Let me begin by saying that I think the whole meatball thing is really played out. Ever since Joey Campanaro started serving his gravy meatball sliders at The Little Owl – and that was in what, 2006? – people have been going crazy for meatballs. Just Google “meatball trend” and you’ll find stories from last year and this one touting meatballs as a “hot food trend,” “vying for most buzzed-about treat with macarons and cake pops.” And that’s about right – five years after it appears in a fine dining context (or in NYC), an idea starts catches fire in popular food culture, where it’s relentlessly beaten to death for a few years until no one can stand the sight of it. It happened with sundried tomatoes and roasted garlic, and it happened with seared tuna. We all know what’s become of cupcakes. Just last fall, I was forced to eat at Macaroni Grill on a work trip and ordered some decidedly mediocre “spicy ricotta meatballs” for lunch. In a year or two, meatballs will be all over every chain restaurant menu in the country and you’ll all be sick of the double entendres about balls.
That doesn’t mean I don’t love a good meatball, though. Along with soups and sauces, meatballs are among the great frugal foods, a way of stretching meat further or using meat trimmings to avoid waste. At their simplest, meatballs are simply ground or chopped meat extended with eggs or a starch like bread or rice; from there, they can assume virtually any guise. In Italy, pork or veal enriched with bread might be simmered in brodo (a meat broth); in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and throughout the Middle East, koftes and their relatives combine bulghur or bread with lamb or beef. In Vietnam, pork balls bound with ground roasted rice are grilled and eaten with vermicelli or rice, or simmered in soup. Among my favorite meatballs are albóndigas, seasoned meatballs popular throughout Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, usually served in a light broth with vegetables.
Recently, we enjoyed some braised pork tacos prepared by a friend for our regular supper club. Essentially carnitas stewed in a tangy tomatillo sauce, they were tender and meaty with just a little heat from some chiles. Why not enjoy albóndigas featuring these flavors? Simmering porky meatballs in an acidic sauce of roasted tomatillos and chiles tenderizes the meat while conveying some of that meaty savor to the sauce.
Note: these meatballs won both People’s Choice and Judge’s Choice awards at the Great Grapes wine festival just north of Baltimore yesterday. Prize-winning meatballs! Make them tonight!
Pork meatballs, tomatillo-chile sauce
This recipe incorporates my suggestions for making the best meatball, whatever your flavors. First, you’ll note, it uses a panade of bread and a liquid (I chose cream for richness but milk or even water are fine). Why panade instead of eggs? Well, if you’ve ever boiled an egg, you know what happens to egg white as it cooks – it becomes solid and tough, even rubbery. The proteins in the meat will become firm enough as you cook them; there’s no need to make the meatballs even harder with egg white. The point is to extend the meat, not to toughen it. If you really need to extend a small quantity of meat and have nothing but eggs, you’re better off making a Scotch egg.
Second, you’ll see that the recipe calls for grinding meat together with onions and garlic. Why? Onion is an excellent filler for meatballs, but there’s nothing worse than a big bite of raw onion inside a cooked piece of meat. By grinding the onion and garlic with the meat, you ensure small bits and even distribution. You also avoid the dreaded pink slime problem. If you don’t have the means or inclination to grind your own meat, don’t worry. Just ask the butcher to grind the cut you select, or, at a minimum, ask whether the ground meat you want to buy is ground in-house. If so, you can feel quite sure you’re not eating some extruded meat slurry from bits scraped up off the slaughterhouse floor, blasted with ammonia. Most supermarket ground beef found in the butcher’s display case is ground in-house; most packaged ground meat is not. Choose knowledgeably.
Don’t be daunted by the list of ingredients – many of them are garnishes and you can take or leave them as you choose. I’ve also provided instructions using ground meat and ground spices. If you use pre-ground products the meatballs can hit the pan in fewer than ten minutes. You can double, triple, or otherwise multiply this recipe as necessary. A pound of meat yields perhaps a dozen golf ball-sized meatballs (after cooking).
