Authenticity is an interesting thing, where food is concerned. We’ve reached a point, now, where it is possible to strive for authenticity in the construction of a thing while completely missing what is authentic about its origin, its nature.
Barbecue is a good example of this. Barbecue used to be a thing to do with a garbage hunk of an animal. Say, ribs. Ribs are too tough and fibrous for quick cooking, as anyone who has tried my cousin’s “Asian-style” ribs could tell you. Historically, in order to make ribs edible, those stuck eating them had to devise a way of cooking them that would make them edible. Smoking them makes sense: It’s a slow, low- and indirect-heat way of cooking them that allows their fibers to break down and become soft, without the risk of the essential flavor of the pig leaching out into the liquid around it, as it would with, say, simmering.
Over time, though, what began as a process of necessity has become a dipshit pissing contest between enthusiasts, to the point now where it is impossible to order barbecue anywhere on earth without it tasting like a goddamn forest fire. We’ve got a million billion ways to do low heat and indirect heat that won’t change the delicious flavor of by-God pork, but assholes are still cooking their poor ribs in a goddamn chimney. It’s that authentic barbecue flavor, y’all, he said, while chewing a handful of ash from a campfire.
Meatballs are that way, too. Everyone inherited some meatball recipe from their grandmother, and now has the bonkers idea that meatballs just aren’t meatballs unless they have this or that meat or this or that herb or cheese or breadcrumb, cooked this exact way, and so on. As with barbecue, this is dumb and wrong: The only goal, here, should be deliciousness, not performative fidelity to a food concept that almost certainly began as a way to serve and eat leftover animal parts.
Screw all that. Meatballs, as a concept, present a million possibilities, as they naturally would, because the cooking and serving and eating of leftover meat once required an awful lot of ingenuity. And what arises from all those possibilities is the potential for something hearty and rich and sublime. I daydream about meatballs—on a tangle of pasta, or in a sandwich, or just in my bare hands like in The Wedding Singer. I like to make a huge batch of meatballs and just have ’em in the fridge, waiting for me whenever I get home. Outta the way, Wife, there are meatballs here.
What we’re gonna try to do is make some meatballs that are delicious first, second, and third. We are going for deliciousness, here, with only very minor nods towards ease of cooking and avoiding eternity in hell. Let’s get to it.
Things you will need: ground meat, breadcrumbs, cheese, eggs, herbs, aromatics, pine nuts, oil, a big bowl, and some tomato sauce.
Let’s talk meat. Many recipes—many recipes touting their authenticity, in fact—call for a mix of meats along the lines of what’s usually found in meatloaf: beef, pork, and veal. And this is cool, if a small but significant percentage of what you’re hoping to accomplish with your meatballs is gaining the opportunity to tout their authenticity, and if concerns over authenticity—unproven, unverifiable authenticity, at that—stack up against concerns about, oh, say, flavor, and texture, and (for that matter) cost. This will be our first opportunity to unburden ourselves from concerns about authenticity, right here at the outset, if for no other reason than considering it at all is foolish, hopeless, and a complete waste of time.
Because here’s the thing about meatballs: They are balls made of meat. You don’t need to be a cultural anthropologist to sense the humble origins of a ball of ground meat mixed with lots of binding and seasoning: It was a thing to do with low-quality leftover hunks of animal. Somewhere back in their long-forgotten origin story, no one who was making meatballs was hunting around for the requisite butcher’s blend of meats. That’s ridiculous. They took the leftover parts of the animal, ground them into curds, padded the curds with bread and cheese and the available herbs and spices, and served them in whatever simple sauce they could throw together.
So, in the name of authenticity, but also in the name of saying to hell with authenticity, and also in the name of not being a dickhead, here’s what you’re gonna do: Get yourself a pound and a half of 80/20 ground beef, and a pound and a half of ground pork. Beef and pork will closely overlap in good ways inside your meatballs, and will distinguish themselves in other, also good ways. The fat content will be roughly the same, so they’ll both be plenty rich and flavorful, but the beef will lend that dark, heavy, iron-y beefiness, whereas pork will bring a slight sweetness and a brighter umami to the mix.
Skip the veal. You know why.
That veal—savory as balls and loaded with collagen—will be unnecessary, in part, because of the padding, and a big part of our padding is going to be breadcrumbs. You’ve got a few options, here: You can spring for some ready-made breadcrumbs in a cardboard tube, or you can roll up your sleeves (which you will be doing anyway, and soon) and make your own. This latter option is fairly easy and gives you total control over the composition of your meatballs. While you are shopping for your meat, grab a loaf of Italian bread. A basic filone will do fine—this is your standard loaf of spongy Italian bread with a brittle, flaky crust, like a baguette—or you could grab a loaf of ciabatta. Don’t go fancier than that; if neither are available, a baguette will do fine.
