Meatballs are probably one of my favorite things to make on a weeknight. They’re easy, cost effective, and versatile. They’re supposed to be, of course – they were created, in so many different cultures around the world, to be an inexpensive way for us measly peasants to use scraps and leftovers. To this day, that’s is how they taste best – no pretentious foodie bullshit required.
Speaking of culture, I definitely make a multi-national meatball variety here. I’ve taken the best of what I’ve found in various recipes, from Italy to Sweden, to make my favorite version. But, like all methods discussed on this blog, it is very malleable. Hell, I’ll probably change this recipe tomorrow, if you ask me about it.
They don’t even take that long! Especially, you know, if you’re not grinding your own meat and taking photos the entire time.
Yep, I grind my own meat. I’ll walk through that first, since it’s really damned fun and makes everything so much more delicious. If you buy your meat already ground, like a sane person, you may skip this first part. Or read it anyway, because I’m just so captivating.
Let’s start with the meat – I’ve tried a single variety, but as many recipes will say, I believe a blend is best. Different kinds of meat offer a contribution to the overall flavor and texture, so my ideal meatball blend this time is pork and beef. half-and-half. About a pound of meat total, so everything in this recipe is proportional to the pound.
So, a half pound of each, cut into cubes and pushed twice through a meat grinder will do the trick nicely. Fatty, tough, cheap cuts are best here. I used pork shoulder and beef chuck. They have the best texture when ground, and if you find them on sale, they may only cost around two bucks a pound. Of course, if you want to buy your meat already ground, don’t let me stop you. This is your own personal decision…
Still, doesn’t this just look like so much fun? Either way, mix both of these beasts together, and you’ll end up with the picture on the right. Delicious beef and pork mix, ready for meatballing. Moving on…
Let’s talk a bit about bread, the second most essential meatball ingredient. The idea here is to add in some bread for tenderness, and so the moisture in the meat can be retained like a sponge when cooked. This can be pretty much any kind of bread – A day-old baguette or even some old hamburger buns. It can even be a little bit whole-grain – just nothing too seedy, or it’ll throw the texture off.
The amount of bread will vary based on which Italian grandmother you talk to. The great Mario Batali claims that the best meatballs have a 50-50 bread-to-meat ratio. I require a bit less, since I like mine a bit meatier; for me, about a cup of dry bread cubes per pound of meat is best. I dry my bread in the microwave (2 minutes at 30 second increments), give it a quick soak in water or milk, drain, and squeeze it out to get a nice congealed mass of bread-slop – a perfect companion to the meat. Set this aside as you prepare the other ingredients.
And, what are the “other ingredients? You can get pretty creative here. My final list, for my pound of meat:
1 egg, beaten
Handful of grated pecorino romano, maybe 1/2 cup
Half a bunch of parsley, chopped fine
Small handful of walnuts, again chopped fine
Dry basil, chili powder, garlic powder, about a rounded half-teaspoon of each
Salt and lots of black pepper
The only requirements here are the egg and the seasoning. Everything else is just there to make things sexy. If you have your own set of kinks, there’s a lot of room to mess around – Alton Brown’s recipe has drained frozen spinach instead of parsley. Parmesan or any other dense, hard cheese can be used for the pecorino. The walnuts can be substituted or omitted altogether. The herbs and spices can be extensively varied. If you have anything in your kitchen that might also go well here, add it. Experimentation is very forgiving.
Now to combine: Unlike the rest of this article, this is an intricate, detailed part of the process that must be strictly followed. Any discrepancy here will render the final product ruined and horribly inedible.
Pay close attention to the following photos:
Ok. Did you get all that? Good. Don’t mess it up.
Seriously now – Just mix it all up. Use your hands.
Once this is combined, using slightly wet hands, divide the mixture into spheres about the size of golf balls – maybe a little bigger.
Cooking method is an oft-debated part of meatball-making. The classic American “spaghetti & meatballs” technique calls for simmering them in the tomato sauce they’ll be served with. Swedish meatballs are often deep-fried. Many recipes call for just setting them on a baking sheet and roasting them as-is.
I don’t think sauce-simmering adds anything to the sauce and certainly not to the meatballs themselves. These also are not swedish meatballs; I’ll save those for another post. For these, I prefer a two-stage process – I brown them in a pan and finish them in the oven. This gives a tender meatball with a nice caramelized crust.
I like to use a cast-iron pan. Heat enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan until shimmery – the oil should be pretty damn hot here, since the meatballs are pretty moist and need a little help in order to brown. Add the meatballs without crowding them too much, and brown them for a couple of minutes before turning them. I like to use tongs here – you can re-shape them if necessary, since they may attempt to fall apart in the pan. Just try to keep them as round as possible. Or not, I’m not your boss.
Meatballs make incredible leftovers in so many different applications, so I like to make a big batch. I’m sure they would freeze well, too – although I havent had them last long enough to require it.
For serving, I just put them on a bed of sauteed kale (see top photo), since it’s healthy and what I was in the mood for. But, like I said, these are versatile – put them with some pasta, on top of potatoes, on a salad, in a sandwich, as an appetizer, or even straight out of the fridge in the middle of the night. The possibilities are endless.
This is not a unique method – just like a true American boy, I ate my share of spaghetti and meatballs. Every family seems to have their own secret recipe, which may be similar to this one, or completely different. I’ve received plenty of feedback at the mere mention of this post, so I’d like to continue this discussion. Any other ideas for this rustic classic we can share?