Author James Villas takes what most would consider a common ingredient and celebrates it. The first part of the book is devoted to introducing the reader to ground meats. For many who might not normally think beyond the shrink-wrapped ground beef in the meat aisle, Villas explains where these meats come from – what part of the animal and how it is ground. He also ventures far beyond beef, embracing a broad definition of "ground meat" with foodstuffs as varied as salt cod and sausage.
Villas then demystifies the whole grinding process. While many of us might tackle a sourdough starter or can our own vegetables, the thought of grinding meat might be intimidating. Villas explores how to do it, and if you don't have a formal meat grinder (and most of us probably don't), Villas gives the option of using a food processor. And he walks the reader through lean meat-to-fat ratios, and why fat is so important.
The bulk of the book is devoted to recipes, covering pretty much anything and everything having to do with ground meat. Each recipe includes a detailed introduction, sharing fun tidbits and often a little history, like how the sloppy Joe, or the Coney Island hot dog, came to be. The recipes are varied, ranging from French terrines to retro-tuna casserole, Russian piroshki to Shanghai congee and Jamaican stuffed plantains. In particular, I loved the Creole chaurice (he has a whole section on sausages), but it's the Brazilian salt cod fritters I keep thinking about, fluffy and light and wonderfully flavored.
Such a simple, inexpensive, and wonderfully versatile ingredient, this book will have you looking at the wonders of ground meat in a whole new light.
"From the Ground Up" by James Villas, Wiley, $22.99.
— Noelle Carter
Brazilian salt cod fritters
Total time: 1 hour, plus soaking time for the cod
Servings: Makes about 4 dozen fritters
Note: Adapted from "From the Ground Up" by James Villas. He writes, "Although generally imported from Spain or Portugal, dried salt cod (bacalhau) is a staple in Brazilian cooking, and nothing is more popular than these mild, crispy fritters served most often as an appetizer at informal seafood dinners. Do remember that all salt cod must be soaked in several changes of fresh water to leach out the salt and tame the strong flavor, and note that while the fish might be marketed as boneless, there are usually a few tiny bones that must be removed before chopping or grinding. I also like to serve these fritters at casual lunches with a big tossed salad, breadsticks and a flinty white wine. At one time, salt cod was readily available only in Latin, Asian, and Italian markets, but today it can be found in wooden flats at most grocery stores."
1 pound boneless dried salt cod
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 cups mashed potatoes (from about 4 potatoes roasted until tender, skinned and mashed)
3 eggs, beaten
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 to 1/2 cup milk, more as needed
Vegetable oil for deep frying
1. Soak the cod: Place the cod in a baking dish with enough water to cover and soak for 8 to 10 hours, changing the water twice.
2. Drain the cod and place in a large saucepan. Cover with water and bring the water to a low boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer the cod for about 15 minutes. Drain the cod and cut it into chunks, discarding any skin and bones.
3. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat, add the cod and onion and stir until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 5 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a food processor, add the cilantro, paprika and nutmeg, grind to a coarse purée and scrape into a bowl. Add the mashed potatoes, eggs and pepper and stir until well blended. Gradually add enough of the milk to give the mixture a tight consistency.
4. Heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil in a deep fryer or heavy pot until a thermometer inserted reads 375 degrees. Roll the cod mixture into balls about the size of a walnut, then drop them in batches into the hot oil, fry until golden and crisp, 2 to 3 minutes, then drain on paper towels.
5. Serve hot.
Each of 4 dozen fritters: 85 calories; 7 grams protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 6 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 26 mg cholesterol; 0 sugar; 58 mg sodium.