10/26/11 • REIGNING MEATBALLS
From the Oct., 2011 Esquire (click here to view the recipe)
In the last week I’ve eaten pork braciola at Frankie’s 570 (the new West Village outpost of Frankie’s Spuntino); a big bowl of papardelle with a braised rabbit ragu at a newly resurgent Morandi; a large marinara and cheese pizza at Tappo in Chelsea; and, from the Sunday Gravy stand located at Smorgasburg — the open air food market held each Saturday at the Brooklyn Flea — a special delivery of the aforementioned gravy (which to the uninitiated is basically a spaghetti sauce thickened up with ample chunks of pork meat and sausage). All this may sound like red-sauce overload to some, but to me it sounds just about perfect — especially now that there’s a chill in the air.
I sometimes think I could serve myself a bowl of freshly made marinara sauce with nothing else and be perfectly content. And I probably would be, though my stomach might not. So instead I’m constantly on the hunt for other ways to get my red sauce fix. Of course there’s the obvious spaghetti option, but as good as that can be, eat a half pound of the stuff (sorry, I can’t do less) and I tend not to feel so great — especially the morning after when I wake up with a kind of carbohydrate hangover, all woozy and slow. Which means I’ve had to be a little more wide-ranging in my red sauce alliances.
The good news is that there’s plenty you can do with tomato sauce beyond pouring it over spaghetti or layering it between sheets of pasta (see first paragraph for details). Notable among this group is the meatball, which for pure marina compatibility has few equals. Despite the fact that meatballs have begun showing up on an increasing number of restaurant menus around town, and is even the featured item at one popular chain-let, The Meatball Shop, I’ll go out on a limb and say that where meatballs are concerned, no one wants a naked ball. In other words, it’s all (or mostly) about the tomato sauce — at least it is for me. You can layer a meatball with raisins or pine nuts, lard them with chunks of bacon, add more cheese to the mix, or less, but without the sauce, you don’t have much.
The right sauce, however — a good sauce flecked with fresh basil and the tang of garlic and oregano — can propel a so-so meatball to memorable heights, and an excellent meatball outta this world. It’s a response I’m not unfamiliar with, and one reason why a new meatball recipe can stop me in my tracks. That’s exactly what happened when I opened this month’s issue of Esquire and came across Shane Solomon’s meatball recipe. Solomon is the chef at the popular Pizzeria Stella in Philadelphia, and Philadelphia is one city that knows its way around Italian/American cooking. But beyond that, I figured if any resource could teach me a thing or two about meatballs, it would be a men’s magazine. Because let’s face it, meatballs may have their share of female acolytes, but if you’re going to assign this particular dish a gender, we’re definitely in the land of man food here.
One reason for this is that most men I know live in fear of leaving the table hungry — something that’s pretty unlikely when meatballs are on the menu. Eat just two or three and even the biggest appetite is likely to be satisfied. Which makes the fact that the attached recipe produces 25 to 30 meatballs something of a head-scratcher, because unless you’re feeding the starting lineup for the New York Jets, that’s a lot more meatballs than you’re going to want. Of course, you can always freeze what you don’t use (and, admittedly, you could do a lot worse than having a dozen meatballs sitting in your freezer), but considering the chopping, grating, and frying time involved here, I’d suggest reducing the recipe by half, cutting all of the ingredients by fifty percent with the exception of the grated cheese (you’ll want all of this for flavor, and maybe a littler more, too).
Either way, assembly is pretty straight ahead, with a gentle mixing of the meat, eggs, cheese, onions, garlic, and herbs, followed by the addition of the milk/breadcrumb mixture. Instead of shaping the balls with your hands, however, the recipe suggests using an old-fashioned trigger ice-cream scoop, which ensures a uniformity of size and shape, and has the added benefit of eliminating any air pockets that might be lurking in your pre-cooked meatballs. Once that critical step is complete and all your meatballs are in formation, it’s time to start frying. The goal here is not to cook the meatballs (that comes later) so much as to brown them, so pour just a ¼ inch of canola oil into your pan, heat until rippling, and crisp all sides of the meat. Be prepared to work in batches, though, as browning meatballs can be like herding cats. In other words, you’ll need room to maneuver.
