There are few foods that I have never made before, and meatballs so happen to be one of them. Nevertheless, I dangerously committed to making yummy, fancy meatball appetizers for a baller-esque party held last week, hosted by three of my beloved friends.
But why were the stakes higher than they were in say, the numerous other occasions I baked/cooked an untested food for a party? First of all, I would never want people I really like to be known for serving not delicious food. Secondly, I have an incredibly unrefined meatball palate. If it is real meat rolled into a ball, I’ll joyfully eat it, whether it’s Trader Joe’s frozen turkey meatballs, or three-day old un-microwaved Ikea Swedish meatballs. I have been able to disguise this condition by successfully pretending to also be disgusted when eating so-called-crappy meatballs in the presence of others (while somehow keeping others from noticing that I’m still eating them).
I have always stood by the idea that if you know what a food should taste like, you certainly have the capacity to make it right. So not only did I have no idea how to pick a recipe, but I also felt oh so insecure in my capacities :(.
Fortunately, I understood the value of research, especially in circumstances when important decisions had to be made on unfamiliar subject matter. I’ve lost a lot of dough to many of my past NCAA picks, simply because I was too stubborn to give up my abstract medium (cuteness) for ranking teams. This is not to say that there isn’t a strong correlation between cuteness and greatness in life, but I take food much more seriously than the NCAA. So I didn’t have the heart to not obsessively search for the most reliable sources.
Before moving forward, I’d like for us to get into the spirit, since we eagerly want to be meat-ballerz. Let me introduce you to a highly relevant H-town classic:
Lil’ Troy, “Wanna be a Baller”:
After consulting the meatball king and meatball bible, I learned that all good meatballs are cooked in a two-step process. Once the meatballs are formed, they are first browned to stabilize their shape and also in some cases, to create a crispy exterior. Then the meatballs are braised in some sort of sauce until cooked fully through.
I also learned that the meatballs intended to be eaten over pasta or with other carbohydrates (such as a hero to make a meatball sub) have far fewer ingredients than meatballs that are intended to be eaten alone. Thankfully, I was limited to investigating Italian-ish meatball appetizer recipes, because I was asked to make some sort of Italian-ish meatball that could be eaten off a toothpick. So I knew I wanted to look for a recipe that used some of my favorite Italian ingredients, such as fresh basil, ricotta, and pecorino romano.
Finally, I learned from the meatball king that it is impossible to make an amazing meatball without also making an amazing accompanying sauce. I realized it would be too ambitious to focus on both components given the time constraints, so I decided to find a recipe in which most of the flavor was incorporated into the meatball itself.
Upon intense recipe investigation, I overzealously drew parallels between the game of basketball and making of the meatball:
- Team = Meatball: There are many different types of meatballs, but every meatball is made of the same basic components that play the same basic roles, or “positions”.
- Players = Ingredients: Every ingredient serves a specific purpose, but all of the ingredients must work well together in order to create a tasty, successful meatball.
- Points = Flavor: Every component/ingredient in the meatball has the capacity to add flavor. Some flavors that are contributed by the ingredients have double, or even triple, the intensity of others.
- Center = Meat: The meat is the “pivot”. Every other ingredient revolves around it. The meat also generally takes up the most volume in the meatball.
- Power Forward = Moisture Magnet: The moisture magnet is the source of carbohydrate that typically “rebounds”, or reabsorbs, the lost liquid from the meat as it cooks off. The moisture magnet can be anything from torn stale bread, panko breadcrumbs, crushed crackers, to grains.
- Shooting Guard = Flavor Booster: The flavor boosters are typically the greatest source of flavor. The flavor boosters are usually herbs, spices, cheeses, and in some cases, vegetables.
- Point Guard = Binder: The binder typically takes up very little volume, but holds a ton of power. The binder serves as the “captain” by bringing together the entire meatball to best “assist” in holding its shape. The binders are almost always eggs (typically whole, some recipes use just yolk or just egg whites). The fat from the binder also adds good flavor.
- Strategy = Cooking method: There are many different ways to brown a meatball. But the primary methods of browning are baking/broiling, deep frying/pan frying, fire grilling/pan grilling, and steaming/poaching. It is possible to make a delicious meatball using any of these methods.
- Coach = Cook (aka YOU!): Although the cook is not actually in the meatball (or shouldn’t be… the only good thing I can say about having blunt knives), the meatball is a representation of the cook, because the cook is who determines the ingredients and cooking method!!!
