Who doesn’t love a meatball? Swedish or Italian, mini or jumbo, floating in sauce or lined up on a long bun, meatballs pack protein and flavor into convenient, savory spheres. They sate hunger from TV dinner trays and wine bar hors d’oeuvres menus. They’ve even shown up at preschool in my children’s packed lunches.
The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink cites meatballs as an example of an early recipe brought to the New World by Dutch immigrants. “Take veal with veal — fat chopped, add to it mace, nutmeg, salt, pepper, knead it together, then you can make (meatballs) from it as large or as small as you please, also all of it is fried in the pan as one large meatball,” counsels that early work, part of a 17th-century book called “De Verstandige Kock (The Sensible Cook).” “Many take a few of the outside peels thinly pared of oranges or lemons, cut very fine,” it goes on. “It gives a very good smell and flavor.” Sounds festive.
The meatball we know and love today breaks down to four basic parts: ground meat forms the base; bread or some other starch like rice or potato adds texture; seasonings like onions and herbs add flavor; and egg binds it all together. It’s a simple formula that can be added up in many different ways.
At the Austin Meatball Festival at Winflo Osteria on West Sixth Street last month, chefs from across town put their own spins on the meatball. Creativity points went to Winflo Osteria, itself, for its Thanksgiving-themed meatballs. Executive chef and co-owner John Pennington said the concept was his wife’s idea. To execute it, he ground turkey breast, mixed it with bread crumbs he had soaked in milk for extra moisture, and seasoned with cranberries and a bunch of different spices — dehydrated onion, basil, oregano, granulated garlic, and more.
Sadly, while you can sample beef and salami meatballs from Winflo Osteria’s regular menu, you can’t order the Thanksgiving meatballs; they were created specially for the festival.
But the folks from Umami Mia Pizzeria serve their festival meatballs every day. True to that restaurant’s eponymous mission, this meatball is heavy on the umami (or savoriness; the fifth basic taste, along with sour, salty, sweet and bitter). “It’s really just a typical meatball, just with some Asian goodies added to it,” says chef Abel Rodriguez. Specifically, he adds Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce and hoisin sauce to his mix of ground pork butt, beef and bread crumbs. Then on the plate, these meatballs gets even umami-er with Parmesan cheese and a sauce made from reduced balsamic vinegar.
Fancy or plain, meatballs are a useful staple to keep on hand. I like to keep a bag of mini bacon meatballs in the freezer. One day I might skewer them on toothpicks to look like barbells and pack them in lunches (because any food on a stick is a win with my kids). Another, I might warm them up in tomato sauce and serve them over roasted spaghetti squash for an easy, nutritious dinner. I’ve loaded them into a crockpot and taken them to a potluck. They’d also make an excellent impromptu hors d’oeuvre, skewered on toothpicks, this time just one ball per stick, and arranged on a plate. Or swimming in chicken broth soup alongside greens and white beans — that would be tasty.
Even made with more flavorful and humane (and more expensive) grass-fed ground beef, meatballs are economical to make. When using any leaner meat, such as bison or grass-fed ground beef, which tends to have less fat than conventionally raised beef, Pennington recommends adding “something a little more fatty with it to give it more flavor.” In my recipe, bacon does the trick. Salami or sausage works well, too.
Really, you could start with a pound of any ground meat, add a half-cup of bread crumbs, an egg or two, and spices and end up with a successful meatball. Pennington bakes them in the oven even if they’re destined for a pot of sauce. This “keeps them crisp,” he says. “When they cook in the sauce, you don’t want them to just fall apart.” Then they wouldn’t be meatballs anymore, and that would be a shame.
Mini Bacon Meatballs
4 strips bacon
1/2 cup onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. ground beef, preferably grass-fed
1/2 cup bread crumbs
4 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil a broiler pan.
Cook bacon in a skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. Set on paper towels to cool. Pour off all but 1 Tbsp. drippings from skillet.
Sauté onion in remaining bacon drippings over medium heat until soft. Add garlic and cook 1 minute.
Combine ground beef, crumbled bacon, onion mixture, bread crumbs, egg, parsley, paprika, salt and pepper in a bowl. Mix well.
Form mixture into 1-inch balls, wetting hands if necessary to prevent sticking, and place them on the prepared broiler pan. Bake until fully cooked, about 10 minutes. (Depending on the size of your broiler pan, you may need to bake them in 2 batches.) Cool fully before freezing in one layer on a cookie sheet. Frozen meatballs can be transferred to a freezer bag or other container for storage.
— Adapted from Cuisine at Home magazine