Once browned, place the meatballs in an ovenproof casserole, fully blanket them with tomato sauce, and bake in a 350-degree oven for between 1¾ and 2 hours. This to me is the real genius of the recipe as it eliminates one of the problems I’ve often encountered on previous meatball-making outings — namely, that simply frying the meatballs can leave them with a disconcertingly soft center. What’s more, baking the meatballs and the sauce together allows the meat flavors to permeate the sauce, and the sauce to work its way into the meat. Solomon suggests serving the meatballs atop a small base of polenta, which provides some of that starchy goodness we associate with the traditional spaghetti accompaniment (minus the morning-after regret), while also providing a great way to sop up all that wonderful meat-infused sauce. Of course, you can always just tear off a hunk of Italian bread and dip and ladle to your heart’s content. Either way, be sure to have plenty of grated Parmesan cheese on hand; these babies should look like the Matterhorn before you ever introduce your fork.
A few final thoughts on the recipe: while Solomon suggests the addition of some finely minced pancetta or smoked bacon into the meat mix, I found the flavor an unnecessary addition. Follow your instincts here, but for what it’s worth I’ve marked this ingredient as optional in the list below. Also, given my enthusiasm for red sauce, it will come as no surprise that I have a favorite recipe for this favorite item. I pulled it from Fine Cooking a decade ago and have never looked back (I’m a one red-sauce recipe man). It’s just the thing for these meatballs, and it’s included below.
Ingredients for meatballs:
—1 lb ground beef (no more than 20% fat; lean meat is critical)
—1 lb ground veal
—1 lb ground pork
—1 lb pancetta or slab bacon (optional)
—2 whole eggs
—1/3 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (more as needed — as much as one cup for the meatballs; plus more for serving)
—1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion
—8 garlic cloves, minced
—1/4 cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley
—2 tbsp chopped fresh oregano
—2 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
—1/3 cup fine, dry unseasoned bread crumbs
—1/2 cup whole milk
—1 tsp coarse salt (more as needed)
—1 1/2 tsp ground black pepper (more as needed)
—12 cups tomato sauce (see recipe below)
—Polenta (for serving)
Note: This recipe makes 25 to 30 meatballs, so unless you’re feeding an exceptionally large crowd consider cutting the recipe in half. Do this by reducing the meat, herb, garlic, onion and milk quantities listed above by 50 percent, but leave the cheese quantity as is — it’s not that much and you’ll want it for flavor (you may even want to add more, as I did).
Directions for meatballs:
—Break up the ground meat into a large bowl then add the eggs, grated cheese, onion, garlic and herbs. Mix with your hands until everything is well distributed but don’t over-mix. Set aside.
—Slowly add milk to the breadcrumbs, stirring until the mixture has the consistency of wet sand. Immediately add to the meat mixture, season with the salt and pepper, and mix well. To taste for seasoning heat a small amount of canola oil in a small pan. When the oil is hot (it will ripple in pan) pinch off a bit of meat and fry in the oil. Taste and correct seasoning as needed. Refrigerate the meat mixture for about 30 minutes.
—Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Shape meatballs, ideally using an ice cream scoop. In a large skillet, heat about a quarter inch of canola oil until very hot. Working in batches, brown all sides of each meatball.
—As they finish, transfer browned meatballs to a deep, ovenproof casserole. Cover meatballs with tomato sauce (they must be totally submerged). Place in oven and bake until well done, about 1¾ to 2 hours. When done they should feel firm to the touch, or an instant read thermometer should read 160 degrees.
—To serve, spoon meatballs (2 or 3 per person) and sauce over polenta or simply serve with Italian bread. Top with grated cheese.
Ingredients for marinara sauce:
—3 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes, whole or crushed (ideally San Marzano)
—1/2 cup olive oil
—6 cloves garlic
—1 tbsp plus 2 tsp kosher salt
—1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
—Freshly ground black pepper
—1/4 tsp dried oregano
Note: This recipe yields about 7 cups of sauce so if you’re making the full 35 meatballs you’ll want to double it.
Directions for marinara sauce:
—If you’re using whole tomatoes, put them in a large bowl and crush them with your hands. Discard any cores.
—In a 7-quart or larger saucepot, heat the oil to medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until lightly golden brown, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally for 45 minutes to 1 hour (the sauce will reduce and thicken slightly but shouldn’t get too thick). Stir in the basil, pepper, and oregano. Pour over meatballs.