Classic Italian Meatballs

Classic meatballs, Italian-American style
Meatballs are personal.

Let me rephrase that: Show me your meatball, and I’ll show you mine.

Oh, wait. No. Not that personal. That’s the sort of thing that goes on in other blogs, the after bedtime, Not Safe for Work kind.

What I meant was, meatballs for me are like Proust’s madeleine. Like any childhood comfort food, meatballs represent a time, place and taste that exists only in my memory. But when prepared in just the right way – today, right now- one bite into a really good meatball could transport me back to my parents’ Sunday afternoon dinner table.

My mother would set out a large platter of meat that had spent the better part of the day braising in thick, rich tomato sauce – the gravy. On it, there would usually be a beef chuck roast, a braciole (a rolled beef flank steak stuffed with cheese, breadcrumbs and fresh parsley), sweet and spicy pork sausages handmade by my grandfather, and meatballs. I always went straight for the meatballs.

Meatballs are so personal that even among family there can be great disappointment. My bias unfailingly (some might say stubbornly) swerved toward my mother’s meatballs. Even as much as I loved my grandmother’s Sunday gravy, I was ambivalent about her meatballs. And because each person’s meatball is as unique in form as their own fingerprint, it was always immediately apparent to me when someone other than my own mother or grandmother had shaped meatballs and surreptitiously slid them into the family gravy pot.

There was that one Sunday gravy which has traumatized me for life. I can’t remember the distant relative who’d prepared them, all I know is this: one hopeful bite of her meatball revealed something dark, chewy and slimy-sweet, an alien nugget that could only be… a raisin. A raisin.

Who would go and put a raisin in an innocent-looking meatball? Why?

Later, my mother explained to me in a stage whisper that it was because great aunt Carmella was Sicilian. Oh.

Needless to say, my family was spoiled by my mother’s stellar meatballs and as a result grew very particular. It was standard for us to rate the quality of the meatballs whenever we ate at a restaurant. We could spot inferior execution every time. Like meatballs made with stale, dried, seasoned breadcrumbs or those that were so firm and rubbery you could set one on a billiard table and smack it into the corner pocket.

Because I believe my mother made the very best meatballs, hers are the standard by which all others are judged. They were generously portioned – almost the size of a baseball; crusty on the outside, tender and almost fluffy within. They were strewn with flecks of fresh parsley, garlic and soft bits of milk-soaked Italian bread. They were sharp with the salty tang of Pecorino Romano cheese. They were big juicy spheres I couldn’t wait to stick my fork into.

My mother is no longer with us, and sadly, she took her meatball recipe with her. She’d told me her meatball secrets, probably more than once, but that was a while ago and the details are sketchy. Did she say to remove the crusts from the bread before soaking in milk? To squeeze out the milk thoroughly or to keep the bread dripping with liquid? To flatten the meatballs slightly while frying? Can’t remember. I didn’t write it down.

Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have inherited the gene for meatball mastery from my mother, and I’ve yet to work out her perfect ratio of meat-to-seasoning-to-filler. I hang my head in frustration, but I’m working on it.

I’ve turned to cookbooks lately, and recently found a recipe in Two Meatballs in an Italian Kitchen that seemed eerily familiar. I played with the recipe a bit and came up with this one. They are very close to my mother’s in method and taste, but just not as light as I’d like them to be. Back to the mixing bowl.

As always, I’ll keep you updated with breaking meatball-recipe news as it occurs.
Until then, what are your cherished food memories? Visit the comment section at the end of this post and share them with me.

You might also like Rigatoni with 20-Minute Sunday Gravy.

Classic Italian Meatballs

3 thick slices Italian-style bread, crust trimmed
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 pound ground beef chuck
½ pound ground pork
2 egg yolks
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tablespoon kosher salt or 1 ½ teaspoons table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
¼ cup olive oil

1. Tear the bread into small pieces and place in a medium bowl. Cover with the milk and soak 5 minutes. Squeeze the milk out of the bread until just moist.

2. In a large bowl, use your hands to combine bread, beef, pork, egg, cheese, salt, pepper, garlic and parsley until evenly mixed. Break off ¼-cup sized pieces of mixture and roll into balls. They don’t have to be perfect – craggy meatballs have character and hold the sauce better.

3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add as many meatballs as will fit in the pan without crowding. They should sizzle as soon as they hit they pan or the pan isn’t hot enough.

4. Cook meatballs until browned on all sides and cooked through, 6 -8 minutes total.

5. Serve hot with your favorite tomato sauce.
Makes about 15 meatballs

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Provencal Beef Stew – Slow Food, French Style

Rich, beefy, slow and satisfying

I’m a recently converted braising believer. I say recent because by nature and circumstance I’m more of a spontaneous, wait-until-the-last-minute, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of cook. Planning and making lists can be drudging work for me, so when it comes to deciding what to have for dinner, I tend to rely on a well-stocked pantry, simple recipes and quick cooking methods like grilling, broiling or stir-frying.

