Thursday, February 3, 2011

Meatball Madness

Straight off the coattails of my personal predictions for the enduring edible delights that are sure to be booming in 2011, I’m prepared to add meatball madness to that list. Not only do I think Italian fare is a constant in this country, and that people hunger for meat and sustenance when times are tough, but mid-winter, mid-snowstorm and mid-seasonal depression disorder, I think meatballs offer a quintessential comfort food experience that can make smiles beam, if not the sun, shine.

Come winter, seasonal vegetable offerings in the Northeast are grim, with but a few standout exceptions like Brussels sprouts and dinosaur kale, to tempt us into thinking twice about produce. No one’s a bigger advocate than I when it comes to the sustainable food movement’s emphasis on eating locally sourced, seasonal, organic veg, but truth be told, a winter menu in NYC sourced strictly from our regional harvest would be heavy on root vegetables and cellar-stored apples, pears and onions, and little else. This does not an exciting plate make. To jazz up our winter table, we need protein, we need sauce, we need meatballs!

Months ago I made a promise to Mr. Mix after our stint at the Italian imports emporium Batali brought to our Manhattan shores. The deal was that in exchange for the charcuterie and cheese he treated me to at Eataly, I was meant to teach him to prepare a delizioso Italian meal he could turn around and impress his friends with. Months later he was still begging for his cooking lesson, and the guilt was enough for me to give in and get the both of us behind a stove together. It’s a funny thing about being a chef; spending so much time paid to be in the kitchen, I don’t often cook in my spare time. Sure, I trial new recipes, I throw together dishes for myself that take little more then assembling a few perfect ingredients in a bowl, but I don’t really cook all that much. In nine months of dating my man, I think I’ve cooked him dinner thrice. Poor thing!

Meatballs have actually served as a milestone for us. Our very first date was at The Meatball Shop on the Lower East Side, where I was mesmerized by (a) their flawlessly moist, ready-to-serve meatballs, (b) the fact that Mr. Mix knew about a foodie find that I did not, and (c) his impressive appetite for more than just meat; six months later we celebrated our anniversary by returning to the scene of our first date crime, and now, nine months in, he’s fully worked his way into my kitchen and my meatball loving heart! All over the city restaurants are balling up mouth-watering and inventive meat mixtures, and Mr. Mix and I have found opportunity to taste test our way through some of the best. Macao Trading Co. has taken this traditional Italian dish and spun it with an Asian-Spanish fusion, stuffing their pork meatballs with choriço and tetilla cheese, smothered in smoked paprika tomato sauce that will have you going weak in the knees. At Locanda Verde, Chef Andrew Carmellini has mastered the meatball and moved it to a bun with his lamb meatball sliders layered with caprino and cucumber. Uptown, we got hooked on Pisticci after hearing claims that their meatballs are laced with crack. Let’s hope not, because these balls of perfectly proportioned beef, breadcrumbs and secret seasonings, are worth the trek up to Columbia.

My meatballs are straight up Italian, but not the processed, fast-food Italian-American variety so commonly found on menus from cooks like Rachael Ray or Chef Boyardee. I use a grass-fed, anti-biotic free veal and pork mixture combined with homemade brioche breadcrumbs, two kinds of imported Italian cheese, parsley, garlic, eggs and milk, to keep the mixture moist. I often skip the pasta with my balls, and serve them swimming in a bowl of sautéed Swiss chard and the heirloom tomato sauce Mr. Mix I canned back when summer’s sun was setting. I like truffled garlic bread as a starch to offer as a side dish and maybe even a crisp Caesar salad and a bottle of Barolo to pair. This was the meal Mr. Mix and I made for his besties a few weeks back. I knew I had already won over some of his crew with my Bacon-Studded Chocolate Chip Cookies, but I had yet to demonstrate that I can do more than just deliver on the sweet stuff. Eager to prove my pluck on an entrée, we spent hours in the kitchen rolling, frying and melding our meatballs in a meal that catapults the meatball to connoisseur status, ensuring that my money is still on meat!

Polpette al Belle a.k.a. “Little Pork Meatballs from Belle” (Serves 8)

  • 2 lb Ground Veal
  • 2 lb Ground Pork
  • 1.5 cup Brioche Breadcrumbs (soaked in milk)
  • ¾ cup Pecorino Cheese (grated)
  • ¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano (grated)
  • ½ cup Flat-Leaf Parsley (chopped)
  • 5 Garlic Cloves (minced)
  • 2 Eggs (lightly beaten)
  • Olive Oil (for frying)
  • 2 lb Swiss Chard
  • 2 Onions (chopped)
  • 3 Garlic Cloves (minced)
  • 1 jar Tomato Sauce
  • 1 cup Meat Stock
  • 1 t Lemon Zest (grated)
  • Salt and Pepper

Rinse the greens well, then place them in a large sauté pan with only the rinsing water clinging to the leaves. Heat over medium, turning as needed, until wilted (3 to 5 minutes should do it). Transfer the greens to a colander and drain well, pressing with the back of a spoon. Chop coarsely, squeeze dry and set aside.

To make the meatballs, combine the meat, breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley and garlic in a bowl. It’s key that you soak the breadcrumbs in a splash of milk, then squeeze them dry before combining…this secret tip can work with any ground meat/breadcrumb mix; think: meatloaf, burgers, even sausage. Mix in 1 egg–if the mixture seems dry, add the second egg–I usually add the second egg. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Fry a nugget of the mixture to test the seasoning. When you are happy with the flavors, start to ball up the mixture into 2 inch round balls.

Time to fry! Pour olive oil to the depth of ¼ inch into a large nonstick or well-seasoned sauté pan and place on high heat. When the oil is hot, add the meatballs and fry, turning as necessary, until golden on the outside (about 5 minutes). Depending upon the size of your pan and the number of meatballs you make, you may need to do this in batches. It’s always a good idea to store any meatballs you’re not yet frying in the fridge, as the cool temperature will help them solidify in shape.

Once golden, remove the balls from the heat by piling them up on a plate, leaving enough oil in the pan to lightly coat the pan bottom. Rewarm the olive oil over medium heat and scrape up any fond to add flavor to the sauce. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until tender (about 8 minutes). Then add the tomato sauce, stock and lemon zest and bring to a simmer. Throw the browned meatballs in and simmer for several minutes more until cooked through. Finally, add those cooked greens and have them simmer for a minute or two longer until heated through. Serve hot, and enjoy this perfect seasonal treat that will win over a crowd or just one special meatball loving soul!

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