I emember the first time I tasted tender veal meatballs with the southern Italian flavors of fennel, green olives and baby artichokes. The ingredients suggested olive groves and rocky coastlines, yet the atmosphere in which I was savoring them was more stainless steel and fluorescent overheads than sun-drenched landscapes.
I was in my second term of culinary school, the portion that I was beginning to think of as all demi-glace, all the time, and the fresh-tasting dish was a welcome change. I happily took home leftovers, only to have my dog steal the container from my bag and devour them before I could get them into the refrigerator. My fantasies of Apulia disappeared as quickly as the meatballs, but I was determined to make the dish again.
In retelling the story of how the dog ate my homework to a cross section of friends, I learned something surprising. Nearly everyone, from the peckish eaters to the demanding gourmands, secretly (or not so secretly) loves meatballs.
They are comfort food of the highest order — whether it's Mom's '50s-flashback cocktail meatballs flavored with grape jelly and ketchup, or albondigas in a fiery sauce. They feature the flavors of home, no matter where on the planet home might be.
Though there are myriad variations on the theme, the basic formula is pretty standard — ground meat lightened with starch and bound with liquid and/or eggs. (Impress your friends by calling this starch/liquid mixture a panada.) These ingredients are similar to those found in many sausages, but the process is much less labor intensive, making meatballs a versatile and relatively quick way to combine flavors.
Small wonder that most cultures have their own version, from Swedish köttbullar and Spanish albondigas to the kofteh Tabrizi found in Iran — a huge meatball with a stuffed chicken hidden in the center.
While one of the appealing things about making meatballs is that they require neither expert technique nor exact timing, a few tricks will help to ensure a dish that is far from ordinary.
Chinese pork and ginger meatballs utilize restaurant magic to ensure a light, juicy texture. The secret ingredient is a bit of baking soda, which when used with a light hand helps tenderize the meat without imparting a telltale flavor. When used too much, baking soda results in a bitter, somewhat salty flavor — a dead giveaway that a restaurant is compensating for less desirable cuts of meat. The texture of the steamed meatballs is additionally lightened with an egg white.
Perhaps the ingredient that contributes the most to the light, moist texture of these dim sum-style meatballs is the meat itself, or, more specifically, the fat. It's worth a trip to your butcher or to an Asian-market meat counter for a fresh piece of pork butt, which the butcher can grind for you.
Additionally, an Asian-market butcher can grind a piece of pork belly to add to the mixture; just make sure the rind is cut off before grinding. This adds extra fat that is not absolutely essential but is highly recommended, as it creates amazing tenderness and flavor.
At the opposite end of the marbling spectrum is veal, which is very tender but has very little fat. Braising veal meatballs in a sauce adds moisture as well as flavor.
Sweating the onion and fennel before they are added to the meat mixture mellows and combines their flavors, allowing them to contribute subtle notes to the meatballs and sauce. Briefly searing the artichoke halves as well as browning the meatballs before putting the whole mixture in the oven to braise allows both to develop a nice caramelized crust before they are thoroughly cooked. Reserving the diced tomatoes to be added after the dish is cooked adds brightness of flavor and texture.
But the most important part of this recipe is the most important part of any recipe — tasting and adjusting seasonings at several points. This is not impossible when handling raw meat. Do as sausage makers do, and cook a little piece of the meat mixture to taste and adjust seasonings before preparing the whole batch.
Cooking and tasting a bit of the meat mixture is an important step in the albondigas, as Diana Kennedy's recipe indicates small amounts of seasonings that can be adjusted to taste. The tomato and chipotle sauce will benefit from this step as well, as both the chiles and their adobo sauce pack a bit of heat.
By now I've added many meatball variations to my repertoire, and I've put my unflattering checkered pants in storage, but I still get a little giddy when piles of baby artichokes start arriving in the supermarket.
My friends and family may grow tired of it, but veal meatballs with baby artichokes will always be a favorite of mine.
The recipe has become a new tradition, reminding me not of where I grew up, but of how far I've come.
Chinese-style pork meatballs in broth
Total time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Servings: 6 as an appetizer
Note: From Donna Deane, Times Test Kitchen director, and Mary Ellen Rae, recipe tester. Shaoxing wine is available in Asian markets. Use a combination of freshly ground pork belly (available in Asian markets) and ground pork butt, or you can simply use ground butt.
Chinese chicken broth
4 pounds chicken wings, backs and necks
12 cups water
1 (1-inch) piece ginger, sliced
2 green onions, cut into 4-inch pieces
1 star anise
1. Wash the chicken, place it in a 5-quart stockpot and pour in the water. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat. Simmer for 1 hour, skimming and discarding any foam.
2. Add the ginger, green onions and star anise and simmer 1 hour without stirring.
3. Remove the broth from the heat and let it stand about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Spoon the broth — being careful not to stir up any sediment on the bottom — into a strainer lined with cheesecloth that has been placed over another pot or container. Add salt to taste. Keep warm for immediate use. Leftover broth may be frozen.
