Chiles, Latin, Pork Products, Quick Meals

That’s a spicy meatball.

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.

Tomatillos, in their husks.

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
one lime
To garnish:
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.

Tomatillos and chiles, roasted.

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.

On the grind.

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.

Pot of meatballs.

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.

Bowl of balls.

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille.

Beef, Chiles, Pork Products


Those of you who connect with me through Facebook know that I spent a few days in Santa Fe recently. My husband and I flew out West to do some skiing – initially, we planned to ski Taos, but as it turns out, Taos is further from Santa Fe than we thought. The Santa Fe Ski Basin was just up the road from our lodgings, though, and with the recent snowfall, provided great skiing.

No trip to Santa Fe would be complete without eating as many chile dishes as possible. Indeed, chiles are ubiquitous throughout New Mexico, which even boasts its own chile varieties – New Mexico chiles, a variety of Anaheim chiles, which form the basis for much of the state’s cuisine. Although New Mexican cuisine share some similarities with Mexico’s Sonoran cuisine – burritos, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, huevos rancheros – when prepared in New Mexico, those dishes tend to feature New Mexico chiles. And they usually come with a ladle of chile sauce.

“Red or green?” is the question you’ll be asked when ordering many local specialties. Each sauce has its virtues – green is hot, bright, and vegetal, while red is richer and fruity. Think of the difference between a poblano and an ancho, or between a jalepeño and a chipotle. Greens usually are flame-roasted to shed the bitter, tough skins, then diced and stewed with pork, or with hominy, or pureed for sauce; reds are dried, and the dried pods ground to a powder for use in sauces, tamale masa, or stews. “Christmas” connotes the use of both red and green chile sauce.

We came back from Santa Fe with a variety of red chiles – Dixon Medium Hot (grown in Dixon, NM), Hatch Extra Hot (from Hatch, NM, where the famed Hatch chiles grow), and Native Nambé (an heirloom chile indigenous to the northern part of the state). The Dixon and Hatch are rich, sweet, and fruity – the Hatch somewhat more so – and the Nambé somewhat more earthy and spicy. To prepare dried red chiles, remove the stem, and the seeds, and grind the dried fruit to a powder in a spice grinder.

Clockwise from top: Dixon, Nambé, Hatch.

Preparing green chile here in Baltimore poses some questions of seasonality and authenticity. True New Mexico chiles are not generally available outside New Mexico, and the season for fresh green chiles is a few short months in the late summer. You can approximate the flavor, though, with widely-available Anaheim chiles, supplemented by a couple of jalepeños. Before using green chiles, blister the skins by holding the peppers (with tongs) over a gas flame; otherwise, roast them in a hot (450F/230C) oven until the skins blister and brown. Place the prepared chiles in a pan and cover them so the residual heat continues to steam the skins away from the chile flesh. Then peel them, and remove the seeds.

From left to right: Anaheim, Korean, Serrano.

Roasted and steamed, just before peeling.

Pork shoulder, green chile sauce

One of New Mexico’s archetypical dishes is green chile stew, featuring the roasted, peeled green chiles, onions, cubed pork, and seasonings. These flavors form the basis for this dish, whose influences stretch from Vermont (the four year-old extra sharp cheddar in the grits), through the South (the grits), to New Mexico (the pine nuts), and across the border into Mexico’s Yucatán province (the sour orange marinade for the pork).

Roast pork with sour orange mojo:

2 lb pork shoulder
juice of 4 sour oranges or 2 juice oranges and 2 limes
6 cloves garlic, smashed
3/4 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground achiote (annatto seed)
1 tsp salt

Green chile sauce:

1 lb Anaheim chiles, and a couple of hot green chiles like serrano or jalepeño, roasted, skinned, and seeded
1 large onion, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic confit
1 tsp Mexican oregano
1/2 tsp ground coriander
vegetable oil
2 c water or chicken stock [Note: water is good if you’re going to use the sauce for a vegetarian item; otherwise, meat stock lends more flavor]

Vermont cheddar grits:

4 c filtered water
1 tsp salt
1 c stone-ground yellow grits
2 ounces extra-sharp aged Cheddar, or similar (I used a four year-old XX sharp Cheddar from Dakin Farm in Vermont)
unsalted butter

Pine nuts, toasted
Flash-pickled red onion, diced 1/4″
Avocado slices
Cilantro leaves, washed and spun dry

At least three hours before cooking the pork, but as much as the night before, rub the pork shoulder with the salt. In a blender, combine the pork marinade ingredients except the salt. Place the pork in a nonreactive metal or glass bowl, pour the marinade ingredients over, and work well over the pork. Refrigerate, covered, 3 hours to overnight. Turn at least once if possible to redistribute the marinade. You also can place the whole thing in a zippered plastic bag.

Oven 400F/200C. Remove the meat from the marinade and brush off any excess; place the pork on a rack in a pan. Reserve the marinade in the refrigerator. Roast for 10 mins and then reduce the heat to 250F/120C. Roast for four hours. Remove and rest for 30-45 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the reserved marinade to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes.