Which is all well and good. But now that both of my kids are in school all day, I’m feeling like I have a tiny bit more time to think about our daily dinner plans – and nothing seems more luxurious to me then having the wherewithal to start cooking dinner 4 hours in advance.

I know, some of you are thinking – Hasn’t this girl ever heard of a Crock-Pot?

I do own one of those, but for some reason I haven’t yet developed enough of a relationship with it to consider having an affair. I reserve my affection for a heavy-duty Le Creuset Dutch oven.

Sliding that pot full of meat, vegetables and wine-rich broth into the oven for a few hours not only fills the house with amazing smells, but leaves me hands-free to do other things. I love the fact that dinner can be bubbling away in the oven, and all I’ll need to do later is either slice some bread or boil wide egg noodles and toss some baby greens with dressing for a salad.

This recipe resembles a French-style beef daube, which is just a fancy name for beef stew. Traditionally made in a very large earthenware dish called a daubiere, it’s slow food at its best – rich with tender beef, herbs and red wine. I throw in aromatic herbs like thyme and rosemary, and use a chopped fennel bulb in place of celery for a little Provencal twist.

Also, I prefer to cook the most of the vegetables separately from the stew; that way they retain their color, texture and flavor rather than turn into overcooked beige mush.

Bouquet of herbs, ready for the pot

For more braising ideas, check out my recipe for:

Moroccan Braised Lamb with Toasted Almond Couscous

Update – I just learned about my fellow blogger Lia’s Swirling Notions Braisy Chain – what a great idea! I just love that blue Le Creuset pot, too.

I’m tagging a few friends to join in the fun:

Jenny at Picky Palate

Janelle at Talk of Tomatoes

Annie at The Cheesemonger’s Wife

Happy Braising…

Provencal Beef Stew
makes 4 – 6 servings

2 – 3 pounds beef chuck, cut into 2-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon tomato paste
5 peeled whole garlic cloves
2 cups hearty red wine, such as Syrah, Merlot or Cotes-du-Rhone
1 –2 cups beef or chicken broth
2 bay leaves and 4 sprigs each fresh thyme and rosemary, tied into a bundle with string
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup chopped leeks
1 fennel bulb, stems trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch wedges

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Season the beef generously all over with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven or heavy casserole over medium-high heat. Add the beef, in batches, and brown well on all sides. Remove beef to a platter.

Add onion to the pot and cook 5 minutes, stirring every now and then, until onion is softened. Return beef to the pot and sprinkle with flour. Stir in the tomato paste, garlic and wine. Bring to a boil. Add enough broth to just cover the beef; toss in the herb bundle. Cover the pot with a sheet of parchment or foil, then top with the pot lid.

Place in the oven to braise for 2 1/2 – 3 hours. The cooking liquid will be slightly reduced and the meat should fall apart when prodded with a fork.

Meanwhile, place the carrots, leeks and fennel in a large skillet with 1/4 cup water. Place over high heat until the water boils, then cover and lower heat to a simmer. Cook until the vegetables are tender but still colorful, about 10 minutes.

Just before serving, stir the vegetables into the stew; season with more salt and pepper to taste. Serve over wide egg noodles, mashed potatoes or with some crusty bread alongside.

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Kid-Friendly Food: Turkey Meatballs with Cilantro

I don’t know what it is about meatballs, but they seem to be the “it” food these days. I’ve seen recipes for meatball sliders teased on the cover of glossy food magazines and every Food Network personality seems to have a variation; Giada De Laurentis makes Mini Meatball Subs, Rachael Ray has her Spanikopita Chicken Meatballs, and Mario Batali, maybe most tempting of all, has a recipe for Lemon-Scented Meatballs.

Mario’s seem most like the meatballs I grew up eating, the Italian-style ones my mother would make for our Sunday gravy, with the exception that she used beef rather than veal – they were big, tender and simply seasoned with garlic, parsley and Parmesan cheese. I still haven’t nailed down her recipe (she never wrote it down, it seems), but these might come close.

I’ve been playing with the traditional Italian meatball ingredients; switching them out for Asian and Latin flavors. After all, every ethnic cuisine includes seasoned meat rolled into balls.

Even better, meatballs couldn’t be more family-friendly; I like to make a big batch and freeze some for a quick and healthy “emergency” meal, served with brown rice and sauteed spinach.

I use ground turkey thigh in this recipe, it’s a lower-fat alternative to beef and the dark meat produces a juicy meatball.

Turkey Meatballs with Cilantro

1/3 cup fine breadcrumbs
1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 pounds ground turkey
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1 egg
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoons olive oil

Combine the breadcrumbs and milk in a small bowl; soak 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine turkey, onions, cilantro, garlic, egg, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper. Add breadcrumb mixture and mix until combined; form 1 1/2-inch diameter meatballs.

Heat the oil a 12-inch nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Arrange meatballs in pan and cook until browned on all sides and cooked through, 7-10 minutes.

Makes about 2 dozen.

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