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Meatballs can speak different accents fluently

Classic Italian meatballs.
Classic Italian meatballs. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via TNS

Meatballs are the little black dresses of the culinary world.

You can dress them up for dinner with a velvet robe of sour cream and wild mushroom gravy. They can be daytime-simple with a jacket of roasted tomato marinara, trimmed with fresh Asiago cheese and tucked into a crusty roll. Or they can be cocktail-party sweet-and-spicy, glistening with a glaze of pineapple juice, Sriracha sauce and sugar.

They also are comparatively inexpensive, can be made ahead then sauced later, require little attention once prepared, often can be retrofitted on Day Two for a second go-round and perform as well at a family dinner, a Sunday tailgate with friends or a flavors-of-the-world themed get-together. For all this and perhaps more, the ubiquitous meatball is, well, ubiquitous.

And they’re trendy, too.

One of the nation’s leading food research and consulting firms, Chicago-based Technomic, describes meatballs as a 2016 food trend that’s part of a national movement involving the “elevation of peasant fare” to new heights. “Meatballs … are proliferating — traditional, ethnic or nouveau,” Technomic opines.

That’s no surprise to Brian Borres, general manager of the Pittsburgh area’s Emporio: A Meatball Joint. He said the restaurant’s recipe for success features heavy portions of creativity, comfort and cost-consciousness.

“Meatballs are a comfort food. They make you think of Grandma’s house,” he said.

At the same time, Borres postulated that executive chef and managing partner Matt Porco adds his “distinct and different” brand of creativity to produce meatball bowls such as a “tater tot” poutine topped with mushroom gravy, a fried egg, bacon and a pork meatball.

It’s Borres’ favorite dish, he confessed, referring to it as “the breakfast bowl.” And it costs about $11. “Over a pound of food that is absolutely to die for. That’s a great value,” he said.

The affordability of meatballs makes them the perfect vehicle to introduce family and friends to a new ethnic flavor profile.

Whether fashioned of pork, beef, chicken or no meat at all (as in mushrooms/lentils/cheese), the essential meatball ingredients are comparatively inexpensive. That allows for the spending of a little more dough on some of the spices that are needed to round out a recipe for the likes of albondigas en salsa de limon. Translated, it’s meatballs in lemon sauce. The sauce requires a pinch of pricey saffron threads.

A delicious overture into Spanish cuisine, this pork and veal meatball is cooked in a richly viscous egg yolk/lemon/saffron sauce enhanced with mushrooms. The recipe for albondigas en salsa de limon is featured in Penelope Casas’ One Pot Spanish, published in 2009 by Sellers Publishing.

Lemon, both in the meatballs and the sauce, makes a nice taste counterpoint to the delicious velvet of fat in the meat and egg yolk. Casa suggests a sidecar of boiled new potatoes. Rice also would do well, especially if the sauce ingredients were doubled and the meatballs were served atop the rice.

Smacking of pan-Asian is an exceptionally simple and yummy recipe for cocktail meatballs in the recently published Ultimate Appetizer Ideabook: 225 Simple, All-Occasion Recipes (Chronicle Books) by Kiera and Cole Stipovich. The recipe pairs a delicate ground lamb ball with a spicy-sweet glaze of chili-pepper jelly that can be made for pennies in about 10 minutes. They are like potato chips: You can’t eat just one.

It’s hard to think of meatballs without thinking of tomato sauce. A 2015 publication by the editors of Saveur, titled Saveur: Italian Comfort Food, offers a spin on the pairing that calls for a very spicy meatball cooked in an unusually simple and spice-free red sauce. The “classic meatballs” feature ricotta, pork fat and prosciutto with a half-dozen spices, all adding up to a dish that need not sit atop pasta to stand as an entree.

These meatballs are more involved than the meatballs I make to serve with my spaghetti. And a couple of ingredients required special effort (my butcher had to trim a slab of pork fat for me), but they are worth the extra effort if you want to dial up Italian Night a notch.

Classic meatballs

Serves 8

I used veal in this recipe with ground pork and pork fat instead of unsmoked bacon. I also bumped up the heat with a few extra chili flakes. I like my tomato sauce a bit more flavored: I added a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt.

  • 10 ounces ground veal
  • 10 ounces ground pork shoulder
  • 2 ounces finely chopped pork fat or unsmoked bacon
  • 2 ounces prosciutto, finely chopped
  • 1  1/4 cups loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped, plus more for garnish
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1  1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon chili flakes
  •  1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  •  1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 7 slices white bread, finely ground in a food processor
  • Kosher salt (divided) and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  •  2/3 cup ricotta, drained in a sieve for 2 hours
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
  •  1/4 cup red wine
  • 4 cups canned tomato puree
  • 1 cup beef or veal stock
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to garnish

1. Combine meats, herbs, spices, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper in a large bowl and set aside. In another bowl, whisk together ricotta, milk and eggs, then add to meat mixture, gently. Chill for an hour.

2. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Grease two rimmed baking sheets with oil and set aside. Using a 2-ounce ice cream scoop (I just used my hands), portion mixture and roll into balls. Transfer to baking sheets.

3. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in high-sided, 3-quart (ovenproof) skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the meatballs; cook, turning occasionally, until browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer meatballs to a plate and wipe out skillet. Repeat with remaining oil and meatballs.

4. Return reserved meatballs to skillet along with any juices from the plate. Add wine, increase heat to high, and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in tomato puree, stock, sugar and salt; bring to a boil and tightly cover skillet.

5. Transfer to oven and bake until meatballs are tender and have absorbed some sauce, about 1  1/2 hours. To serve, transfer meatballs to a platter and spoon sauce over. Sprinkle with Parmigiano and parsley.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 473 calories, 30 grams fat, 26 grams carbohydrates, 26 grams protein, 156 milligrams cholesterol, 1,553 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 57 percent of calories from fat.

Adapted from “Saveur: Italian Comfort Food” by the editors of Saveur (Weldon Owen, 2015)

Albondigas en salsa limon (meatballs in lemon sauce)

Serves 8

The tender, meaty mushrooms in the thick and glossy sauce are just delicious. I’d use them on rice even sans meatball!

For meatballs:

  • 6 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
  •  1/4 cup milk
  •  3/4 pound ground veal
  •  3/4 pound ground pork
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons minced parsley
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped prosciutto
  • 1  1/2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves or  3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1  1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
  •  1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • All-purpose flour, for dusting

For sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  •  1/4 cup finely chopped Mayan onion
  •  3/4 cup chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons dry white wine
  • 3 tablespoons minced parsley
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Pinch of crumbled saffron threads
  • Kosher or sea salt
  • 4 ounces mushrooms, brushed clean, stems trimmed and caps halved or quartered
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 egg yolks
  • Chicken broth or water, as needed

1. Prepare meatballs: Combine breadcrumbs with milk in a large bowl. Gently mix in ground veal and pork, eggs, lemon juice, parsley, prosciutto, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper. Shape into  1/2 -inch meatballs and dust with flour.

2. Prepare sauce: Heat oil in a shallow flameproof casserole over medium-high heat and saute meatballs until brown on all sides. Add onion and saute until softened. Stir in broth and wine. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and simmer for 40 minutes.

3. Mash 2 tablespoons parsley, garlic, saffron and a pinch of salt to a paste in a mortar, or process in a mini food processor until finely minced.

4. Transfer meatballs to a warm plate and keep warm. Strain sauce through a fine sieve, pressing on the solids with the back of a metal soup ladle to extract as much liquid as possible. Return sauce to the casserole and add mushrooms, mortar mixture and lemon juice.

5. In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks with a little hot sauce from the casserole, then add back to the casserole. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until thickened (do not boil). If the sauce seems too thick, add a little broth or water. (Mine needed no additional liquid.) Return meatballs to the sauce and simmer for 1 minute. Serve straight from the casserole, sprinkled with remaining parsley.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 286 calories, 19 grams fat, 7 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams protein, 175 milligrams cholesterol, 505 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 60 percent of calories from fat.

From “One Pot Spanish” by Penelope Casas (Sellers Publishing, 2009)

Chili-pepper jelly-glazed lamb meatballs

Serves 4

These little gems are like potato chips — you can’t stop with one. I doubled the sauce recipe because I found it to be so deliciously spicy, yet sweet.

  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 2 tablespoons minced onion
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1  1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves
  •  3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon ketchup
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  •  1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  •  1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten

1. Mix all ingredients except egg lightly. When combined, add egg and mix again. Shape into 1-inch balls. Place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper or foil. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for about 30 minutes.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake meatballs for 20 to 25 minutes or until internal temperature is 165 degrees. Immediately add cooked meatballs to  1/2 recipe chili-pepper jelly glaze (recipe follows) in a saucepan (I made a full recipe and used it all) and simmer uncovered over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring gently as needed until the meatballs are nicely glazed.

 

Chili-pepper jelly glaze

Makes about  3/4 cup

  •  1/3 cup ketchup
  •  1/4 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons pepper jelly
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

In a medium saucepan over low heat, combine all ingredients. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until the flavors have blended. Use right away or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to five days.

Nutritional analysis per serving (meatballs with glaze): 431 calories, 29 grams fat, 18 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams protein, 136 milligrams cholesterol, 483 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 61 percent of calories from fat.

Nutritional analysis per 1-tablespoon serving of glaze: 30 calories, 1 gram fat, 5 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 91 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 24 percent of calories from fat.

From “Ultimate Appetizer Ideabook” by Kiera and Cole Stipovich (Chronicle Books, 2016)

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