Jul 29, 2014
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From Banh Mi to Bolognese, Meatballs Rarely Disappoint

Welcome to a new weekly column where home cooks can connect and share their experiences with cooking without a net. That means taking a not-so-serious approach to making great food with what's in season plus whatever you have on hand.

From Banh Mi to Bolognese, Meatballs Rarely Disappoint From Banh Mi to Bolognese, Meatballs Rarely Disappoint From Banh Mi to Bolognese, Meatballs Rarely Disappoint From Banh Mi to Bolognese, Meatballs Rarely Disappoint

A quick note to all vegetarians: A column devoted to meatballs is likely not your cup of tea so I'll link to an  amazing asparagus and tarragon soup that tastes like spring itself. I can't stop making it or eating it. Heck, even the 4-year-old loves it.

But for the omnivorous set, today we honor the humble meatball, saver of weeknight meals and trigger of childhood comforts. 

Cue soundtrack screech.

Weeknight meals? Dragging out raw meat, a pan, olive oil, a zillion other ingredients on a Tuesday night? No way. Or maybe you are thinking, "Puh-leeze lady, it's Saturday, and even for today this sounds really complicated." I'm not actually in your head, though, so I hope at least some thoughts out there are of the "Bring it on!" variety.

First, the protein. The options are endless: ground beef, ground lamb, a combination of beef, pork and veal — though I’ll admit I’ve never tried this ‘meatloaf mix’ in grocery store parlance — chicken, turkey, just pork, even fish or shrimp. It can be fancy or casual. Less than perfect spheres only add to the charm. It also freezes wonderfully raw or cooked so no need to worry about making too much.

Plus the idea of plunging hands into raw meat will send the kids running into the kitchen to help, which means they are more likely to eat the meal. (If you are me, paranoia about little paws rubbing raw meat all over your kitchen is a brief and manageable panic with meatballs, particularly if cross-contamination and e coli were your kids’ first words. Mix quickly in one bowl, form, toss into pan, hit the hand soap.)

I’ve also never noticed a difference in taste by measuring everything out perfectly versus just winging it once you trust your sense of breadcrumb to meat ratio — which I find pretty forgiving anyway. It's really all about not over-mixing and using some form of liquid vehicle to keep the meatballs moist as they continue to cook after browning — chicken stock, canned tomatoes, even wine and a splash of water in a pinch, why not?

Trying to get them cooked through just in a pan with a little oil is usually the prime suspect in every dry meatball disaster. And I've been the captain of that home-cooking Valdez before.

The trick for weeknights is to never measure and use the meatballs as a vehicle for fun experimentation. Start reaching into the back of the spice cabinet for things like Chinese five-spice powder or that ancho chili powder you bought for a complicated Rick Bayless recipe — but a genius no less, that man — no more leaving them for rediscovery during Spring Cleaning 2019.

The recipe that follows uses a spice blend that once I purchased, started to throw into everything from vinaigrettes to grilled chicken, at first only because I didn't want it to go to waste: herbs de Provence, which typically has dried thyme, basil, fennel, savory, sometimes lavender, and a few other goodies thrown in.

I bet there is some French herbs de Provence council that dictates the exact provencal blend because I noticed my label said "Herbs of Provence." Hmmm.

It also happens to pair perfectly with ground turkey, which when the groceries dwindle, always sooner than you think is humanly possible, is great to have on hand. It defrosts fast and is healthier than beef.

I added only five ingredients to this "no-net" recipe for turkey meatballs, just to see how it would turn out, and most you probably have on hand. If you don't, just try something else and be sure to report back — we want to hear about it, and see it. (You can upload your own meal photos to this story, click on the photos and look for “add your own.”) And you get a quick pan-marinara to boot.

Total time, maybe 10 minute to toss it together, 15 minutes to simmer.

Vegetables: No meal is complete without. I got the greens in with the pasta — learn from my kale/spinach experiment below — but also paired with a side salad. 

Tuesday's Turkey Meatballs With a Pan Tomato Sauce and Spinach-Ricotta Pasta

On Hand

For meatballs:

Ground turkey, about a pound

One egg

Breadcrumbs, eyeball it 

Herbs de provence, hearty palmful

Grainy mustard, tablespoon (Buy the good French stuff, you'll use less and get much better flavor.)

