Meatballs: Satisfying and good for the soul

Meatballs: one, Lion's Head (Chinese Meatball); two, Beef boulettes with Financière Sauce; three, Chicken Meatballs and four, Meatballs in Almond Sauce. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
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By Daniel Neman St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)

Meatballs begin with ground meat, which is traditionally made from the parts of an animal that aren’t otherwise easy to eat. In other words, the cheaper cuts.

But the glory of peasant food is that cooks developed clever ways to bring tremendous flavor to the foods that wealthier people did not want to eat. And so the world has benefited with a host of wonderful stews, tagines, congees — and meatballs.

As with many foods of humble origins, meatballs have long been co-opted by the rest of the world; they now appear on the menus of the trendiest restaurants, often as an appetizer or a small plate. They aren’t just for spaghetti anymore.

In fact, they never were for spaghetti, at least not in Italy. Although Italians are fond of their home-cooked meatballs called polpettes, they are never served with spaghetti, except to American tourists.

And meatballs aren’t even just Italian. Swedish meatballs are well known, of course, but just about every cuisine has its own variation on the idea.

I decided to make four types of meatballs: French, Chinese, Spanish and one that my wife created, so I’m going to call it American. Not one of them uses grape jelly for a sauce, which is probably the most American recipe for meatballs ever.

I did not make Italian meatballs, because I already wrote about one recipe for them a few years ago, and they are the best possible Italian meatballs imaginable. They are the platonic ideal of Italian meatballs, and any alternative recipe I could come up with would only be a poor imitation.

The ones I made this week aren’t quite that perfect — what is? — but they are all excellent and worth including in one’s repertoire.

I think the Spanish meatballs I made, Meatballs in Almond Sauce, were my favorite. And it wasn’t the meatballs themselves that made the dish; they were fairly standard, with a non unusual inclusion of soaked bread mixed into the meat to make them more tender and moist (they are also flavored with onion, garlic and parsley).

What makes the dish so spectacular is the almond sauce. Chicken stock and white wine are simmered together with saffron (saffron!), lemon zest and a bit of sugar. Meanwhile, you toast almonds together with garlic and a slice of bread, mash it into a paste and mix the paste with the rest of the sauce.

The meatballs are first fried, which always ramps up the flavor, and then simmered in the sauce. The mixture of almonds and saffron (saffron!), with hints of garlic and wine, is sheer beauty.

The Chinese meatballs I made, called Lion’s Heads, are also fried first. Then they are steamed until fully cooked, a process that, surprisingly, does little to diminish the crisp exterior.

Mixed in with the pork is essentially all of the ingredients in the larder at any Chinese restaurant: black mushrooms, water chestnuts, ginger, scallions, garlic, sesame oil, dry sherry and soy sauce.

Only one ingredient is unexpected, the grated rind of an orange. It adds a citrus kick and a mysterious allure to the meatballs that is unmistakable. Once you taste it, you won’t want to do without it.

The chicken meatballs — my wife’s recipe — were the lightest and most moist batch of all. The secret here was not just using chicken instead of pork or beef for the meat (and ground turkey works well, too). These meatballs derive their ethereal texture and flavor from the liberal use of chopped mushrooms and sautéed onions.

It helps, too, that they are honeycombed with parsley and Parmesan. You finish cooking the meatballs in white wine, plus all of the good flavor bits on the bottom, which yields a truly memorable sauce and gives the meat a heady aroma.

The last meatballs I made come from France, where they are typically made as a way to use up leftover cooked beef. The meat is finely chopped — a food processor works wonders here — and mixed with a host of aromatics to give it a most satisfying, well-rounded flavor.

They are quite good on their own, though a bit reminiscent of ordinary meatballs. What makes these ones extraordinary is, again, the sauce.

At fancy French restaurants, a financière sauce is as elegant as its name implies. It involves demiglace and truffles and Madeira wine, or maybe Sauternes. But when French families make it at home, according to Jacques Pepin, it is usually a tomato sauce with mushrooms and olives.

That’s the sauce I made, and it was grand. There is nothing humble about beef boulettes or a financière sauce.

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MEATBALLS IN ALMOND SAUCE

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

1 large egg

1 pound ground pork or veal, or 1/2 pound of each

5 slices firm white sandwich bread, crusts removed, divided

1/2 small onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

5 or 6 garlic cloves, divided

Flour for dredging

Olive or sunflower oil for frying

1 cup chicken stock

1 cup fruity dry white wine

A good pinch of saffron threads

Grated zest of 1 lemon

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/4 cup blanched whole or slivered almonds

3 tablespoons olive oil

1. For the meatballs: Lightly beat the egg in a large bowl. Add the meat. Soak 4 of the crustless slices of bread in water, squeeze them dry and add them to the bowl with the meat, mashing it all together with your fingers until the bread is blended with the pork. Add the onion, parsley, salt and pepper to taste (but do not taste raw pork). Mash and mince 2 of the cloves of garlic to a paste and add to the bowl. Work mixture with your hands into a soft, well-blended paste. Shape into balls the size of large walnuts and roll in plenty of flour.

2. Heat about 1/2 inch of oil in a wide skillet until it sizzles when you throw in a small piece of bread. Add the meatballs, in batches, and fry briefly, turning to brown them all over; then lift them out with a perforated skimmer and drain them on paper towels. They do not need to be cooked through, as they will cook further in the sauce.

3. For the sauce: Pour the stock and wine into a wide skillet and bring to a boil. Add the saffron, lemon zest, salt and pepper to taste and the sugar.

