Thursday, October 21, 2010

dances with meatballs


You know how Native American tradition dictates that every person has a Spirit Animal? And we obviously all hope that ours is something cool and sexy like a wolf, and not something lame like a pigeon or something. Wait. Maybe I’m confusing Native American folk lore with the [intensely terrible] movie Couples Retreat. Regardless, I have a point and I’m going to keep rolling with this. I believe that each of us, in addition to having a Spirit Animal (I call wolf!) have a Spirit Food, and mine is meatballs.


I can’t even believe for one second that I’ve never talked about meatballs on here before. Everyone I know knows that my name is synonymous with meatballs. If you should happen to show up at a party at my house and there aren’t any meatballs, then check my vital signs, because I may have had a stroke or something. Even back in ’99 when I threw a lot more parties where quantity of booze trumped quality of food, I still had meatballs. There have always been meatballs.

My mom taught me her way to make meatballs exactly once, over the phone. The method was loosely explained and anticipated to be understood without any note taking of portion sizes or measurements. She had confidence I would be able to craft meatballs with only the loosest guidelines and she was right. I’m not trying to be conceited but I make a nice meatball and I do so with nothing fancy. No pre-soaked breadcrumbs, no mixing of separate and different meats, just meat, crushed Ritz, parsley, parmesan, one egg, salt, pepper. Handled minimally and rolled loosely into balls that get browned in the oven and finished in the sauce. I’m a firm believer in an “if it ain’t broke” mentality in the kitchen, and my meatballs had served me quite well up until now. I saw no need to rock the boat.


But then last month in Bon Appetit my homegirl, Molly, made meatballs, making claims that these were the most epic meatballs of all time (I’m taking some liberties with her wording). I read the article and accompanying recipe with rapt attention. We were, after all, covering meatballs here. I admired her work and her words as usual and moved on. My meatballs were perfectly fine, thank you very much. But I was a little haunted by her claims. Meatballs are my Spirit Food. Is “perfectly fine” good enough when it comes to the very fabric of my soul? About a week later my mom cracked my world wide open. Informing me that she had made meatballs and “oh by the way Jess, they were the best meatballs I’ve ever made, Jason said so.” I nodded. “I used Molly’s recipe. The one from the Bon Appetit.” My mouth dropped open and I dropped the People Magazine on the counter. Her words sent chills up my spine.


My guru of meatball was switching the script up on me after years of devoted service to her original recipe. My very own brother had endorsed them as the “greatest of all time.” The greatest of all time? I revisited the recipe; I was daunted by the steps. “Are you really necessary milk soaked breadcrumbs?” I wondered out loud in my kitchen. Were all the extra steps worth it? We were talking about my Spirit Food here and I owed it to myself to find out. I would make the fussy meatballs, and I would follow the steps and the recipe perfectly. I would food process homemade breadcrumbs, I would even measure things. I would throw my very own meat safety feelings out the window and follow the directions to braise the raw meatballs in the sauce rather than parbaking them in the oven. I would do it for Molly and I would do it for my mom and I would do it for every woman who’s ever enjoyed meatballs and all of my future party guests for the rest of history. We’re talking about meatballs, and if there is any person out there prepared to seek out the True Path to Epic Meatballs it was me. It is my destiny.

(from Molly Wizenberg for Bon Appetit)


1 28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 medium onions, peeled, halved through root end
½ teaspoon (or more) salt


1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1/3 cup whole milk
8 ounces ground beef (85% lean)
8 ounces ground pork
1 cup finely ground parmesan cheese (not grated, use smallest hole side of your grater)
1/3 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 large eggs
2 large garlic cloves, pressed
1 pound spaghetti


To make the sauce: combine both cans of tomato with butter, onions and salt in a large, wide pot. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Discard onions. Using an immersion blender, pulse the sauce briefly to break up large chunks of tomato. If you don’t have an immersion blender, chop or squeeze the whole peeled tomatoes before starting the sauce. You want your sauce to have texture, but not whole entire tomatoes floating around in it. Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Turn heat down to low while you finish preparing your meatballs.


For the meatballs: combine bread crumbs and milk in a small bowl. Stir until breadcrumbs are evenly moistened. Let stand for 10 minutes. Place beef and pork in a large bowl and break up into small chunks. Add the parmesan, parsley, salt and pepper. Whisk eggs in a small bowl, add the pressed garlic and whisk some more; add this to your meat mixture. Using your hands, squeeze the milk from your breadcrumbs (reserving the milk) and add breadcrumbs to the meat mixture, Using hands, move quickly and lightly to mix everything together until just combined. It’s crucial to the texture of your meatballs that you don’t overwork the meat, and that you likewise have a delicate touch while forming your balls (hee). I’m from a long line of women for whom delicate does not come naturally. Seriously, my mother used to remove seven layers of skin from my face with a damp thumb at the bus stop and she can burp a baby with one swift thwack. My sister and I have often confirmed to each other that dainty touch and a delicate nature are simply not in our DNA. We are frontier women. We could behead a chicken with our bare hands and till soil all day, while 8 months pregnant. Fortunately, we don’t have to do that in modern times, but you get the picture. Strong ladies. Not little. Anyways, I digress. So delicate is something I have to be mindful of. I find that the best way to combine the meat with all the other goodies, with a light touch, but thoroughly combining things is to use a hand "grip" if you will that Molly refers to in her article as “The Claw” (see photo below- what did I say? Those are strong hands yes?). Unbeknownst to me I have been using The Claw for years. I had just never put a title on it. The separation of your fingers is key and The Claw acts as the perfect tool to gently combine everything together in a way that is thorough but not overworked. Once everything is combined, chill the meat mixture at least 15 minutes, or up to one hour.


