I remember 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 kottbullar 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.