Hey, while we’re in the bread aisle, grab a second or a second and third loaf of whatever you’ve found. Bread is king! We’ll be eating that bread in a bit.
Here we’re going to run afoul of the authentic types, again. Traditionally, the bread used as a filler in meatballs is day-old bread. Judging by the billion meatball recipes out there, we have all managed to convince ourselves this is because there is a property to stale bread that makes it more suitable as meatball filler, but this is horseshit.
Think of an old, picturesque Italian villa on a hillside, with an adorable bow-legged Italian grandmother in the rustic kitchen, whipping up a batch of delicious meatballs. She’s making these meatballs out of garbage meat, because garbage meat is the only meat you’d choose to grind to a literal pulp and then pack into balls with a whole pantry’s worth of added flavoring. She’s adding filler, because these garbage meat spheres are gonna be pretty fuckin’ dense and garbage-meaty without a little padding in there. Is Nonna reaching for the fresh loaf she just brought home from the baker? Or is she using the shit left over from last night? Right.
Even if that weren’t intuitively deducible, here’s what you’d be doing with your day-old bread before adding it to your meatball mixture, according to at least one Crocs-wearing super-chef: You’d be soaking it in water. Seems like a fucking stupid thing to do if you honestly believe there’s a property to its staleness that makes it suitable for meatball filler. So, no—we’re going to use the bread you just bought, and right away, with no water-soak. If this strikes you as a bad thing to do with a fresh loaf of delicious Italian bread, I’d like to point out that you haven’t tasted the goddamn meatballs yet. We are sacrificing this loaf for a higher purpose than the standard cold-cut sandwich, believe me.
Right, so, what I like to do is, I like to hand-tear the bread into little shreds, until I’ve got about four cups’ worth. This is tedious work, and tiring, and so you will be forgiven if you grab your big honkin’ chef’s knife and start stabbing, first anyone unlucky enough to be in the room with you, and then also your bread. I think you will find, though, that the cathartic benefits of stabbing things notwithstanding, chopping the bread is just as tedious, and will leave you with larger hunks of bread, larger than you probably want in a mouthful of what you will still want to describe as a “meatball.” Tear the fucking bread, is what I’m saying.
OK. Into a giant mixing bowl go the bread shreds. Also throw into this giant mixing bowl a huge handful of grated hard Italian cheese—I like pecorino romano, but it’s cool to use whatever you normally grate over pasta, so long as you’re using it because you like it the best. Unless what you normally grate over pasta is Velveeta, in which case, man, that is disgusting. Finely chop a big yellow onion and a few cloves of garlic and throw all this in the bowl.
Alright. It is time now for the toasting and crushing of pine nuts, truly one of the most fraught cooking tasks there is. Why? Because there is something like a billion percent chance that your pine nuts will remain stubbornly un-toasted until the very microsecond you happen to glance away, at which point they will burn to a blackened, acrid char and become unusable. You want toasting pine nuts to be a thing you have going in the background while you do the other things, but it never works out that way. Pine nuts require all your attention, or they will drive you fucking insane.
Drop two handfuls of pine nuts into a shallow, flat-bottomed pan and put that pan over medium-low heat. Stand over that pan and stare at the pine nuts. Every 30 seconds or so, toss the pine nuts. First you will begin to smell them, then they will start to get a little shiny, then they will very slowly begin to brown. Keep tossing them over the heat until they have a nice, light brown toast on them, then get them the hell out of the pan as quickly as possible. If you should happen to have a mortar and pestle, drop the pine nuts in there and crush them pretty good. If not—and really, who are we kidding, you just did a Google search for “mortar and pestle,” so that’s not happening—let the pine nuts cool for a minute, then drop them into a Ziploc bag and beat the absolute hell out of them with a tenderizer mallet, or really any other mallet. You want to stop before they become dust, but after they’ve become a fairly consistent crumble. Now, into the big mixing bowl.
Now the herbs: I like to go with basil, oregano, and parsley, but you can use whatever combination. Go fresh, if you can. Finely chop a couple fat pinches of your herbs and drop this into the bowl with the breadcrumbs, aromatics, cheese, and pine nuts. Add a pinch of crushed red pepper, a teaspoon of salt, and a few twists of pepper from the ol’ pepper mill.