When you're ready to cook your meatballs, bring your sauce to a simmer over medium heat. Working again with a gentle hand (no kung fu grip) moisten your hands with the discarded breadcrumb milk and form the meat into equal sized balls. Place your meatballs in a single layer in the bottom of the sauce, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until meatballs are cooked through (15 to 20 minutes). Personally, I am paranoid about cooking meat and chicken sometimes because I have read too many books/ watched too many food borne illness documentaries, so I checked my meatballs for doneness with a meat thermometer. In the last 10 minutes of cooking, you can cook your spaghetti, if you’re ready to eat (but boil the water before those last 10 min. It takes longer than that to boil water, obvi). Otherwise, this can be made ahead and served later. Just let the sauce and meatballs cool completely before storing in the fridge.


So after all this work, Jess, was it worth it? Um, (pausing in a way I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings) not reaaaallly. In my opinion there were some flaws with these meatballs. First, there’s about 17 more steps than I would normally take to make meatballs. Second, I was hesitant in the first place about cooking the raw meatballs in the sauce without baking them first, and as everything was finishing cooking, I remembered why. When you cook meat in a sauce, it releases a lot of its fat into the sauce. Couple that with the fact that the sauce was already made with a whole entire stick of butter and you’ve got yourself a pretty hardcore artery clogger of a meal here. And you know what? Call it sacrilege but as much as I love pork I don’t love pork in my meatballs. Maybe if it was crumbled Italian sausage? Anyways, I learned a really valuable lesson here though: when it comes to matters of your Spirit Food, trust yourself. I went against my instincts because this recipe deserved a try, but next time I make meatballs, I’m going back to Porky's original recipe. And, because it would be lame to write up the whole recipe above and then simply dismiss it as too much work, I want you to know that you will very much enjoy Molly’s Spaghetti and Meatballs. If you’re looking for a treat and have some extra time on a Sunday, try this recipe out (just don't plan on making any sudden movements for the remainder of your evening- seriously, these will destroy you). At the very least, definitely try making the sauce, it is very, very good and so easy; but if you’re looking to make meatballs and not make a big deal about it, use my recipe below. I do realize this is the longest blog post in history, but I mean, it’s meatballs.



1 package ground beef (however lean you like it, 85% is good)
1 cup crushed Ritz cracker crumbs (no substitutions!)
1 cup finely ground parmesan cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped Italian parsley, or about 1 ½ tbs. dried parsley is fine as well
1 large egg


You can feel free to use the sauce recipe listed above, or if you have your own favorite, feel free. Prior to trying the butter and onion spaghetti sauce, I would make a simply tomato sauce with some finely diced onion, a little minced garlic, 1 can whole tomatoes, 1 can crushed and once I got the sauce simmering, I would season to taste with salt, pepper, oregano and basil. As your sauce simmers, make your meatballs. First, preheat your oven to 350. Break meat up into chunks in a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients, bring out The Claw and mix those suckers up. Gently roll into equal sized balls. Place meatballs on a nonstick baking sheet and pop in the oven for about 10-15 minutes. Until they are slightly browned, but not cooked through. Remove meatballs from oven and drop them, one by one, into your sauce. Let the meatballs and sauce simmer. Serve with your favorite pasta, topped with some grated parmesan.


Alternate recipe: PARTY MEATBALLS

Some people think that this is sort of a white trash dish, but you know what? They are snobs because these freaking things are delicious. Follow steps for preparation of meatballs above, cooking the meatballs the full 15 minutes in the oven. Remove meatballs. In a large Dutch oven, or even a Crock Pot if you have one, combine the hot meatballs with one jar apricot preserves and one bottle (normal size jar and bottle, not king sized or anything) of original barbecue sauce (my preferred BBQ sauce here is Kraft original, nothing fancy). Stir everything together so the sauce is mixed well. These can be served immediately or refrigerated until party time. When it’s party time, reheat them in the oven, or serve in the Crock Pot. People will pop these things like Tic Tacs I swear.

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  1. You will probably defriend me on Facebook after I tell you that I'm not a huge meatball fan, but your post has intrigued me. I shall make your version of your Spirit Food on a Sunday in the not too distant future.

  2. Knit Jones, I would NEVER defriend you! Spirit Food is personal: meatballs aren't for everybody.

  3. Jessica:

    You made me hungry for meatballs and I am going to try your recipe this weekend.

    As true strong frontiers women we must stick to the basics!


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