4. Fry the remaining 1 slice of bread, almonds and remaining 3 or 4 garlic cloves in 3 tablespoons olive oil in a small skillet until golden brown. Lift them out and let cool a little, then grind to a paste in a mortar and pestle or food processor. Stir this paste into the sauce.

5. Add the meatballs and simmer, covered, over very low heat, turning once, for about 20 minutes, until cooked through. Add a little water if necessary.

Per serving (based on 6): 487 calories; 33 g fat; 8 g saturated fat; 87 mg cholesterol; 19 g protein; 23 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 619 mg sodium; 77 mg calcium

Recipe from “The Food of Spain,” by Claudia Roden

LION’S HEAD (CHINESE MEATBALLS)

Yield: 8 servings

8 dried black mushrooms

1 1/4 pounds ground pork

20 water chestnuts, finely diced

1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger

3 scallions, chopped

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

Grated rind of 1 orange

1/4 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon dry sherry

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Vegetable oil (or peanut or corn oil) for deep frying

Steamed spinach or broccoli, optional

1. Place the mushrooms in a mixing bowl and add hot water to cover. Let stand 20 minutes or longer until softened.

2. Place the pork in a mixing bowl. Drain the mushrooms and squeeze dry. Chop them. Add them to the pork. Add the water chestnuts, ginger, scallions, garlic, grated orange rind, sesame oil, sherry, soy sauce, salt and cornstarch. Mix well and shape into 8 to 12 balls.

3. Heat the oil for deep frying and add the meatballs in batches, if necessary. Deep fry until crisp and golden on the outside. Drain well. Place the meatballs in a steamer and steam for 20 to 25 minutes. Serve on a bed of spinach or broccoli.

Per serving: 258 calories; 20 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 48 mg cholesterol; 13 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 406 mg sodium; 15 mg calcium

Recipe from “The Best of Craig Claiborne,” by Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey

CHICKEN MEATBALLS

Yield: 4 servings

1 tablespoon plus 4 teaspoons olive oil, divided

6 to 8 ounces mushrooms, chopped

1/2 onion, diced

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley

1 pound ground chicken or turkey

1/2 cup grated Parmesan, preferably Parmagiano-Reggiano

1/4 cup milk

1 egg, beaten

1/3 cup bread crumbs or panko bread crumbs

1/2 cup dry white wine

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat in a medium or large skillet and sauté mushrooms and onion until mushrooms have given up their liquid and onion is translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside.

2. Chop garlic and parsley together until reduced in bulk by half, but you can still see pieces of leaves; do not chop until it becomes a paste. Place in a bowl with the chicken and add the mushroom mixture; mix and squeeze with hands until combined. Add Parmesan, milk, egg and bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper, and mix with hands until thoroughly combined.

3. Form into 12 meatballs. Refrigerate 30 minutes to allow them to set.

4. Heat a skillet (or two) over medium-high heat and add 2 teaspoons of oil (or 2 teaspoons into each). When hot, add 6 of the meatballs (or 6 to each pan), making sure they do not touch. Fry, turning frequently, until brown on all sides; they will flatten on their sides because they are so soft.

5. Add 1/4 cup of the wine to the pan, or to each pan, cover, and simmer until done, about 15 minutes. You may need to add more wine if it all boils away; you should have a tablespoon or two of rich wine sauce on the bottom.

6. Remove to a platter. If you are only using 1 skillet, repeat steps 4 and 5 for the other half of the meatballs.

7. Serve by themselves, with pasta and olive oil, garlic and Parmesan, or with a tomato sauce.

Per serving: 448 calories; 31 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 150 mg cholesterol; 30 g protein; 14 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 340 mg sodium; 20 mg calcium

Recipe by Mary Anne Pikrone

BEEF BOULETTES WITH FINANCIÈRE SAUCE

Yield: 6 servings

12 ounces leftover beef (pot roast, stew meat or roast beef)

1 cup finely chopped onion, divided

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

1 large garlic clove, crushed and very finely minced

3 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon plus 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, divided

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, divided

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 pounds tomatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces, or 1 (28-ounce) can of plum tomatoes

2 cups sliced mushrooms, about 8 ounces

2/3 cup slivered green olives

1. Cut the meat into chunks, then process it in a food processor until it is finely chopped. Combine it in a bowl with 1/2 cup of the onion, celery, the 1 crushed and finely minced clove of garlic, eggs, 1/4 teaspoon of the thyme, flour, 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper and baking powder.

2. Preheat oven to 160 degrees.

3. Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a large skillet. With your hands, make patties with the meat mixture, using about 2 tablespoons for each one — you will have about 18 patties. Working in batches, pat the patties gently to flatten them a bit and place them in the hot oil. Cook for approximately 2 minutes on each side, until browned. Transfer to a tray and keep warm in the oven while you make the sauce.

4. For the sauce, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a large saucepan. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon thyme, oregano, remaining 1/2 cup finely chopped onion and remaining 3 crushed garlic cloves and cook over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, remaining 1 teaspoon salt and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook over medium heat for 5 to 6 minutes; at this point, the tomatoes will have liquefied if they were nice and ripe.

5. Push the mixture through a food mill and return it to the saucepan (if you don’t have a food mill, puree the mixture in a food processor and then push it through a sieve). Bring to a boil, add the mushrooms, bring back to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Add the olives and boil for about 1 minute. Serve with the warm boulettes.

Per serving: 207 calories; 9 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 130 mg cholesterol; 19 g protein; 15 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 985 mg sodium; 140 mg calcium

Recipe from “Essential Pepin,” by Jacques Pepin

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