Meatballs and assembly
1 egg white
3/4 pound coarsely ground pork butt plus 1/4 pound ground pork belly or 1 pound ground pork butt
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons finely chopped canned water chestnuts
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1. Lightly beat together the egg and egg white. Place the ground pork in a large bowl and gently stir in the egg mixture, ginger, green onion, garlic, water chestnuts, oil, soy sauce, wine, salt, pepper, baking soda and cornstarch. Gently stir with 2 fingers in a clockwise motion. This prevents over-mixing and keeps the meatballs fluffy.
2. Gently form the mixture into 1 1/2 -inch meatballs.
3. Fill a wok with 2 inches of water and place a bamboo steamer basket on top. Bring the water to a gentle boil on medium heat. Line the steamer basket with two layers of cheesecloth. Add the meatballs and steam for 16 to 18 minutes, until they change color and feel firm to the touch.
4. Remove the meatballs from the steamer. To serve, place 3 or 4 meatballs and three-fourths cup broth in each of 6 small bowls.
Each serving: 233 calories; 18 grams protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 15 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 89 mg. cholesterol; 801 mg. sodium. *
Meatballs in tomato and chipotle sauce
Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Servings: 6 to 8 (about 34 meatballs)
Note: Adapted from Diana Kennedy's "The Essential Cuisines of Mexico."
Meatballs 12 ounces ground pork
12 ounces ground beef
1 medium zucchini
1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1. Place the ground pork and beef in a food processor and pulse several times. Transfer to a large bowl. Trim the ends of the zucchini and chop finely. Add to the bowl.
2. Finely grind the peppercorns and cumin seeds in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and add to the meat. Add the oregano, eggs, onion and salt and gently use your hands or a spatula to thoroughly combine all the ingredients. 3. Gently form the mixture into 1 1/2 -inch meatballs. Place on a baking sheet and refrigerate while making the sauce.
Sauce and finish
2 pounds tomatoes
2 to 4 chipotle chiles en adobo, more or less to taste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup chicken broth
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Core the tomatoes and place them in the boiling water. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain the tomatoes and cool for a few minutes.
2. Process the tomatoes and chipotle chiles in a blender or food processor until smooth.
3. Heat the oil in a large skillet and add the tomato sauce. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth. When the sauce comes back to a simmer, add the meatballs.
4. Cover the pan and simmer the meatballs over low heat until they are cooked through, about 50 minutes. Adjust the seasoning by tasting and adding salt just before the end of the cooking time. This dish can be prepared a day ahead or can be frozen and reheated.
Each of 8 servings: 277 calories; 19 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 107 mg. cholesterol; 580 mg. sodium.
Veal meatballs with baby artichokes
Note: From Beth Fortune, Times Test Kitchen intern
Total time: 2 hours
Note: You may substitute ground turkey for the veal.
3 cloves garlic, divided
4 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
1/2 cup diced onion ( 1/8 -inch dice)
1/2 cup diced fennel bulb ( 1/8 -inch dice)
1 pound ground veal
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional shaved Parmesan for garnish
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons lemon juice, divided
12 baby artichokes (about
1 1/4 pounds)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped green olives
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 cup chicken stock
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and diced
1. Mince 2 cloves of the garlic. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large nonreactive skillet on medium-high heat. Add the onion, fennel and minced garlic and cook until soft, about 7 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool.
2. Combine half the cooked onion mixture with the veal, grated Parmesan, parsley, egg, bread crumbs, salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.
3. Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in the skillet used for the fennel mixture. Form 1 teaspoon of the veal mixture into a small patty and cook on both sides until cooked through. Allow to cool slightly and taste. Add more salt and/or pepper to the veal mixture if desired.
4. Form the veal mixture into balls approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in the same skillet. Add the meatballs and cook, browning on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
5. Thinly slice the remaining garlic clove. Set aside.
6. Fill a large bowl with water and add 3 tablespoons lemon juice. Clean the artichokes by removing the tough outer leaves, trimming off the dark green tips of the inner leaves and trimming the stems within one-fourth inch of the bottom of the artichoke. Remove the remaining tough green leaf bases and outer portions of the stems with a peeler. Cut each cleaned artichoke in half lengthwise and put in the bowl with the water and lemon juice. Repeat until all the artichokes are cleaned and halved.
7. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the same skillet. Remove the artichokes from the water, pat dry and place cut side down in the skillet. Cook over medium-high heat just until the edges are golden brown, about 8 minutes.
8. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon lemon juice, the olives, sage and chicken stock to the artichokes in the pan along with the browned meatballs. Cook over high heat until the liquid comes to a boil, about 5 minutes, then cover the skillet with foil and bake until the artichoke hearts are tender, about 20 minutes.
9. Remove the artichokes from the oven and place them on a platter with the meatballs. Season the sauce in the pan with salt and pepper as desired and pour it over the meatballs and artichokes. Sprinkle with the diced tomato and shaved Parmesan and serve.
Each serving: 269 calories; 19 grams protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 18 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 99 mg. cholesterol; 624 mg. sodium.