While the pork roasts, prepare the green chile sauce. Roast, seed, and skin the peppers if you haven’t done so already, dice, and set aside. Place a saucepot over medium heat; when hot, add 1 tbsp oil. Bloom the coriander and oregano. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the garlic and onion and sweat until tender and translucent; then add the diced chile and sweat another 5 minutes. Add the stock or water and bring to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and purée until very smooth. If using a conventional blender, remove the top from the lid and use a kitchen towel to cover the hole to allow steam to escape. Season with salt.

Prepare the grits cake. Bring 4 c of salted water to a rolling boil in a saucepot; whisk in the grits. With a wooden spoon, stir constantly for about three minutes; then cover and reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Let the grits simmer and thicken for about 20 minutes, until thick and smooth. Stir in the aged Cheddar and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a half sheet pan and cool. When firm, turn the cooled grits out onto a cutting board and score about 2″x3″.

To serve, set a skillet over medium-high heat and, when hot, add about 2 tbsp butter. Add the squares of grits cake and fry on each side, turning after several minutes when golden and crisp. Place a streak of green chile sauce on the plate and top with a grits cake; add slices or shreds of the roast pork tossed in the reduced marinade. Garnish with toasted pine nuts, diced pickled red onion, slices of avocado, and cilantro leaves.

Pork shoulder, green chile sauce, aged cheddar grits.

Short rib, red chile sauce

This dish has no analogue in traditional New Mexican cuisine, but the New Mexican red chiles bring the new Southwest to two meat and potatoes classics – short ribs and gnocchi. Don’t skip the celery salad – it adds a bright green vegetable note and a bit of crispness.

Short rib

3 lb short rib on the bone, cut in 2″x2″ cubes
2 each carrots, celery, diced
1 large onion, diced
bay leaves
6-8 thyme branches
1/4 c tomato paste
1 c red wine
2 c beef stock (chicken stock is ok too, as is unsalted chicken broth from a can or box)
salt and pepper

Red chile sauce:

6 tbsp mixed ground red chiles (I used a combination of Hatch, Dixon, and Nambé)
1 large onion, peeled and diced
6 cloves garlic confit
1 tsp Mexican oregano
1 tsp ground coriander
vegetable oil
2 c water or beef stock [Note: water is good if you’re going to use the sauce for a vegetarian item; otherwise, meat stock lends more flavor]

Half recipe gnochetti, sliced 1/4″ with bench scraper and prepared to the point of simmering
unsalted butter


Button mushrooms, sliced paper thin with benriner
Celery leaves, dressed in lemon juice and truffle oil

Prepare at least a day ahead if possible. First prepare the red chile sauce. Grind the peppers to powder if you haven’t done so already after removing the seeds and stems. Place a saucepot over medium heat; when hot, add 1 tbsp oil. Bloom the coriander and oregano. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the garlic and onion and sweat until tender and translucent; then add the ground chile and sauté another 1-2 minutes. Add the stock or water and bring to a simmer for about 15 minutes. Transfer to a vitaprep or blender and purée until very smooth. If using a conventional blender, remove the top from the lid and use a kitchen towel to cover the hole to allow steam to escape. Season with salt.

Oven 180F/80C or 250F/120C (read on for an explanation). Season the beef on all sides. Brown in a little oil until well browned on all sides. Set aside and remove all but 1 tbsp oil from pan.

Sweat the vegetables in a heavy sauce pot with a lid. Add tomato paste and saute a minute. Add aromatics and wine; bring wine to a simmer, and simmer 10 minutes. Add stock and return to simmer. Return beef and any juices to the pot. Cover with the pan’s lid or with a parchment lid, and place in oven. Braise 10 hours at 180F. For a faster short rib, braise at 250F 4 hours.

Remove pan from oven; remove short rib to cutting board and, when cool enough to handle, slice from bone and any stray connective tissue. Strain braising liquid through chinois into shallow pan (or a bain-marie, if you have one) to cool quickly. If you are preparing in advance, add the braising liquid to the short ribs to cover. Cover with foil and another pan, and weight with cans (such as tomatoes). Chill overnight or at least 8 hours. If you are preparing the same day, skim as much fat as you can from the braising liquid and proceed to the reducing step right away. As pictured, the short rib hasn’t been weighted and squared off as I prepared it the same day.

Remove cold fat layer from braising liquid and remove short ribs to a cutting board. Square off the ribs (save trim for another use, like a ragù). Return braising liquid to a pan and reduce over medium heat until glossy, smooth, and sauce-like. This step may take from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on your volume of liquid, the size of your pan, and the heat of your stove. Cut meat from bone and trim to even size. Return to the reduction to warm through.

At serving time, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Add the gnocchetti and simmer until they float. Drain. You have two options at this point. For a very tender gnocchetti, toss with butter and season with salt and pepper. Otherwise, place a skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add butter; fry the gnocchetti on both sides quickly. Season with salt and pepper. The fried gnocchi will be firmer.

To plate, place a streak of the red chile sauce on the plate and top with a square of the short rib and the gnocchetti. Garnish with the celery salad and mushrooms, and drizzle with the reduced braising liquid.

Braised short rib, red chile sauce, gnochetti.