you of home, Grandma and warmth with every bite."



CLASSIC MEATBALLS

Makes 30 meatballs

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 lbs. ground chuck

1 cup ricotta cheese

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

½ cup bread crumbs

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

1 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano or 1 tsp. dried

2 tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground fennel

¼ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

Mushroom Gravy

1. Preheat oven to 450°. Lightly grease a 13×9-in. baking dish with olive oil; set aside.

2. Stir together ground chuck and remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Scoop mixture into 1½--in. balls, packing meat firmly. Arrange meatballs, sides touching, in prepared baking dish. Bake for 20 minutes or until meatballs are firm and a meat thermometer registers 165°.

3. Remove meatballs from oven; drain excess fat. Pour Mushroom Gravy over meatballs; return meatballs to oven, and bake 15 minutes. Remove meatballs from oven; let stand 5 minutes before serving.



VEGGIE MEATBALLS

Makes about 30 meatballs

2 cups lentils

5 tbsp. olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves, chopped

2 tsp. salt

3 tbsp. tomato paste

1 (8-oz.) carton mushrooms, sliced

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

½ cup bread crumbs

½ cup fresh parsley, chopped

¼ cup walnuts, finely chopped

Classic Tomato Sauce

1. Bring lentils and 8 cups water to a boil over high heat in a Dutch oven. Reduce heat; simmer 15 minutes or until lentils are tender. Drain lentils; cool to room temperature.

2. Cook onions and next 5 ingredients in 3 tbsp. hot oil over medium-high heat 10 minutes, stirring often, until vegetables are tender and lightly browned. Stir in tomato paste; cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add mushrooms; cook 15 minutes, stirring often, until all liquid evaporates. Transfer mixture to a large bowl; cool to room temperature.

3. Add eggs, next 4 ingredients and lentils to mushroom mixture. Cover and chill 25 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 400°. Lightly grease 2 13×9-in. baking dishes with remaining 2 tbsp. olive oil. Scoop chilled vegetable mixture into 1½-in. balls, packing mixture firmly. Arrange balls ¼ in. apart in prepared baking dishes. Bake for 30 minutes or until balls are firm and cooked through. Let stand 5 minutes before serving with Classic Tomato Sauce.



SPICY BUFFALO WING BALLS

Makes 30 meatballs

1 tbsp. butter

½ cup hot sauce*

2 lbs. ground chicken (preferably chicken thighs)

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup dry bread crumbs

1 celery stalk, minced

1 tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes

1 tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 tsp. salt

Blue Cheese Dressing

1. Preheat oven to 450°. Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat; whisk in hot sauce until blended. Remove from heat; cool to room temperature.

2. Combine chicken, next 6 ingredients and reserved hot sauce mixture in a large bowl, stirring until well blended. Scoop mixture into 1½-in. balls, and arrange on a lightly greased rimmed baking sheet.

3. Bake meatballs for 6 minutes. Rotate baking sheet, and bake for 10 minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted registers 160°. Remove meatballs from oven; let stand 5 minutes before serving with Blue Cheese Dressing and a dash of hot sauce.

*Frank's Red Hot Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce is preferred.