I have taken this analogy ad nauseum. I’ll stop 😦 But my only hope was for us to learn a thing or two about meatballs and/or basketball!
I already had a basic idea of the ingredients I wanted to incorporate, and since I decided not to focus on the sauce, my recipe choice was highly dependent on the cooking “strategy”, or, browning method. Here are my picks:
- Fire Grilling vs. Meatball Pan Grilling → Fire Grilling: I like a crispy sear on my meatball, and nothing gives a sear like direct flame. Also, this special meatball grilling pan is really expensive. How rude.
- Deep Frying vs. Pan Frying → Pan Frying: This choice might come as a surprise to you. But after extensive research, I found very few recipes that used the deep frying method. My favorite Italian chefs (Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali) both used the pan frying method in their standard meatball recipes.
- Steaming vs. Poaching → Steaming: Both methods seemed lame, but I figured steaming was better since it involved less direct interaction amongst the meatballs. And I figured minimal interaction would result in rounder, more uniform meatballs.
- Baking vs. Broiling → Baking: First, what is the difference between baking and broiling? Baking is cooking food by transferring heat generated from the oven (surrounding the food with hot air). Broiling is cooking food by transferring heat using infrared radiation. Broiling typically cooks things faster, and can also provide a char. The fact that broiling had the potential to give a char was tempting, but I ended up choosing the baking method after watching the meatball throw down (Bobby Flay vs. Mike Maroni). I hate Bobby Flay, so I instinctively temporarily respect his competitors’ methods. Also, this Maroni guy really seems to know what he’s doing.
- Fire Grilling vs. Pan Frying → Pan Frying: Again, all of my favorite, trusted Italian chefs use the pan frying method (at least over fire grilling). I also do not have a grill.
- Baking vs. Steaming → Baking: I don’t think I need to give an explanation here. How lame would it be if steaming were my passion?
- Baking vs. Pan Frying → Pan Frying: This was obviously the most difficult decision. But since I was making the meatballs to be eaten alone (without pasta or bread), I really wanted to get a crispy crust to seal in the juiciest, moistest possible center. And I was fairly certain pan frying could better achieve these results.
Let’s get meatball-in’!
I finally chose to work with The Food Network Kitchens’ Italian Cocktail Meatballs with Herbs and Ricotta recipe as my canvas.
But first, let’s proclaim to the world the way that WE meat-ball (v.) with yet another highly relevant H-Town classic:
Lil’ Flip, “The Way We Ball”:
Ok, now are you pumped? Let’s BBB (ball, brown, and braise)!!!!!
HHC’s Baller Cocktail Meatballs
- 1/2 pound ground pork
- 1/2 pound ground chicken
- 1/2 pound ground veal
- 4 ounces (1/2 cup) whole milk ricotta
- 1/3 cup minced flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
- 1/2 medium onion, grated (about 1/2 cup)
- 3 tablespoons finely grated pecorino romano
- 1 slice bacon, finely minced
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme or lemon thyme
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce (about 1/2 teaspoon)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 to 3 cups homemade or quality jarred marinara sauce
- Small fresh basil leaves
1. Mix the ricotta, parsley, panko crumbs, onion, pecorino romano, bacon, garlic, milk, thyme, egg, salt, Worcestershire, and black pepper, to taste, in a large bowl. Add in the ground meats and gently mix by hand until just combined (using a firm hand will make the meatballs tough).
2. Roll (by hand) the mixture into ~2 tablespoon small meatballs (about the size of a “golf ball on steroids”). Put them on a large sheet pan, cover, and refrigerate at least an hour or up to 24 hours.
3. Heat the olive oil in a skillet (at least 2 inches deep) over medium-high heat. Add about 1/3 the meatballs and fry them until well browned on all sides (~5 minutes). Resist the temptation to turn them (more than necessary). Drain the meatballs on a paper-towel lined plate and repeat with the remaining meatballs.
4. Place all of the browned meatballs in another skillet (~4 quart). Pour in the marinara sauce and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat, cover, and then simmer until the meatballs are completely cooked through (about 15 minutes).
5. Serve the meatballs, skewered on a platter with a dollop of the sauce and a fresh leaf of basil. They are good warm and at room temperature!
Basil is out of season, but the leaves were HUGE (yay for genetic engineering). So I decided to also serve the meatballs “ssam” style (korean wrap style).
Research rules. I did a dang good job with my pick. Shall we eat?
Until next time….