Saturday, February 1, 2014

"The Introspective Meatball"

Who doesn't like Meat balls?  They even made a movie about Them!!  Meatballs are fashionable, popular and just plain wonderful. They are crowd-pleasing!!
I am sure everyone has eaten meatballs before but not everyone is able to make them well so this post is dedicated to the perfect meatball. From Swedish to Italian meatballs they're all good. I know people are always trying to replicate recipes but they fail none-the-less. But are why do they fail? With meticulous studious attention to detail they follow the recipe to the tee but somehow the meatballs still come out dense or dry. A meatball is not some serendipitous ornament that can be thrown together without thought and hung on some tree. A meatball is something special or as the french would say Je ne Sais Quoi. What's missing from many great meatball recipes is techniques that transforms simple ingredients into something delectable. What is a perfect meatball? It could be your grandmothers recipe passed down from generation to generation or just one you threw together with some common ingredients. 

Maybe your special meatball is blend of herbs and seasonings that puts it over the top. Hmmm...nope!!  There's an old Italian proverb "A ciascuno il suo" which means "To Each His Own". What makes a meatball extraordinary & special is that you made it yourself and it came from your kitchen. Once you master some basic cooking techniques your meatball will become something very special. 

Why did I call this the Introspective Meatball? Because I think meatballs are personal.  The Meatball you create must come from within. Meatballs have existed in every time period and every culture.  If you think about it for a moment a Meatball is just basically meat, spices and herbs mixed together than cooked. Sounds boring if you ask me.  But when you make a Meatball from a cultural personal historical perspective it gets transformed into exceptional.  

For me my meatballs are influenced by my Italian side and the cultural melting pot I grew up in; none other than Brooklyn New York. My grandfather was Sicilian and his family came from Palermo thus I traditionally make an Italian version of Meatballs.  My grandfather had all the stereotypes too!!! My grandfather (we called him Poppi) Salvatore Santos owned a Bar in Queens NY and mostly served Italian patrons and served Italian food which included some of the greatest food I have ever eaten. My grandfather was the epitome of what was Italian. From his food to the way he talked and dressed. Ok,  enough about my family. Back to the meatball!!!

What are the secrets to making a great meatball? We want a meatball with the right texture, the right seasoning and one that tastes amazing. Of course we want to avoid making a dry spongy dense meatball that bounces around when it hits the plate.  

Lets talk about some Meat-Ball  101 
  • Season your meat mixture. Salt and pepper etc. If you add cheese that is salty like Parmesan you might want to take that into consideration and cut back on the salt. 
  • Herbs and spices are an absolute. Otherwise you meatball becomes boring. No flavor no color makes a meatball drab. If you are making Italian meatballs than the standard Italian parsley, Basil and Oregano will work.  But if you decide to make Greek versions than you might consider Mint, Greek Oregano, Allspice, Cardamom, Anise, Cinnamon, olives and maybe some feta cheese too.. etc. My point here is to kick it up a notch and be creative.  
  • Eggs are a necessity. They are the binder or in laymen's terms the glue that holds everything together. Without it you will end up with crumbled meat. I like about 2 eggs per pound of meat. Sometimes more sometimes less. It depends on how it feels in my hands. 
  • Mixing it all together. Use your hands and don't over do it. You want to mix until everything is incorporated and not a paste. 
  • All balls the same size.  Whether you use an ice-cream snooper (I do) or your hands make sure the are the same size. 
  • Roll your balls with your hands. Make sure your hands have a little oil or water on them. If your hands are dry the meat will stick.
  • Sear the hell out of them. I like doing mine in a hot skillet with olive oil. I like a nice caramelized outside than I braise them in my sauce. You can also do them in a very hot oven.  If you prefer no crust than do not fry them.
  • I make a Panade to avoid dense, heavy and hard meatballs. What is a Panade? Starch and a liquid mixed together.  It helps prevent dense meatballs and helps with texture keeps moisture levels high. I like using Italian bread or baguette (crust removed) and milk or cream as the liquid.  American Test kitchen says "A Panade works in two ways: its liquid adds moisture and the bread starch gets in the way of the meats proteins, preventing them from interconnecting and becoming tough" 
  • Meat: use whatever you want. Just make sure it has lots of fat and it is of quality cuts. I like using beef, lamb, and Veal for my Italian meatballs. If I am going for Greek or middle eastern versions I use 75% Lamb and 25% Veal or Beef.  Turkey and Chicken are great too. 
  • My personal preference when I make Italian meatballs is the addition of wine. What ever wine I use for my sauce that same wine goes in my meatball.  "I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food." -W.C Fields. 
  • One last thing about the infamous meatball and this is one of the most important rules. After you get done combining all your ingredients pinch off some of the meat and fry it up and sample it. Adjust the seasonings if you need too then start rolling them out. 

The Inspirational Meat-Ball 

What does an inspirational meatball look like? "You Need To Look within to make your meatball".  Yes it sounds crazy but if you want to make a "one of a kind" meatball you must get inspired first. What foods do you like? As I write this post I just got the idea to make an Asian Meatball using my special Asian Coconut Curry Sauce.  How hard can it be. Using some of the ingredients I suggested in the above recipe you can create a wonderful meatball. I could then braise the meatballs in the above sauce with some 
minor modifications. 

Below you will find a list of my inspired meatballs.  The list will grow as I become so inclined to create something original so check back occasionally.