Meatballs: Many variations of beloved rainy-day dish
October 25, 2019
Once again, the weather has inspired a menu suggestion. Specifically, this past Sunday’s rain and a large package of ground beef in the freezer combined forces to suggest the answer was meatballs, leaving me with the next question - what kind of meatballs.
If you enter the word “meatball” into an online search engine, almost every result refers to Italian-style meatballs served in tomato sauce. But if you keep looking, you’ll discover Ikea-style Swedish meatballs in a creamy sauce, slow-cooker grape jelly meatballs and a range of international specialities.
Signature meats found in meatballs include beef, lamb, pork and veal, as well as combinations. Starchy fillers selected to lighten the texture can be torn bread, bread crumbs, cracker crumbs or cooked rice. Spices vary widely, depending upon the recipe and its country of origin, from curry to garlic, cinnamon to chili.
Although we think of round balls of minced or ground meat when we think of meatballs, in some countries the meatballs can be somewhat flattened or shaped into an oval. And the size can vary from quite tiny (the size of a grape) to quite large (the size of a grapefruit).
Food historians haven’t reached a consensus about the origin of the meatball, but it seems most likely to be based in the practice of using every last morsel of meat. Since meat was usually the most expensive food in the diet, any leftover bits would be pounded, shredded or minced to make into meatballs.
The next debate that continues is which meat or combination of meats should be used when making meatballs. One of the more popular varieties is beef, pork and veal sold as a prepackaged blend and often labeled meatball or meatloaf mix. Although convenient, I prefer to purchase the ground meats separately and combine them myself.
Pork and veal are quite fatty, so I like to balance them with ground turkey or low-fat ground beef. When making Swedish meatballs, the mixture will have more veal and less beef, as opposed to Italian meatballs where there’s more beef and pork to stand up to a sturdy red sauce.
There are a few things to keep in mind when assembling meatballs. First is the standard ratio of one pound of meat, 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs and one egg. This should be sufficient for the meatballs to hold together as they’re cooked without becoming rubbery or chewy. The next ingredients are the spices and seasonings you’ve chosen for the specific flavor profile. Don’t handle the meatballs too much; keep the blending and rolling to a minimum to ensure tenderness.
Most recipes specify cooking the meatballs separately before mixing them into a sauce. Some call for sautéing the meatballs so that you can collect the browned bits into the sauce for flavor. Others prefer arranging the formed meatballs on a rack set on a baking sheet so all the rendered fat is collected below, leaving the meatballs leaner. Finally, there are some folks who insist the best way to cook meatballs is to add them directly to the simmering sauce.
I’ve included recipes for the dense beef meatballs in the photo and hoisin-sauced meatballs flavored with ginger and toasted sesame oil. Just make sure you have ground meat in your freezer and you’re ready for the next cold, rainy weekend.
1 T olive oil
1/2 C breadcrumbs
2 T snipped basil
2 T chopped parsley
1 t chopped oregano
1 t chopped marjoram
1 t salt
1/2 t red pepper flakes
1 lb ground beef
16 oz tomato sauce
Parmesan cheese for garnish
Preheat oven to 450 F. Coat the inside of a deep baking pan with olive oil; set aside. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the egg and breadcrumbs. Stir in the herbs and seasonings. Add the ground beef and gently mix by hand until combined. Form into balls slightly smaller than a golf ball and arrange in the prepared pan in a single layer. Roast until cooked through, about 20 minutes. While meatballs are cooking, heat the tomato sauce. When meatballs are cooked, pour the sauce evenly into the pan and cook another 10 minutes. Serve over pasta or in a hoagie roll, garnished with Parmesan cheese. Yield: 4 servings.
1 lb ground pork
1 t toasted sesame oil
1/2 C bread crumbs
1/2 t ground ginger
2 minced garlic cloves
1 sliced green onion
1/3 C hoisin
2 T rice wine vinegar
1 minced garlic clove
1 T soy sauce
1 t toasted sesame oil
1/2 t ground ginger
sliced green onion for garnish
sesame seeds for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, combine pork, egg, sesame oil, bread crumbs, ginger, garlic and green onion. Mix together with your hands and form into 1-inch balls. Arrange the meatballs on the prepared baking sheet in a single layer. Bake until cooked through, about 10 minutes. In a large skillet, whisk together the remaining ingredients and warm over low heat. When the meatballs are done, transfer them to the skillet and toss gently with the sauce. Serve over rice, garnished with green onion and sesame seeds. Yield: 4 servings.