22 February 2012

From the Chef ~ A Meatball - By Convention!

As fiercely contested as homemade tomato sauce, every household doggedly defends its own cherished version of the meatball.  In fact, some of the most heated debates on this hot issue have occurred amongst my dearest family and friends.  In an attempt bring harmony to years of controversy, I convened a summit with some of the most highly esteemed chefs in my family:  my first cousin Frank Buono, my brother-in-law Joe Mele, my paternal grandfather Fiore L. Pignataro, and my mother Marianna Pignataro.  With their recipes and methods in hand, I set out to create the first non-partisan meatball.  

I collected a wide range of methods and ingredients, as well as some surprising hints and colorful commentary.  According to my sources, the basic ingredients for meatballs include the following:

1. Beef, and oftentimes some other meat
2. Breadcrumbs
3. Egg
4. Grated cheese like pecorino or parmiggiano
5. Seasonings such as salt, garlic, herbs, or spices

Advice on exact recipes and methods was a little less standard, ranging from “You can do whatever you want—be creative” to “Well, I’ll tell you the recipe!” to “Forget about it—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!”.  And within the confines of the five ingredients listed above, the details got blurry:  beef was amended with pork, veal, and even Jimmy Dean sausage, breadcrumbs were substituted with bread soaked in water, and eggs ranged from 0—4.  Through interviews and my own trial and error, at the end of the day I found that dishes like these are highly adaptable and difficult to botch, though a really special meatball is hard to find.  Here is my current recipe...

  • Soak one thick slice of bread sans crust in warm water for 1-2 minutes.  Squeeze out water, shred, and set aside.
  • In a large bowl, combine with your hands 1/2 lb. lean (but not overly lean) beef, 1/2 lb. pork, and, against even my grandfather’s advice, 1/2 veal.  Again, you could try any meat you like—I am personally tempted to try some ground lamb next time around.
  • Now add about 1/2 cup breadcrumbs (I just use a food processor to make my own using stale bread), 2 beaten eggs, 5 or so heaping tablespoons of grated pecorino cheese, a handful of chopped parsley, 4 large cloves minced garlic, salt and freshly ground pepper.  Mix together all ingredients thoroughly with your hands.

  • Now roll into 1.5 inch balls.  A tip that I learned from cousin Frank is to dip your fingers in a little bowl of olive oil and the meat mixture will roll up into a ball nicely without sticking to your hands.
  • Drizzle a large skillet with a little bit of olive oil (one recipe called for Crisco) and warm to medium heat.  Fry meatballs until lightly browned on all sides, turning as necessary.  Then add to your favorite homemade tomato sauce and let simmer for 30 min. or as long as you can.
  • Serve over the pasta of your choice with a hearty red.

From the Chef ~ The Ultimate Sunday Meat Sauce

It's hard to find a meal as deeply satisfying as the ultimate meat sauce. There’s lots of flexibility in this dish, and like a basic tomato sauce recipe, everybody and their mother thinks they have the very, very best and only true version. My version is the sort of "carnivores dream" sauce that we'd savor at Sunday evening dinner either at my folks' home on Capitol Hill or my grandparents home in North Tacoma.  A meatball with a bowl of sauce and a slice of bread just barely tied me over until dinner.
  • Start with your favorite tomato sauce. Mine is based on the following for 1 lb. of pasta:  sauté until translucent 1 medium yellow onion finely chopped, 5-6 minced garlic cloves, and about 1/4 cup olive oil. Now for the canned tomatoes; lots of discussion surrounds the very best brands, but I’ll spare you today! I use two 28-ounce cans for a non-meat sauce and 3 for a meat sauce. Drain the liquid if it appears more like water than tomato juice. Puree the fruit and add to the onion/garlic base. Add your herbs and spices:  I like bay leaf with meat, a little red pepper and salt, sometimes oregano (I prefer oregano with my non-meat version), and a big handful of chopped parsley to add at the end. Now for the meat!
  • Meatballs are always a favorite (Casa Fiore, March 2005, A Meatball—By Convention! Let me know if you’d like a copy!) Prepare and set aside. Then, brown some or all of the following, as each will impart it’s own character to this deep, rich, and complex sauce:  sweet and hot sausage; some cuts of pork and beef and even lamb, like ribs, neck bones, and chuck roast; homemade bracciole, or rolled and stuffed flank steak; you can even try rabbit or wild game. Want the ultimate stroke? Try NY Italian specialties! Sausages and pork skin rolled and stuffed with prosciutto and grated cheese often bobbed away for hours in our pot. Contact our favorite sources for your own personal shipment:  A & S Pork Store on 86th Street in Brooklyn, 718.238.6030 (I pray it still exists...) or my cousin's place, Fortunato’s in New Jersey, 732.262.7999.
  • Add the browned meats to the sauce and let simmer on low for hours—2-3 hours minimum. Halfway through, do as I used to do, and ladle out a bowl full of sauce and a meatball, grab a piece of bread, and make sure everything is going alright. Boil your pasta—either dry or fresh pasta is great. Plate and serve with grated pecorino or parmigiano cheese. Enjoy with a bold Italian red like Barolo, Barbaresco, or Brunello.