Consider the meatball. The meatball is a simple food made in innumerable ways. It is an elemental preparation, and for Italian-Americans it is the quintessential comfort food. Then why is a great meatball hard to find? And have you noticed that ever since the demise of the old-fashioned Italian-American restaurant with the wicker-basket Chianti bottles and red-checked tablecloths, meatballs are almost never found in today’s chic Italian restaurants?
Maybe this is because a meatball is archetypal home food. There are some secrets to making a good meatball. First, as with so much food preparation, you must start with the best ingredients. For the meatball, we start with the almost best ingredients. That’s right, you don’t need sirloin for a meatball. The best meat for meatballs is beef chuck. If you don’t find it too much of a hassle I recommend grinding your own. Secret No. 1 involves mixing that beef with ground pork. Ideally, you want a three-to-one ratio of beef to pork, though you can use a two-to-one ratio also.
Once the meat is mixed a good meatball needs bread. Secret No. 2 is to use lots of good Italian bread. Not only does bread make the meatballs taste like a dumpling, but meatballs were probably invented as a way to stretch a dollar, or in their case, a ducat, the currency of southern Italy in the 18th century. In southern Italy, the true home of the Italian meatball, families were poor and large and a bread-filled meatball was the solution to feeding many with small amounts of meat.
Use the best Italian bread you can find, and absolutely do not use sourdough bread. Soak the bread in milk until completely soft. Squeeze the milk out with your hands then add it to the bowl with the beef and pork. Many recipes call for removing the crust, but I leave the crust on, although I soak the bread longer.
Now you can start seasoning the meat. The proportions are important. Chopped onions and parsley are the best for aromatic flavoring, then some salt and pepper for spicing, and finally a few eggs to bind it and enrich the mixture. Some cooks do not use onion and others add Parmigiano cheese. The bread should represent at least 25 percent, or thereabouts, of the total weight of the mixture.
The final secret is about the meatball mixture, which must not only be mixed well but blended and made pasty. The food processor works well for this step. Process the meat in batches until it is pasty and nearly smooth, but not quite. Form the meatballs into the size of golf balls using a bowl of cold water to wet your hands so the meat doesn’t stick.
Remove the meatballs and prepare them for baking. Yes, baking. Arrange the meatballs on a baking tray and place in a 300 F oven until they are brown, about 40 minutes. The meatballs have some fat in them, which will not necessarily make your ragù taste good, and baking them will release fat from fatty meat. At this point they can go into a sauce or be frozen for later. I like to make a lot of meatballs at once because they freeze so well.
So now you have your meatballs for spaghetti and meatballs, for meatballs and mashed potatoes, or for meatball heros.
Photo: Meatballs on a platter. Credit: Johannsson/StockFood