Ketchup, big dollop (Don't be a ketchup snob — even Giada puts it in her turkey meatballs.)

Salt/pepper

For pasta:

Pasta

Ricotta cheese, however much you want

Greens. I wanted to use up some kale that was starting to look sad, so I chopped it up with baby spinach. It wasn’t bad, but I couldn’t get all the bitterness out in time, so to do over I’d just stick with the spinach. Feel free to use frozen, but squeeze out the liquid before adding to pasta. 

Can of tomatoes, one of the larger sized ones, San Marzano variety is best

Tomato paste if you have it, skip if you don't

Garlic, at least two cloves, slivered or chopped 

Reserved pasta water, about a half cup

The Method

Mix about a pound of the ground turkey with all the meatball ingredients. Perfection is not your goal, fast flavor is. Don't get hung up on the details. Mix sparingly so the meat doesn't get tough and form into balls. If it's looking super dry, toss in a splash of milk. Too wet, more breadcrumbs.

Brown on all sides in a hot skillet with olive oil.

Take off once browned completely.

Saute greens in the same pan. If you are skipping the kale, your baby spinach just needs a minute or two with some more olive oil. Set aside. (Kale is going to need more time, and probably chicken stock, wine or water to help draw out some of the bitterness.)

With the pan still hot, add your garlic. (Or now that I think about it, I could have added the garlic before the spinach. Feel free to up it to three cloves. I've recently moved from chopped garlic to thinly sliced. Some smart cook, I hope, will read this and tell me if there is a difference or if it's all in my head.

Add tomato paste. (You can see from the pictures I freeze any left over tomato paste in little freezer bags. Anytime I think I might make a tomato-based sauce or flavored rice, I pull it out in the morning and it's ready to squeeze out like a pastry chef at night. Easy!

Add can of tomatoes, chop up tomatoes into small chunks if using whole tomatoes — use your potato masher and feel like a genius — add your salt, pepper.

Put meatballs back in with the tomatoes to finish cooking, about another 10-15 minutes depending on how big — let's just insert Beavis and Butthead giggle here to get it over with — your meatballs are.

My 9-year-old son likes to put in a pinch of sugar, some cumin, or some other mystery spice at this point when my back is turned. (It's how we discovered a little cumin and coriander taste great in a tomato sauce.) You could add wine, some chicken stock, just be creative and taste as you go if you think it's too raw tomato-y.

Sometime around this point it may have occurred to you to get a pot of water boiling. If not, fire that up now. Cook your pasta and then toss, hot, with ricotta, greens, reserved pasta water and even some of your simmering red sauce. 

Once the meatballs are cooked and your pasta toss is complete, serve meatballs with a bit of tomato sauce on top.

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Meatball extra: I’m dying to revisit to the ground pork meatball  banh mi I attempted last year that once-again secured Vietnamese food in my personal best-cuisine pantheon, right up there with Indian and Italian, and also introduced me, much to my personal detriment, to the love marriage that is sriracha and mayo. It has a bunch of steps, but when you have some time, this is one serious sandwich. Do not skip the quick pickle. It launched a year-long refrigerator pickle craze in the O’Connor household.


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April is Grilled Cheese Month. What’s better than bread, cheese and butter? 

Here’s one I love to make with my makeshift panini maker — my bright red and very heavy Lodge Logic Dutch Oven (if it’s any different from a Le Creuset at $200 cheaper, I haven’t figured out how) pushed down over a foil-topped sandwich browning away in a hot skillet. 

It’s a nod to a cook who started a panini stand in downtown Yonkers when I was an editor there. It’s not around anymore but I had never thought to add apple to a grilled cheese before. It’s a lovely combo, trust me. Gooey, crunchy, salty, sweet...Anyway, here’s my spin on that great lunch combo of workdays past:

Remember the Y-O Grilled Goodness
Ciabatta (Once you find a good purveyor, buy several loaves at a time and freeze individually or in halves. The alternative here is sourdough. If you get the nice bakery folks to slice the sourdough with their machine you save all the cursing involved in trying to cut a really wonderful crusty-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside slice of sourdough — or maybe my knives are just bad.)

Pair your bread with:

Butter
Fontina, expensive, but worth it here
Baby spinach, adds a bright note, nod to nutrition
Thinly sliced apple, some brand on the tart side

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