Meatballs 101

It’s been a while, and if you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, let me explain.   I’ve been on a mission to find the perfect meatball to share with you.  I’ve missed you, but trust me, you will be happy I took on this task.  

I used to think I made a great meatball.  I was praised far and wide for these traditional Italian meatballs that my mother taught me to make, and her mother before her and so forth throughout many generations of Italian women.  My children loved to sneak into the kitchen on Sunday mornings and grab a newly fried meatball when I wasn’t looking.   It seemed that I never made enough. They would mysteriously disappear.  I was proud of my meatballs and got great satisfaction from the enjoyment they gave all my hungry Sunday dinner guests.

Until one day recently, my son ( the greatest former meatball thief of all) told me that I “needed to step up my game” when it came to meatballs.  I was shocked, hurt and a bit annoyed.

“What do you mean?” I questioned him indignantly. “Everyone loves my meatballs, including you!”

“Not really, mom.  They’re missing something lately, “he replied.  “Have you changed something?”

He was way too old to punish, so I swallowed my pride and decided to examine this whole meatball situation.  Maybe Ihad changed something over the years.  

“Why don’t you try a new recipe,” he suggested.

At first I was reluctant, but then I thought maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.  So I did what I love to do.  I turned to my cookbook collection for help.   And so it began… quest for the perfect meatball.

 I was surprised to find many different recipes for what I always thought was such a standard thing.  Some people used different meats.  Some even used sausage.  The type of breadcrumbs changed from recipe to recipe.  You might find ricotta being used.  Garlic or onion or both?  Raisons and pine nuts were in some recipes.  One recipe called for you to roll the meatball in flour before frying.  Then there was the question of whether to fry, bake or broil.  And the type of oil that you should use for frying changed with each recipe.  I was really confused, but willing to try some or all the recipes if necessary.

At the end of a very fattening, but delicious month or so, I came up with the winner.  It was from Arthur Schwartz’s cookbook, “Naples at Table.”  The funny thing was that it is basically the same as my mother’s recipe ( which is what I had always used), except he includes pine nuts and raisins  They are delicious with the pine nuts and raisins but the basic recipe without them is pure perfection.  The best part is that the family agreed.  

Where had I gone astray?  I had stopped using Italian bread soaked in water (or milk) and resorted to time saving Italian flavored breadcrumbs.  Since the breadcrumbs were flavored, I skimped on the fresh parsley, grated cheese, salt and pepper.   This had to be why my meatballs went from fabulous to not so fabulous.  

Now I won’t be so bold as to say that you will find this recipe to be your idea of a perfect meatball.  I learned two important lessons from this exercise in meatballs.  One is that we love the food we grew up on.  We were nourished in many ways from the dishes our families prepared. The tastes stay with us, as well as the love that went into the preparation.   So if this is not the meatball of your childhood, you may totally disagree with me.  

The other lesson I learned from all this is that “traditions” exist for a reason.  We don’t need to change things that are wonderful in their simplicity.  Honoring the way things have been done in the past is a beautiful thing, especially when it come to food.  Now when I make my meatballs, I can feel the presence of my grandmothers and my mother, giving me their seal of approval as I gently squeeze the liquid from the soaked bread.  I take my time and languish in the tradition and memories of it all. 

Finally, my “meatball thieves” are back, and I couldn’t be happier!

RECIPE: makes 12 meatballs

3 cups dried crustless bread (I use Italian bread) cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes before measuring

1 1/4 pounds ground beef (no later than 80%)

3 eggs, beaten to mix well

2 large garlic cloves, finely minced

1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese

1/4 cup finely cut parsley

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup vegetable oil for frying

1/3 cup raisons and 1/3 cup pinenuts …….optional

  1. Soak the bread in cold water ( or milk). Meanwhile in a large mixing bowl, combine, but do not yet mix, the remaining ingredients, except the oil.
  2. Squeeze the bread by fistfuls to drain it, then break it up into the bowl. First with a fork, then with your hands, blend the mixture very well, squishing it in your hands to make sure the bread blends with the meat. Do not worry about handling the meat too much.
  3. With your hands moistened in cold water, roll the mixture between your palms into 12 meatballs, each using about 1/3 cup of meat.
  4. Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium to medium-high heat. When a drop of water sizzles immediately, it’s hot enough for the meatballs. Gently place them in the pan and as soon as the first side looks brown, using a metal spatula, dislodge them and turn to another side. As the cooking side browns well, continue rotating the meatballs. After about 10 minutes the meatballs should be well browned but still slightly rare in the center.
  5. If serving the meatballs without sauce (“gravy”), lower the heat slightly and continue to cook, rotating the meatballs regularly, for another 5 to 8 minutes. If serving the meatballs in sauce, place them in the sauce now and simmer gently for 15 minutes.

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