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. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pasticcio Vitello Polpetta

In a previous post I wrote about the "Introspective Meatball". I would suggest reading this first before undertaking this meatball. 

Pasticcio Vitello Polpetta is a fancy way of saying in Italian a hodgepodge or medley Veal Meatball. 


3 lbs of ground Veal
6 eggs scrambled
150 grams currants. 
60 grams roasted pine-nuts

60 grams Onion
5 cloves Garlic (20 grams)
40 grams Sun-dried Tom in Olive oil

1 cup Ricotta (300 grams)

2 oz butter
1/2 cup of Port

2 Tsp pepper
1 Tbl Salt
Handful Parsley (20 grams)
Handful Basil (20 grams)

90 grams of white bread cut into small pieces 
1 cup milk

1 cup Parmesan Reggiano or Pecorino cheese

1 cup of Italian bread crumbs
Additional bread crumbs to coat meatballs. 

Place meat in very large bowl.  

Things to do ahead

  • Weigh out all ingredients
  • Weigh out currants and dose with a little port to re-hydrate. 
  • Cut up bread into squares and add milk. Make sure bread is thoroughly coated and mixed with milk. 
  • Roast pine nuts.  Place nuts in pan and put a little color on them. Be careful not to burn. 
  • Puree Sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and onion in food processor. 
  • In a pan place butter and port and reduce by half. 
  • Chop Parsley and Basil very fine
  • Scramble the eggs
Next step
  • drain the currants
  • extract most of milk from bread by squeezing gently
  • Toss all ingredients now into large bowl and mix. Don't over mix other wise meatballs will be dense. Just mix long enough to incorporate
  • Make sure to follow my techniques outlined in my post "Introspective Meatball"
  • After everything is mixed pinch off some meat and fry it, taste it , adjust seasonings if you need too. 
  • Form meatballs.  I used an ice-cream scoop and made 50 meatballs.
  • Bake at 450 for thirty minutes and braise in sauce. 
  • I used my No Fuss No Muss Sauce for my meatballs.  To the sauce I added some chicken stock to thin it out and get the consistency I needed.  I than submerged the meatballs in sauce and cooked for about 1 hour.

My thoughts and notes:

  • If you don't like currants try using raisins; I prefer golden or none at all.
  • Try different hard cheeses.....there are many of them. 
  • Pines nuts are just an optional ingredient. 
  • Fry the meatballs instead?
  • Use Shallots instead of Onions.
  • Use a Marsala wine instead of Port.
  • Low fat Ricotta cheese....Absolutely not!!   

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

No Fuss No Muss Pasta Sauce

From this no-cook sauce, you can make endless versions of pasta dishes. 

15 oz Jar Roasted Bell Peppers (drained)
3 oz Sun-dried Tomato packed in olive oil
1 cup dry roasted pine nuts (heated in skillet for a few minutes)
5 cloves of garlic (more if you love garlic)
2 oz Shallot
2-3 scallions (green onions rough chopped)
2/3 cup of parsley (to make a Greek version add mint)
6 very large Basil leaves
3 oz Tomato Paste
2/3 cup grated Parmesan Reggiano or Pecorino Romano Cheese. If you're into Greek food add Feta Cheese and Olives.
2/3 cup Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste and Cayenne if you like HOT

Put everything in a food processor (or blender….may have to add more olive oil for it to puree if using a blender) and process until smooth. This should only take a minute or less. Place all contents in container and refrigerate until ready to use.

Optional- I like to roast the Garlic, Shallots and green onion for an in-dept flavor. The picture to the left shows what I did.  I place everything on BBQ-grill for a few minutes to roast. 

Basic instructions- Boil your favorite pasta (I prefer to use high-end pastas for their flavor). Right before you drain the pasta reserve 2-4 cups of the pasta water to help build your sauce. Meanwhile have a colander standing by to drain pasta.  

The reserved pasta water helps us build a sauce because it contains starch from the pasta. The timing of this is very important because the inspiration behind this sauce was to make it quick with no FUSS.

From start to finish the entire dish should only take 30 min to complete.   Always have your Pasta water ready to go. Have it a near boil if you have too. No one like sitting around waiting for water to boil. 

Drain cooked pasta and put back in cooking pot.  In a very large saute pan or fry pan add some of your no-fuss no-muss sauce with some of the reserved pasta water.  
For a pound of pasta I use anywhere from a ½ cup to a 1 cup depending on what else I might add. Add some reserved pasta water so you can adjust the thickness and consistency of the sauce. If you want too toss sauce and pasta water into the pot you just cooked your pasta in and save a pot.  

Add some more cheese, or combinations of cheeses and some chives, parsley and or basil etc etc....... and meat if you like and serve.  Only limited to your imagination.  My personal favorite is mascarpone cheese.  

Kicking it up a notch and adding some more ingredients. Below are my suggested ingredients. The list of ingredients and recipes are continually evolving because every time I go to the store I find something novel, exciting, and creative to experiment with. If I were to write down every idea I had it would fill several books.

Suggestions- Sauté meat and set aside. Add more olive oil if the pans needs it. Toss in Shallots, sweat for a minute or two or until you can smell them (“Sweat” a fancy cooking term which means to cook without imparting color) than toss in garlic and do the same thing. Toss in the rest of your veggies and cook for a couple of minutes. Deglaze if you want with something I suggested below (I love Port for this dish) and cook down for 2-3 minutes.  If you want to enrich your dish, add cream and or butter.   Add some reserved pasta water if need be…………….. After pasta is cooked toss in to large sauté pan and combine everything. Maybe add some fresh Italian parsley or basil on to the pasta and serve with quality Parmesan cheese.  in the above dish I used mascarpone cheese and a basil Chiffonade. 

Deglazing liquids
Your favorite Port, Chicken stock, water, wine, beef broth, beef consume, or a combination of alcohol and or stock.

Enriching your sauce
Cream, butter and cheeses …………….do I have to say anything more.

Vegetables to consider- Asparagus, Broccoli Rabe, Greens beans, and Brussels sprouts. 

Other good stuff