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 2 for a second go-round; and perform as well at a family dinner, a Sunday football game with friends, or a flavors-of-the-world themed get-together.
For all this and perhaps more, the ubiquitous meatball is, well, ubiquitous.
Brian Borres, general manager of Emporio: A Meatball Joint in Pittsburgh, says his 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. 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 “One Pot Spanish,” by Penelope Casas. 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 side of boiled new potatoes. Rice also would do well, especially if the sauce ingredients were doubled and the meatballs were situated atop the rice.
Pan-Asian meatballs offer an exceptionally simple and yummy recipe in “Ultimate Appetizer Ideabook, 225 Simple, All-Occasion Recipes,” by Kiera and Cole Stipovich. The recipe pairs a delicate ground-lamb ball with a spicy-sweet glaze of chile pepper jelly that can be made for pennies in about 10 minutes. These are like potato chips: You can’t eat just one.
It’s hard to think of meatballs without thinking of tomato sauce. “Saveur Italian Comfort Food,” from the magazine, offers a spin on the pairing that calls for a very spicy meatball cooked in an unusually simple and spice-free red sauce. Called “classic,” these 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.
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Plan ahead, as you will need to drain the ricotta for two hours and the meatballs must be chilled for an hour before they are cooked. Bump up the heat with a few extra chili flakes, if you’d like. For more flavor to the tomato sauce, add a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. Adapted from “Saveur Italian Comfort Food,” by the editors of Saveur.
• 2/3 c. ricotta
• 10 oz. ground veal
• 10 oz. ground pork shoulder
• 2 oz. finely chopped pork fat or unsmoked bacon
• 2 oz. prosciutto, finely chopped
• 1 1/4 c. loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped, plus more for garnish
• 2 tsp. dried oregano
• 1 1/2 tsp. fennel seeds
• 1 tsp. chili flakes
• 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
• 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
• 7 slices white bread, finely ground in a food processor
• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
• 2 tbsp. milk
• 3 eggs, lightly beaten
• 6 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
• 1/4 c. red wine
• 4 c. canned tomato purée
• 1 c. beef or veal stock
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1 tsp. salt
• Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to garnish
Drain ricotta in a sieve for 2 hours.
Later, combine all meats, parsley, oregano, fennel seeds, chili flakes, cumin, allspice, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper in a large bowl and set aside. In another bowl, whisk together ricotta, milk and eggs, then gently add to meat mixture. Chill for an hour.
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Grease 2 rimmed baking sheets with oil and set aside. Using a 2-ounce ice cream scoop or your hands, portion mixture and roll into balls. Transfer to baking sheets.
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.
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 purée, stock, sugar and 1 teaspoon salt, bring to a boil and tightly cover skillet.
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.
Meatballs in Lemon Sauce
Note: The tender meaty mushrooms in the thick and glossy sauce are delicious, even without meatballs (then use the sauce on rice). From “One Pot Spanish,” by Penelope Casas.
• 6 tbsp. dry breadcrumbs
• 1/4 c. milk
• 3/4 lb. ground veal
• 3/4 lb. ground pork
• 2 eggs
• 3 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 5 tbsp. minced parsley, divided
• 2 tbsp. finely chopped prosciutto
• 1 1/2 tbsp. minced fresh thyme leaves or 3/4 tsp. dried thyme
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 1/2 tsp. kosher or sea salt
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
• All-purpose flour for dusting
• 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 1/4 c. finely chopped sweet onion
• 3/4 c. chicken broth
• 3 tbsp. dry white wine
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• Pinch of crumbled saffron threads
• Kosher or sea salt
• 4 oz. mushrooms, brushed clean, stems trimmed, and caps halved or quartered
• 3 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 2 egg yolks
• Chicken broth or water, as needed
To prepare meatballs: Combine breadcrumbs with milk in a large bowl. Gently mix in ground veal and pork, eggs, lemon juice, 2 tablespoons parsley, prosciutto, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper. Shape into 1/2-inch meatballs and dust with flour.
To prepare sauce: Heat oil in a shallow flameproof casserole over medium-high heat, and sauté meatballs until brown on all sides. Add onion and sauté until softened. Stir in broth and wine. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and simmer for 40 minutes.
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.
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.
Whisk egg yolks with a little hot sauce from the casserole in a small bowl, 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. Return meatballs to the sauce and simmer for 1 minute. Serve straight from the casserole, sprinkled with remaining 1 tablespoon parsley.
Chile-Pepper-Jelly-Glazed Lamb Meatballs
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: These little gems are like potato chips; you can’t stop with one. From “The Ultimate Appetizer Ideabook,” by Kiera and Cole Stipovich.
• 1 lb. ground lamb
• 2 tbsp. minced onion
• 1 tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
• 1 1/2 tsp. finely chopped fresh mint leaves
• 3/4 c. fresh breadcrumbs
• 1 garlic clove, minced
• 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
• 1 tbsp. ketchup
• 1 tsp. smoked paprika
• 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 1 lightly beaten egg
Mix together lightly the lamb, onion, parsley, mint, breadcrumbs, garlic, Worcestershire, ketchup, paprika, salt and pepper. When well 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.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake meatballs for 20 to 25 minutes or until internal temperature is 165 degrees. Immediately add cooked meatballs to Chili-Pepper-Jelly Glaze in a saucepan and simmer uncovered over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring gently as needed until the meatballs are nicely glazed.
Makes about 2/3 cup.
• 1/3 c. ketchup
• 1/4 c. water
• 3 tbsp. pepper jelly
• 2 tsp. olive oil
• 2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
• 1 tsp. chili powder
• 1 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
In a medium saucepan over low heat, combine all the 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 5 days.