Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How to make a meatball

Promises and pie crusts are made to be broken.
—Jonathan Swift

Not around here they ain't. I promised some people meatballs (you know who you are and why) and meatballs I am delivering.

To make a good meatball you must first prepare your sauce (aka gravy). Why? Because the sauce is what the meatballs are cooked in. At least mine are.

I never make a Red Sauce exactly the same way twice, but there are three ingredients that are always in there: plenty of extra virgin olive oil, garlic and pork. The pork (often a mixture of ribs and sausage, though here just the ribs) is browned so as to render some of its fat, then removed until the tomatoes go in. The dark spots you see here? Anchovies. I use them sometimes. Even if you wind up not tasting them, when they're in there I find I need to use less salt.

I won't go through the whole red sauce-making ritual, but just so's you know what else went into this particular one before the tomatoes, pork and meatballs did: You've got your onions, your celery, some diced prosciutto, salt and pepper, and carrots for a little sweetness (some people use sugar, but this has always seemed a better method to me).

I always make my meatballs the same way—and always make them while the sauce is cooking. (I am not unique in this way, as generations of my people walked this same path.) The ground meat you see here is two-thirds veal, one third beef. I know. Where's the pork? It's in the gravy, not the meatballs.

A loaf of bread, an open faucet. More crucial elements to a good meatball you will not find.

I do not use breadcrumbs. Never have. I soak a loaf of bread in water, then gently squeeze a lot of the water out and start tearing it apart. As for bread, I usually grab one of those soft loaves that a lot of supermarket bakeries make. The reason I like this bread is because even the crust breaks down when you wet it, and I use the crust. But most any bread will do.

If you click on this pic you will get a better idea what's going on. Look at the ring of meat and notice that the veal and beef has been mixed but only lightly. This is very important. A meatball mix must be handled gently (I only use my hands, by the way, never a utensil). Mix it only as much as it takes for the ingredients to come together, and that's it. Never overwork it. One of the reasons why meatballs can be tough, heavy and way too dense, rather than tender and light, is because they have been worked too hard.

As for the ingredients, this batch is a fairly big one. There are about two pounds of veal, a pound of beef, two eggs, about three-quarters of a loaf of wet bread and a good dose of milk, which I keep adding as needed to keep things moist. The only seasoning I use is Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Here's another pic worth enlarging. See how moist the mixture is? Just as important, notice that I do not try to get things completely smooth and uniform. If there are hunks of bread in the meatballs, fine, I like bread. It goes back to not overworking. Very important.

Next step is to fry up a small piece of meatball mix to make sure it's seasoned to your liking. With meatballs that are mostly veal you may find it necessary to use a little more salt than if pork was an ingredient.

Time to make the balls. Again, don't overwork them here either. Using only one hand, just pinch some mixture from the pile, roll it ever so softly using your fingertips for a couple seconds and that's it; into the olive oil-soaked hot frying pan they go. Don't compress the meat or roll it in your palms or anything like that. Remember, the idea is to keep things nice and loose.

Some people bake their meatballs; I only fry them. But I don't cook them, I only brown them a little. These meatballs are coming out of the pan right now. I know. They're raw. They're supposed to be.

This is how my meatballs look just out of the frying pan.

Here is where they cook all the way through. This sauce is pretty much done already and so the idea now is to simply allow the meatballs to cook in it. But they should never cook at a hard boil. Just keep things at a very gentle simmer, for maybe half an hour. Cooking them this way, I find, keeps the meatballs moist and prevents them from getting stiff.

Moist and juicy. Like so.

Oh, and before I forget. Always make sure to fry at least a few meatballs until they are fully cooked, then set them aside for snacking. You will be happy that you did this, I assure you. Sunday mornings when I was growing up, I woke to the aroma of two things: my mother's gravy and her fried meatballs. To get to the bathroom you had to walk through the kitchen, and so before I'd get to do my business I'd get to taste my mother's meatballs. Two of them, actually. The first was always right out of the plate of cooked meatballs on the stovetop, the second I dipped in the gravy. By the time day was done I'd have put away at least a dozen more. 

Some years ago an associate attempted a numerical calculation of the meatballs I had consumed to that date. Unable to cope with the magnitude of digits in her charge, the project was abandoned, but not before the weight of it took its toll. I have a memory of the poor woman running down Tonnelle Avenue in Jersey City, half naked and screaming, incoherently as best I can determine, about how the giant meatballs and the flying monkeys were conspiring to take over New Jersey, or, at the least, Hudson County. It was a sorrowful ending to an otherwise promising endeavor.

As for my associate, she is still with us. Only, please, do your old pal Meatball a favor and do not under any circumstances show her this post.

There will be more meatballs in it for you. 

I promise.

MISTER MEATBALL has been voted Best Food Blog of 2011 by the readers of the Portland Phoenix. I'm really grateful to everybody who voted for the blog. It means a lot, and I thank you all very, very much. Grazie mille! —MM

Reprinted from the Phoenix
Best Food Blog: Mister Meatball
Warning: Do not read the Mister Meatball blog on an empty stomach. You will get more hungry and your stomach may start to growl. The recipes Mister Meatball writes about — many of them Italian or Italian-influenced — are drool-worthy: polenta lasagne with meat sauce, farinata (a breadish thing made with chickpea flour), sesame seed cookies, and octopus salad, just to name a few. Easy-to-use recipes are interspersed with memories of growing up in New York City (he's a Mainer now) and other anecdotes. This is a guy you'd want to invite over for dinner (as long as he cooks).


Claudia said...