We’re now going to add the meat. I like to tear off hunks and drop them in there one at a time, so there’s less to break down when you finally get to mixing. However you choose to do it, you should now have a big mixing bowl full of dry stuff, with some ground meat resting on top. Crack three or four eggs into the bowl, along with a few hearty glugs of extra virgin olive oil. Now comes the fun part.
Roll up your dang sleeves and dig your hands on in there. There’s really no other, better way of doing this, and here’s why: You want to incorporate all these things, but you want to do it without beating the absolute hell out of the meat, so that it retains at least some crumble after cooking. Just work everything around for a few minutes, concentrating on picking up all the dry stuff from the very bottom and getting it mixed in there. Along the way, it’ll be fine to drop a splash of water over the top now and again. We’re doing this now, during mixing (instead of earlier, to the breadcrumbs), because we want the water to carry flavor into the breadcrumbs, rather than just soaking some bread in some damn water.
Now that everything’s incorporated, it’s time to start forming meatballs. You will be tempted, here, to form giant baseball-sized meatballs, because that will certainly get the job done a lot sooner. Resist! You want meatballs that are roughly the size of a golf ball. Thankfully, as with well-crafted burgers, you don’t want dense, thoroughly handled meatballs with the weight of an equal-sized hunk of plutonium. Pick up a hearty pinch of meatball mixture and gently form it into something roughly spherical in your hand. Don’t roll it around like dough or squeeze it; just cup your hands and lightly press it into shape. Voila! MEAT BLOB. Arrange these meat blobs on a cookie sheet or cutting board as you go. Three pounds of meat will yield roughly a jillion golfball-sized meatballs, which seems like a lot right up until you start eating them.
Okay, so, returning once more to our quaint Italian villa and our sweet Italian grandmother and her rows of stale-bread-filling-stuffed, aggressively re-flavored garbage-meat blobs, try to imagine what comes next, here. Is she dedicating the next couple hours of her life to the active cooking of each little one of these fuckers, over a hot surface, oil splattering all over her weathered hands and sauce-stained apron? Fuck no. That would be ridiculous, in no small part because they don’t actually benefit from this kind of cooking. I mean, if you want to stand over a hot pan and roll loosely packed meat blobs around in a race against carbonization, go for it. Me, I’ll be lining the little bastards up on a nice wide cookie sheet and sliding them into a hot oven. Say, oh, 400 degrees.
Here’s what we’re doing: We’re letting fairly high heat evenly cook just the exterior of our meatballs, all at once, over a fairly short period of time. And we’re going to use this time to get some tomato sauce going. Maybe you’ve got some already in the freezer from last time. Maybe you’ve just got some ingredients—say, a couple cans of whole tomatoes, some tomato paste, some leftover aromatics from the meatballs, maybe an anchovy or two, a splash of red wine. Cool. Get some tomato sauce going over medium-low heat in your largest pot. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy, just red and tomato-y.
Check on your meatballs. Are they grey? Cool. Are they just turning light brown? Perfect. Are they staring at you with soulful eyes while humming Requiem Canticles? Say no to drugs, man.
Really, it’s okay to take your meatballs out anytime after they’ve turned fully grey. The rest of what’s to come is braising—we’re going to drop all those meatballs into a pot of tomato sauce and let the sauce and meatballs exchange flavors. They’ll add their fat and meatiness to the sauce around them, and the sauce will soak bright red acidity and sweetness into the meatballs. Woo hoo! More passive cooking!
Because you are braising them over low-ish heat, you can let them go for a while. After, say, 45 minutes, grab a meatball out of there and cut into it and eat it. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMM. The spectacular fat-soaked chew of ground meat. The sharp aroma of good Italian cheese. The warm nuttiness and occasional crunch of toasted pine nuts. Surprising lightness! Textural complexity! Rich, assertive flavor! You did it!
An obvious move here would be to cook up a pound of fettuccine and drop an obscene mountain of sauce-coated meatballs over the top. That’s fine. My favorite thing to do with meatballs, though, is serve them in a wide bowl with a loaf of crusty bread and some good room-temperature butter. So many possibilities! And these meatballs deserve this! To hell with authenticity! Who cares? These meatballs deserve the spotlight. Our adorable Italian grandmother would be proud, even while wondering why the hell you went out of your way to make blobs of garbage meat. Listen, old lady: These days we don’t even have garbage meat. Just garbage people. You will find them in the comments down below, mewing about authenticity.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Gawker, Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll. He’ll be doing these every other Saturday; check the Foodspin archive here.
Lead art by Sam Woolley.
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