I can't get a break! I've been traveling for three weeks and for the most part everyone has commented that they enjoyed keeping up with my posts. But today one of my cherished readers complained that there were not enough recipes on the site. Sheesh. Ok, well this one if for you. Let me warn you though, this is real food here. Not some make-your-own-granola-bar stuff. We're talking balls. Yes, it's time for meatballs.
As you may have guessed, I have an opinion about this. But first, let's consult wikipedia for some clarification "In Italy, meatballs are known as polpette and are generally eaten as a main course or in a soup [not with pasta]. The main ingredients of an Italian meatball are: beef and or pork and sometimes turkey, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, olive oil, romano cheese, eggs, bread crumbs and parsley, mixed and rolled by hand to a golf ball size. In the Abruzzo Region of Italy, especially in the Province of Teramo the meatballs are typically the size of marbles and are called polpettine."
So, understand that what we call meatballs isn't an Italian creation. Word has it that when Italians immigrated here they wanted to revel in the bounty of their American success and the modern meatball came to be. How it got tossed on top of pasta is a mystery, but there is something right about it. I'm a huge fan of Sicilian-influenced hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurants (Gaspare's in San Francisco's Richmond District reigns supreme here, Dan Tana's in Los Angeles and a ton of places in NYC - not least of which is Carbone, Spumoni Gardens or Emilio's Ballato). Give me chicken parm, lasagna and yes, spaghetti and meatballs any day!
I've made a lot of meatballs in my life. I credit my mother for my passion. She makes damn good meatballs. She's half Italian, so that makes me a quarter. And while I don't think it was specifically every Sunday when we were rewarded with mom's spaghetti and meatballs, it kinda felt like that (the jewish part of us probably did Chinese on Sundays more frequently). As with most of my recipes, it's mostly about concepts, with infinite variations available. Creativity rewards intrepid cooks.
Let's start with the meat. My favorite combination is 1/3 ground beef, 1/3 ground pork, 1/3 ground veal. I've done all-veal, 1/2 pork, 1/2 veal, all beef. Play around and see what works for you. Yesterday I grabbed a chuck roast of 100% grass-fed beef and ground it up myself (I love grinding meat - not only does it produce a better texture, but it just feels more in touch with the food source). Mix your meat together well and now you have your base.
EDITORS NOTE: Lately I've been playing around with some recipes that include grinding some cured meats into the mixture. This has an amazing effect on the final outcome. Grab some prosciutto or some salumi (coppa works great) and toss it into the grinder (consider just a couple of ounces). Similarly, a good hunk of lardo brings some awesome flavor and texture.
Optionally, you might consider some onions, shallots or leeks. It's not essential, but depending on your objective, could add some amazing flavor. A good yellow onion will do fine. Get it soft in olive oil and let it cool down. Adding hot onions starts to cook the meat and gives you dense spots in the meatballs. Yesterday I melted some leeks and accidentally charred them a bit (jet lag complicates cooking) but the result was welcomed.
Dairy and bread are also optional, yet welcomed additions. Lately I've been adding a creamy ricotta. The result is a fluffier ball with a rich flavor. I also take a brioche or Italian batard and throw it in the food processor. I prefer fresh bread crumbs to dry or stale for meatballs. If you are not using ricotta, I'd soak the breadcrumbs in milk. I also add an ample handful of cheese at this point. Typically romano or parmigiano - experimentation is welcomed here. Add one egg per pound of meat.
Seasoning comes next. Dried herbs tend to work better than fresh, except in the case of parsley. I often will just add salt, pepper and some chili flakes. Oregano is cool. Thyme works. If you want to get tricky, try fried sage and porcini mushrooms [chopped finely] or fried basil and roasted peppers. I like to fry fresh herbs, it gives them better crumble and doesn't kick you in the teeth with too much flavor. Add ample salt and pepper.
It is very important to mix your meatballs by hand. This is where the love is imparted. If you don't get meat on your hands, you're not making meatballs. Cook one and taste it. Adjust for seasoning and texture.
There are a few ways to cook meatballs. I like a little crust on the outside, but soft in the middle. To get this, you fry on a low flame in olive and then finish in a pot of sauce before they are fully cooked through. If you are not using tomato sauce, take some beef stock (good stuff, not the crap in the box) and poach the meatballs in a sheet tray in the oven. Don't feel like you have to use tomato sauce. One of my favorite variations is to serve meatball in a puddle of some stock, pan drippings and a little olive oil with a dollop of ricotta cheese and a warm crusty loaf of bread. Or put them on a bed of baby arugula tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper. Yum.
So, there you are. Go out and become meatball masters my little ones. And like anything in life, practice makes perfect. While we're on the subject, if you're looking for a good meatball around San Francisco, I'd suggest trying A16, Delfina, Gaspares and Piccino! Or, try to swing an invite from the zealot!