My mother always uses veal in her meatballs - you'd think I'd follow suit. And we do pork neck bones for the sauce. But I must say - you have the knack to keeping them light. I intensely dislike meatballs that sink to the bottom of my stomach. I could eat my weight of your meatballs. Congrats on the award - well-deserved recognition and it's just fun, isn't it?

Fred said...

Gotta tip my hat: Mr. Meatball delivers! Would love to see and learn more about your sauce(s). Let's start with the highly philosophical and cultural debate: what is the difference between sauce and gravy?

Mister Meatball said...

Claudia: Thanks much.

Fred: You hadda ask, didn't you? I dunno the difference between gravy and sauce. I'm a meatball ferrchrissakes, we ain't got any brains, y'know! And what's philosoph...whatever you just said mean anyway? It got anything to do with tomatoes? I knew you were gonna be trouble soon as you showed up!

Goombah said...

AAH yes , the extra meatballs on the stove were the best. I can only guess at how many mom made since we ate so many without sauce.

Mister Meatball said...

Goombah: Bout time you showed up.

As for your guess, I'm thinking it hadda be around 50. Would've needed to be more if not for the sausage, braciole, pork skin, etc. that went toward ensuring we didn't all starve to death!

Don't be a stranger.

Ciao Chow Linda said...

Congratulations on your award. With meatballs like that, I can see why you earned it. I also grew up snatching meatballs out of the frying pan. I soak my bread in milk though, as my mom used to do and these days I am apt to bake them, although I miss the frying flavor.

Thomas Henry Strenk said...

Those are pretty small meatballs, Mr. M. I read somewhere there is a correlation between the size of the meatball and--. Well, anyway, I like to make mine big as softballs, a meal in itself.
And where's the textured vegetable protein?

Proud Italian Cook said...

Nothing better than that smell on a Sunday morning, soaking the bread, a good thing, they're so moist and I love the gentle care you give in the mixing, a true meatball artisan! Congrats again on your blog, well deserved!

Jeannie said...

Congratulations is in order here:D And thanks for the great tips on making meatballs...now I know why mine always ended hard as rock!Either over fried or overworked! or both! Urggh!

Thomas Henry Strenk said...

Really like the new photo feature. Greatness is in the details and now we can see them!
It's those kinds of innovations that will keep winning you those awards, Mr. M.

Mister Meatball said...

Thanks all. (Yes, even you, THS. Imagine that!)

Fred: Apologies for my rudeness yesterday. I had not yet had my tomato sauce(?) allotment of the day.

To your question on, "Is it sauce or Is it gravy?"

To me, that's like, "Is it pasta or Is it macaroni?"

You understand, I'm sure.

Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti said...

Congratulations on your award Mr Meatball! Well deserved! I voted for you :)

I learned how to make meatballs by watching my mother-in-law. She soaked her bread in milk to soften it and she never fried her meatballs first, she just placed them raw in the sauce and cooked them until done in it. She did roll some in bread crumbs and fried them on the side for those in the family that liked them plain.

Stacey Snacks said...

It's no wonder they call you "Mister Meatball"!

mrkeysfla said...

Hey cuz, I know I am a disgratiado, because I buy my meatballs already shaped and seasoned from Publix. They ain't bad, but when I make them myself, they are much better. But your recipe sounds both intriguing and delicious. I am gonna give it a try. (However, I guess I better learn to make my own sauce first. One Sunday morning I will...)

Mister Meatball said...

Cuz: That's what Sunday mornings are for. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I am Hungarian and we make similar balls, but put diced onion and smashed garlic in it. Try it ones for a change!

Anonymous said...

Any chance you can whip us up a good non-red meat recipe for meatballs? I tried substituting turkey and pork but I found them a bit dry and not as flavorful as I was hoping.

Mister Meatball said...

I'd suggest making doubly sure that the meat mixture is extremely moist. Use plenty of milk to do this and maybe a little more wet bread. In addition, I would make sure to use enough salt to up the flavor. I was forced to make my meatballs with turkey once, and they came out very well doing this.

Unknown said...

Hello! I just wanted to know that X-Ray Burns loves you very much. He speaks of you on every show. Today he was speaking of you. It is 1/5/14. When you go back in your archives from today backwards, see if you can find a show that doesn't mention "his good friend Mr. Meatball" or "I love Mister Meatball." I have probably known him longer than Jonesy has. I signed up for your email list when I first heard you mentioned. Then he told me to look you up and I said I already get your emails. I just "liked" you on Facebook. Thank you for writing this very enjoyable blog.

Mister Meatball said...

Thank you, Linda. Burns is a good man indeed, and I love him very much!

Unknown said...

Oh Mister Meatball, I just found you and you have brought back so many memories of Sunday mornings in our house. My mother was from Hoboken and she sounds very much like your mother, she would start early on Sunday making gravy before church, she would cook the meatballs, place a dish of extras on the stove. We were always allowed to eat the meatballs and loaf of Italian bread she had sliced and left on the stove but Dear God were you in trouble if you touched any of the other meat in the gravy. Thank you for sharing this and thank you for the trip down memory lane. Oh and by the way, my mother always said the difference between sauce and gravy is (her version of course) Gravy is hearty full of meats and Sauce is not. I don't know how true that is but that is what she always told us.

Unknown said...

Yum! The sauce looks pretty amazing too! And now my stomach is grumbling.

crystaljaaga said...

Your recipes and stories remind me of my own Italian family! Funniest park? HUDSON COUNTY! I live in Bayonne, grew up in Staten Island. Great recipes