For the meatballs:
4 whole allspice, or 1/8 tsp ground
1 tsp cumin seeds, or 1/2 tsp ground
2 tsp coriander seeds, or 1 tsp ground
1 standard slice bread
1/4 c cream, half and half, milk, or water (more fat obviously equals more richness)
1 lb pork shoulder, mostly lean and some fat, or 1 lb ground pork
1/2 medium onion, diced
6 cloves garlic confit or substitute 2 cloves fresh, minced
1 tsp salt, plus a pinch extra
crema, or sour cream
grated queso asadero or another hard grating cheese
cilantro leaves, washed and spun dry
finely diced onion, rinsed for two minutes in cold water and drained well
For the roasted tomatillo and chile sauce:
1 1/2 lb tomatillos, husked and washed (they’ll be a little sticky; don’t worry if it doesn’t all come off)
2 serrano chiles, more if you like it hot
1 small onion, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic confit and a little oil from the confit, or substitute 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced, and 1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp ground cumin
Start with the tomatillo sauce.
Set the broiler of your oven at the hottest setting. Place the chiles and tomatillos on a sheet pan and set under the broiler.
When the peppers and tomatillos have blistered and are beginning to blacken on top (maybe five minutes, maybe more), remove the pan and flip them over. Return to the broiler and broil until totally softened and blistered. You do want them to be blistered well with a dark brown to black char in parts – this will contribute to the smoky flavor of the tomatillo sauce.
Remove from the broiler, taking care not to spill any accumulated liquid – which may be considerable. Remove the stems from the peppers and discard. Transfer to a blender/vitaprep.
Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp oil from the garlic confit. Add the onions and garlic confit, sweating until translucent. Add the cumin and cook another minute more. Transfer to the blender/vitaprep. Blend until relatively smooth, taste, season with salt, and transfer to a saucepot and set aside. You may wish to add a small amount of water to thin out the sauce.
Prepare the meatballs.
If using whole spices, place the spices in a small, dry skillet over medium heat. Toss from time to time. When you begin to smell a “toasted” spice aroma, remove from the heat and transfer to a spice grinder. Grind well, until no visible chunks of spice remain (this is most difficult to achieve with coriander so if you get a husk or two, that’s fine). If using ground spices, simply combine.
Tear or cut the bread into small pieces (less than an inch) and mix with the heavy cream. Allow to moisten and then mash well with a fork or potato masher. If it is too stiff to mash, add a little water until the consistency of the mash is like a thick batter. (This is called the panade.)
If using a pre-ground pork, mince the onion and the garlic confit as finely as possible. Combine with the ground pork, panade, and about 1 1/4 tsp of the seasonings; mix well with your hands.
If grinding your own, dice the pork about 3/4″.
Combine the salt and about 1 1/4 tsp of the seasonings. Toss the meat, diced onion, and garlic confit with the seasoning and spread it on a sheet pan (lined with a silpat to reduce sticking) in a single layer (use multiple pans if necessary). Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until half-solid. Also freeze the grinding apparatus – the worm, blade, and die.
Grind the entire pork/garlic/onion/spice combination using the small die, into a bowl over a pan or larger bowl of ice to keep it cold. Cook a test piece and taste for seasoning. Add more salt and seasonings if necessary. Combine with the panade and mix well with your hands.
Set the saucepot of tomatillo sauce over low heat and bring to just below a simmer. Place a large skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add a little vegetable oil, just enough to film. Form the meatball mixture into balls a little larger than golf balls and set in the hot, oiled skillet. After a minute or two, roll the meatball – if it sticks, it is not ready to roll. Brown on all sides, rolling from time to time, until all sides are browned. Don’t worry too much whether the meatballs are fully cooked inside as they will continue to cook in the tomatillo sauce. Transfer with a slotted spoon to the tomatillo sauce. Repeat until all the meatballs are cooked.
Cover the pot and cook at just below a simmer, stirring from time to time to ensure that the meatballs all cook evenly, for about 20 minutes.
Squeeze a little lime juice over the meatballs and serve with crema or sour cream, a little grated queso asadero, raw onion, and cilantro (if you like that sort of thing). Enjoy these with corn tortillas, over grits, or with a simple salad.