Thursday, September 20, 2012

Meatballs--they're not just for breakfast anymore

I love meatballs.  They are pure genius--all that flavor in one bite.  I've learned over the years to make them and make them well: moist and totally delectable.  If they're small enough, popping one (or four) in your mouth is an explosion of flavor and texture and totally addictive.  But when I was a kid, I didn't like them very much because most of them were hard, dry and very unappealing.  That's because no one in my family knew how to make them well.

To extend this minor tragedy into a full-blown disaster, no one who ever extended a dinner invitation to me during my childhood knew how to make them well either.  Although it never truly stunted my development, it was a real pity, since I lived in an area where a massive amount of Italian immigrants had settled and there were Italian restaurants on almost every corner.  Legend was that the meatballs inside those buildings were tender, juicy and flavorful, and that the marinara sauce was a magical thing.  Unfortunately, I would never know.  The closest I got to marinara sauce (or Italian food, for that matter) when I was a kid was a jar of Ragu.  Our family didn't eat out much on teachers' salaries, and the Italian restaurants were in a part of town we rarely saw.  I could only drool and pine longingly for an opportunity to step inside the sacred chambers when the occasional route to the doctor or Sears & Roebuck took us by Little Venice or Cortese's.

It wasn't until I began watching Jeff Smith's show, "The Frugal Gourmet" on PBS during the 80's that I learned how to make a decent meatball.  During one episode, he demonstrated how he made and seasoned his meatballs.  I scribbled anxiously as he prepped his ingredients and then shaped and fried his meatballs.  I've adapted his recipe in some minor ways through the years, the most important difference being that I bake the meatballs in a 450 degree oven instead of frying them.  To this day, Jeff Smith's meatball recipe is the one that gets the most favorable reviews.  My husband tells me that they're the best meatballs he's ever had.  I hate to keep using him as my litmus test, but the truth is that the man does have a palate that responds.  And his flattery gets him anywhere he wants to go.

The most important thing that Jeff Smith taught me about meatballs was to grind my store-ground meat a second time so that the texture of the meatballs would be less grainy and more tender.  The next most important thing was to use a carbohydrate-rich binding ingredient (I always use fresh breadcrumbs, not dried ones that get reconstituted with milk as he originally did) and enough egg to make everything come together without being too wet.  Of course, plenty of seasoning is what also makes these meatballs special.

Today, I want to give you three meatball recipes that have become favorites of mine, starting with the one I learned from "The Frugal Gourmet."  These meatballs can be made ahead and frozen with or without sauce, although I'd recommend freezing the Swedish Meatballs without the sauce and when reheating the meatballs, finishing the sauce before serving, since it has cream in it.

There are many other delicious meatball recipes out there, but these are my go-to recipes time and time again.

My Favorite Meatball Recipe 

     You'll need a food processor or a meat grinder to regrind the meat for these meatballs.  Or you can ask your butcher to regrind the meat for you.

1 1/2 lbs. ground beef, pork or veal (I like to use a combination of beef and pork)
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup finely minced onion
2 Tbs. finely chopped parsley
1 Tbs. Italian seasoning (such as Penzey's, but you can mix your own from a combination of oregano, basil, marjoram, thyme and ground or cracked rosemary)
3/4 cup breadcrumbs (please make your own from fresh or day-old bread; the store bought crumbs taste like cardboard and you can put bread in a blender or food processor and have crumbs in seconds)
1 jumbo egg or 2 small eggs, beaten lightly
1/2 cup grated or shredded Parmesan, Romano or Asiago cheese (or a combination)
plenty of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1.)  Place the ground meat in the bowl of a food processor with the chopping blade.  You may have to do this in two portions if the workbowl of your processor is small.  Pulse the processor several times until the meat is broken down a little more, but be careful not to make the meat into a paste.
2.)  Combine reground meat in a large bowl with the remaining ingredients.
3.)  Mix ingredients with your hands until well-combined.
4.)  Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
5.)  Shape mixture into balls (I like to make them about the size of a golf ball) and place on a foil lined baking tray.
6.)  Bake for about 20 minutes, until a bit browned, crisped and sizzling.
7.)  Cool enough to remove from tray without tearing meatballs in half.
8.)  Freeze meatballs or place in marinara sauce as desired.  Makes about 24-36, depending on the size of the meatballs.

Fannie Farmer's Swedish Meatball Recipe

     This recipe, from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, has been a favorite for years.  Serve with lingonberry jam if desired for an appetizer, or over egg noodles as a main dish.

1 lb. lean beef
1/4 lb. salt pork
5 slices whole wheat bread
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. allspice
3/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. shortening or oil
1 1/2 cups beef broth
1/2 cup heavy cream

1.)  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2.)  Grind the beef, salt pork and bread together twice, using a meat grinder or food processor.
3.)  Combine ground meat mixture with the egg, sugar, allspice, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
4.)  Shape into 1" balls.
5.)  Heat the shortening or oil in a skillet and brown the meatballs.  If you plan to make these ahead and freeze them, remove the meatballs from the heat, cool completely and freeze.  When you're ready to serve, defrost the meatballs and proceed with the rest of the recipe.
6.)  Transfer meatballs to a shallow casserole dish, pour in the beef broth and cover with lid or foil.
7.)  Bake for 45 minutes.
8.)  Add the cream and cook, uncovered, an additional 15 minutes.  Makes about 30 meatballs.

Tapas Meatballs in a Spicy Tomato Sauce 

     These are lovely and redolent of the flavors of Spain.  Serve with a sturdy garnacha or a juicy zinfandel.  They make a great appetizer or a main dish with crusty bread and a salad.

1/2 lb. ground pork
1/2 lb. ground beef or veal
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp. each ground coriander, cumin, nutmeg and cinnamon
1 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup bread crumbs, toasted
1 large egg, lightly beaten


1 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 16 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
1 Tbs. tomato paste
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 cup frozen peas (optional)

1.)  To make the meatballs:  Combine pork, veal, garlic, spices, salt, pepper, bread crumbs and egg in a bowl.
2.)  Mix well with your hands until mixture leaves the side of the bowl.
3.)  Cover mixture and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
4.)  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
5.)  Roll tablespoonfuls of mixture into balls.
6.)  Place on a foil-lined baking tray and bake for about 20 minutes or until sizzling and slightly browned.
7.)  Remove from oven and cool on tray until ready to immerse in the tomato sauce.
8.)  To make the sauce:  Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat and add the onion.
9.)  Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and slightly transparent, about 3 minutes.
10.)  Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.
11.)  Increase the heat to high and add the wine; allow to boil for 1 minute.
12.)  Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and stock and simmer for 10 minutes.
13.)  Add the cayenne pepper, peas (if using) and the meatballs; simmer for 10 more minutes, until the sauce is thickened and the meatballs are well-coated.  Serve hot.  Serves 6.

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